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There has also been real and tangible progress in Iraq towards the creation of a secure and stable democracy in the middle east. Security has improved across every
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part of Iraq, with the level of violent incidents down to what it was in 2004. Increasingly, the 600,000 Iraqi security forces are taking the lead, with coalition forces able to concentrate on support, training and mentoring roles. That is as it should be. When I visited Iraq last week I was enormously encouraged by what I saw. The security situation in Basra, particularly, has significantly improved, and with our continued support the Iraqi security forces have freedom of movement right across the city.

We are on track to complete our training mission with the 14th division of the Iraqi army in the first months of next year, in line with the Prime Minister’s announcement of 22 July. Once we have completed our key tasks in the south, we expect a fundamental change of military mission in Iraq in the early months of next year. I discussed the matter with Prime Minister Maliki and Defence Minister Abd al-Qadir, who both want an enduring, broad-based bilateral defence relationship with the UK, in which our military role in Iraq is focused on training and education. That is what we want, too. We are working on the details of that, including a status of forces agreement, to provide the legal basis that will underpin our troops’ presence in Iraq beyond the end of the year. I should like to put on record my appreciation for what our troops have done and are continuing to do in Iraq. When they return, they can come home with pride and satisfaction in the job that they have done.

I wish to touch briefly on the two other objectives of UK defence policy: readiness for new operations and building future capacity and capability.

Harry Cohen: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way a second time. I shall try not to disturb him too many times. Before he finishes talking about Iraq, may I draw his attention to Amnesty International’s report of this summer, “Iraq: Rhetoric and Reality—the Iraqi refugee crisis”? It stated that the number of Iraqis who had fled their homes had reached 4.7 million. According to Amnesty, it exposed how

I know that the Secretary of State has been there recently. Does he agree with Amnesty’s assessment?

Mr. Hutton: I agree that there is a serious problem about refugees. It is good to know that some of them are now returning to Iraq, but I would not accept that what I have said today in any way gives a false impression of the security situation in Iraq. We all know that the conflict has been horrendously difficult, but we must not let that experience cloud our assessment of the current situation. We should not deny that al-Qaeda remains a threat in parts of Iraq, but there has been a transformation in the security situation in the past 12 months. We should acknowledge and build on that. With great respect to my hon. Friend, it will not do any good to the cause that I hope we serve together to suggest that anything other than progress is being made in Iraq.

The national security strategy was intended to set out the threats that we face as a country, ranging from terrorism and weapons proliferation to climate change and energy security. Of course, they are not fixed in one
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location or region, nor are they easily predicted, but what we can say with certainty is that the UK must develop capabilities to meet the wide range of potential threats that now exist. In the first instance, that means recruiting and retaining the right people and ensuring that our armed forces get the support and recognition that they deserve both during their time of service and after they leave the services.

I hope that Members are already well aware of the personnel Command Paper, which was discussed during the debate on defence in the UK earlier this month. It was based on the key principle that those who serve our country must not be disadvantaged by what they do and that, where appropriate, they should receive special treatment in recognition of the service they have rendered. From rewarding six years of service with college or university education, free of tuition fees, to upgrading service accommodation, the Command Paper contains more than 40 specific commitments that are designed to remove disadvantage and improve service life. It is a mark of the respect that a nation should have for those who have served our country and risked their lives for its security. That respect was why the Government were able to respond with enthusiasm yesterday to the recommendations of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), to enhance yet further the national recognition that we give to our armed forces.

Force readiness is another important indicator of the preparedness of our forces to respond to new threats. I recognise that that is a long-standing concern for the House, particularly given the current tempo of operational commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, I hope that all Members would agree that the armed forces’ overriding priority must be the success of current operations. As we all know, in every year since 2002, they have operated above the overall level of concurrent operations that they are resourced and structured to sustain over time. However, they have consistently and reliably provided substantial forces at immediate readiness for current operations. The armed forces are stretched, but the chiefs of staff advise me and my ministerial colleagues that, at present, the situation is manageable.

The current commitments will have an impact on our ability to meet force readiness targets for the full range of potential contingent operations provided for in our planning assumptions. None the less, I am concerned to improve force readiness. As I have made clear, subject to conditions on the ground and the advice of our military commanders, we will be in a position to reduce substantially our commitments in Iraq over the course of next year, which will help to relieve the burden on key strategic assets. Following a detailed review of the security situation in Kosovo, and of wider military commitments, we have agreed that the UK contribution to the Balkan operational reserve force should cease at the end of this year. That, too, will help.

Force readiness is also about our ability to respond to demands for new equipment on the front line. To date, more than £3.6 billion from the Treasury reserve has been approved for urgent operational requirements. That money is for new protected vehicles, new body armour, better communications and improved defensive systems.

