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Clearly, our mission in Iraq is changing. During my last visit, I spoke to General Mohammed as well as political figures. The general made it clear that the British period of military operations is coming to an end and that it is time for our troops to come home
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whenever that is possible. I still think that it would be a profound mistake to produce a timetable for the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq, but we can now clearly see that it is going to happen sooner rather than later. It will depend on conditions on the ground and, to some extent, on the incoming American Administration. It is possible that the current overstretch might be diminished, at least in some small way, but that will depend on what decision the Government take on future deployments to Afghanistan.

The Iraqi people find themselves, at least in one respect, more fortunate than ourselves, in that their Government have a fiscal surplus of some $72 billion this year, predicted to be $90 billion next year. It is astonishing that there is no representative from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform in Baghdad, because contracts for reconstruction are being, and will be, picked up by the Americans, the Germans, the French and the Russians. Given our commitment to Iraq, it would be unthinkable were we not to have appropriate representation in Baghdad to ensure that British companies get their fair share of the reconstruction contracts. [ Interruption . ] A personal visit from the Secretary of State might indeed be welcomed on both sides of the geographical divide.

One thing that the Secretary of State did not mention—I hope that the Minister will do so when he winds up—was what has happened with Russia. Since our most recent defence debates, we have seen the events in Georgia, where Russian intentions may not be benign, to put it mildly. Russian forces inside the sovereign territory of Georgia could now cut off Caspian oil and gas supplies to the west within hours. We know about Russia’s $208 billion dollar military build-up, paid for under the stabilisation fund, and its apparent intentions in the Baltic, the Mediterranean and the Arctic. In a defence debate of this nature, we should hear about how the Government perceive what may be an increasing threat from Russia.

Andrew Mackinlay: This is in no way to agree with the conduct of Russia, but some of us were bewildered in the summer by the cosy consensus between the Government and the Opposition in persisting with the concept that Georgia could come into NATO without that prejudicing article 5 of the NATO treaty. It seems ludicrous, in terms of our defence, that the Opposition and the Government persist in the idea that that is tenable while maintaining the credibility of article 5, which has been so important to us since the 1940s, and the full protection offered by it. It would devalue that commitment, and we would pay a heavy price if we allowed Georgia to join NATO under those circumstances.

Dr. Fox: Entry into NATO has to be agreed by both parties—those who are already in NATO have to give the security guarantee and the incoming country has to fulfil certain legal obligations, not least that any territorial disputes must be resolved. Georgia’s entry into NATO would affect how Georgia operates in the region. Membership of NATO does not come automatically—it must be earned. That seems to have been forgotten at the present time.

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I want to end with some questions for the Minister about personnel. None of what we have discussed is possible without the brave men and women who make up our armed forces. I thank my friends, Freddie Forsyth, Simon Weston and those who took part in the Conservative party’s military covenant commission. I should like to raise three issues of some urgency. The first concerns decompression. The target is that those coming out of theatre should get up to two weeks’ decompression time among their colleagues to deal with the consequences of stress and combat before returning to bases in the United Kingdom or back to civilian life if they are in the Territorial Army. I was surprised to discover that civil servants in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who spend time in Iraq get a compulsory two weeks’ decompression out of theatre every seven weeks. We are lucky if some of our soldiers are getting much more than 48 hours decompression after a six-month tour. That is not to say that the FCO civil servants are treated wrongly, but it provides some clarity about why there is so much unhappiness about the issue. It is important to talk about decompression because more evidence is emerging about the possible development of long-term problems associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Decompression is an essential means of reducing the temperature for those who have been in theatre. If they are being short-changed for operational reasons, that is not acceptable. We may pay a high, long-term price for what are very small short-term gains. I am sure that the whole House shares my concerns, and I hope that we can have an immediate review of the time given for decompression.

Secondly, the air bridge is a continuing problem that saps morale. We need urgent action and if we cannot have sufficiently robust RAF aircraft to carry out such duties effectively, the Government have a duty to ensure that we get them from somewhere. It is quite unacceptable for servicemen and women to be left for long periods waiting on their leave to return to the United Kingdom.

The third issue is the one highlighted in the press today: hearing loss. I was not going to raise the issue until I saw what the Ministry of Defence had said. Clearly, too many servicemen and women are already not fit for service. If we have a 10 per cent. recorded level of hearing loss that is judged to be moderate to severe, which will prevent personnel from serving in the future, that is a big problem. I would like that matter to be looked at urgently. I regret the statement from the MOD, which stated that

It sounds like a classic washing of the hands, and it is not sufficient.

Finally, we have talked a lot about our servicemen and women and civilian groups that support them. There is one other group to remember, however, which is our charitable sector. There are many in this country who say, “These things should not be left to charities; the Government should deal with them.” I happen to believe that the charitable sector is extraordinarily important because it reminds citizens of their responsibilities to other citizens and does not allow people to abdicate their responsibility on to the state. Help for Heroes, Combat Stress and so many other charities are doing invaluable work, and are thanked too seldom in this country for what they do. The armed forces, families
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and charities all enable us to have and support the finest services in the world, and at this time of year more than at any other, we should thank them.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind all hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions?

2.57 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I will be swift in view of the time restrictions, but I would like to raise one point of a historic nature before I move on to Helmand and other contemporary issues.

I have to express some disappointment that the Government did not do more to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first world war armistice. In the short period that he has held his post, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who has responsibility for veterans, has gone to enormous lengths to remedy that omission, and there is to be a ceremony on 11 November at the Cenotaph. I welcome that, and I congratulate him.

However, as I pointed out when I raised this matter a year and a quarter ago, it is not just about commemoration—other things flow from it. We can remind young people about the important and seminal nature of the world war one