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Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I thank the Secretary of State for allowing an intervention at this important point in his speech, when he is talking about equipment. I am sure that he would attest to the vital role that the Nimrod aircraft play in UK efforts around the world. Will he examine closely the serviceability of those aircraft along with the important current focus on their safety?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, of course I will. Ensuring that we have sustainable equipment and that we can service and maintain it at reasonable cost over the duration of its lifetime is a very important part of the overall procurement exercise. I can certainly give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

Before I was very nicely interrupted, I was saying that we have invested significant additional resources in re-equipping our forces, particularly in the operational theatres in which they are active. Just yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a further £700 million of investment in almost 700 new protected mobility vehicles, which will be crucial to our mission in Afghanistan.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): All those new vehicles are, of course, very welcome. How do they fall into the future rapid effect system programme? Is FRES dead?

Mr. Hutton: These procurements are urgent operational requirements; they do not have any impact on FRES, which is an important part of the long-term equipment programme. Obviously, we are examining every aspect of FRES, just as we are examining every aspect of all the major equipment procurement projects in the pipeline, but these are operationally specific acquirements for the armed forces that are necessary to meet the particular circumstances, especially those in Afghanistan. I believe that this equipment will help to save lives and to improve the effectiveness of our operations in Afghanistan. Even in the most challenging of economic times, we are demonstrating that our commitment to equipping our armed forces remains clear and resolute.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): It is well received and recorded that we now have the best-equipped British soldiers in our history, as far as any activity is concerned. The insurgency and the enemy that we face has a changing pattern, so will we be given a guarantee that as and when requirements change, the money will be made available to ensure that our troops remain the best-equipped in the world?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his first point about the overall standard of the equipment that is in theatre. When I was in Afghanistan and Iraq last week, I asked every soldier, sailor and airmen to whom I spoke to tell me what was wrong with their kit. I was told, “There’s nothing wrong with the kit, sir. If anything, it is too heavy.” It is heavy for a fundamentally good reason. The new body armour—the Osprey body armour—can stop high-velocity rounds. I want these guys to come home, and the body armour will help more of them to do so, without fear of injury. I am not saying that more improvements do not need to be made. More improvements probably will need to be made, because the technology is evolving, as is the theatre. In response to his latter point, the Treasury has stood by
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Britain’s armed forces; when extra equipment has been needed, the money has been found. I have no doubt that if there is a requirement for further equipment, it will be met from the reserve, as the nearly £9 billion of total additional theatre-specific spending since 2003 has been.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Before the Secretary of State moves on from the section of his speech that deals with equipment, may I ask him a question about aircraft carriers? An aircraft carrier is a powerful weapon—it can deliver a weapon a long distance; it provides air cover; and it has diplomatic presence—but on its own it is a very vulnerable piece of equipment, because it needs anti-submarine defence, air-defence, Royal Fleet Auxiliary Service support, and airborne early-warning systems. Can he assure me that his plans for the Royal Navy will provide enough equipment to sustain a carrier on-station in sequence with the one that is off-station?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, that is our intention.

Richard Ottaway: Without sacrificing any other operational commitments?

Mr. Hutton: There is precious little point building two very expensive carriers if we are not able properly to defend and secure those assets. We have some very capable new ships coming into the Royal Navy; the new Type 45 destroyers are a superb addition to the fleet. We will need the Astute submarines to be able to be deployed, and our intention, as people in this place and my constituents know, is to build seven of them—that remains our plan. We will ensure that the assets to which we are committing are properly secured and defended.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): In my recent discussions with a senior officer, the criticism I heard was not of the quality of equipment in the field; it was that there was insufficient equipment of that quality that people could be trained on back home—that was the big deficiency. He said that troops go from being Robocop to being yeomen of the guard when they return. Many hon. Members are concerned that although we have some state-of-the-art equipment, which we welcome, it is insufficient, particularly in terms of preparation, training and replacement.

Mr. Hutton: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend about that. There is no point soldiers, sailors and airmen going out to theatre and coming across equipment that they have not met before, because that poses a risk to them and to the operations. We know from previous boards of inquiry and from some of the coroners’ reports that the Ministry has been heavily criticised in this area. Part of the additional resources that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced yesterday will go towards improving the training fleet for these vehicles, because it is essential that the guys are familiar with this kit. It is designed for their safety and protection, and it cannot undermine that, so we are putting in significantly more assets—I believe that about 30 of the new Cougar vehicles are going into the training fleet—to achieve precisely that.

Mr. Ellwood: May I follow on from the pertinent question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway)? The whole point of
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aircraft carriers is their ability to protect themselves. We have removed the Sea Harriers, which had the ability to go up in the air and see over the horizon with their radar. Could the Secretary of State bring us up to date with what is happening on the joint strike fighter? Conservative Members feel that we will have these grand aircraft carriers, but there will be no aircraft suitable to fly on them.

Mr. Hutton: As the hon. Gentleman can imagine, this matter is being addressed in the corridors of the Ministry of Defence as we speak. There are a number of options, including retaining the Harriers for longer periods. Again, I do not want to make the obvious layman’s point, but if we are going to spend £4 billion on two new aircraft carriers, we must have some proper aircraft to fly from them. There would be no point in deploying the ships, even if we could properly protect them—and we will be able to do so—if they are not able to deploy on operations because there is no kit to fly from them. I assure him that when these carriers go to sea, they will be properly equipped and fully resourced.

Any idea that UK troops on operations are under-equipped is out-of-date, ill-informed and inaccurate. May I turn to the challenge of building for the future?

We cannot build for the future unless defence is well funded. Operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan have borne out the strategic defence review’s vision of a flexible, agile, expeditionary force structure, and we will continue on that transformational path. At the same time, the continuance of our nuclear deterrent will remain a fundamental part of Britain’s defence policy, with a new generation of submarines to replace the Vanguard class—designed and built, with pride, in my constituency—in the years ahead.

Since the comprehensive spending review, the defence budget will benefit from average annual real growth of more than 1.5 per cent. By 2010-11, the defence budget will be £3 billion higher in real terms than it was in 1997. That contrasts with the fact that defence spending fell in each year of the previous Conservative Government. In addition to the CSR settlement, some £9.5 billion has been provided from the Treasury reserve to meet the additional costs of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Like every other Department, the Ministry of Defence needs to live within its means.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Department’s living within its means is good, but how much of that additional money will go towards modernising the married family accommodation? In many cases, that accommodation is woeful and does not help with the retention of experienced, skilled military personnel. We must bear in mind that we are already short of soldiers.

Mr. Hutton: I think that the figure is about £8 billion for the modernisation of the defence estate, including the family and single living accommodation. That is a significant investment in the quality of the accommodation that we provide for our service personnel, and I saw evidence of that when I was in Faslane a couple of weeks ago. I know that the hon. Gentleman is worried about Colchester, but investment will also be made there. We are determined to see a step change in the standard of accommodation, and we are making pretty good progress.

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Hon. Members will be aware that in recent months the MOD has been examining its equipment programme. That work is continuing. My aim is to ensure that we bear down on costs where we can; drive up value for money wherever possible; maintain the principles set out in the defence industrial strategy; and prioritise spending within the objectives of the defence policy that I have set out today. I hope to be in a position soon to make further announcements on procurement.

The contribution of defence spending to the economic health and vibrancy of many parts of the country is significant. Defence manufacturing, research, science and technology support more than 300,000 jobs in the UK, many of them high-value, high-skilled jobs. There continue to be significant export opportunities for UK companies overseas and, as Secretary of State for Defence, I intend to give full and active support to UK companies in accessing those markets.

Resourcing and equipping our armed forces are two key pillars of building for the future. But there is no security for the UK in isolationism—in pulling up the drawbridge and hoping that our enemies will stop at our front door, because they will not. We need strong bilateral and multilateral relationships to advance our essential security interests. Through NATO we have taken a collective approach to defence, providing the bedrock of our security for nearly two generations. NATO’s operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and the vital role it plays in security sector reform, show how far it rightly continues to underpin our security. I especially welcome President Sarkozy’s commitment for France to join NATO’s command structure.

It is also self-evident that change is needed within NATO itself. It is still coming to terms with the reality of its role in a post-cold war world. At Budapest, I shared the frustration of those who wished to see more rapid progress in several areas. We must reduce the level and scale of its bureaucracy. NATO is still over-reliant on countries such as the US and UK to do most of the heavy lifting in operational theatres. Collective security does not mean guarding one’s own garden gate and leaving a disproportionate burden on others to do everything else. Just as we are rightly debating the effectiveness of multinational financial institutions to cope with the reality of today’s economic crisis, we should be asking whether our multinational security institutions are properly structured and equipped to deal with the challenges of modern times.

NATO alone will not always be the most appropriate vehicle through which to secure our national interest. Front and centre of UK defence policy will continue to be our deep and enduring relationship with the United States. That relationship is unlike any other. But, as I have already made clear, we should be pragmatic not ideological about the role our European partners can play in promoting UK security interests. We have moved on from a world in which we saw a zero-sum impact between the strength of our European partnerships and the effectiveness of NATO.

I believe that 2009 will be both a real test and a great opportunity for the reform of those multilateral security institutions. Whoever wins the US presidential election next week will, I believe, be keen to promote stronger
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and deeper multilateral relationships in defence of common interests. There could well be a strong momentum for reform and I want the UK to be leading that debate.

I have set out this afternoon the key tenets of our defence policy—delivering operational success, readiness for new tasks and building for the future. By delivering against all three objectives, we will ensure that the UK remains as secure from external threats and protective of our interests overseas as it can be. To achieve that, we rely today, as we have always done, on the extraordinary, brave men and women of the armed forces and the civilians who support them in theatre. Those who implement defence policies have a far more dangerous and difficult task than those who make and scrutinise them. So let all of us in this place put aside all other loyalties and unite in giving them the support and praise that they so richly deserve.

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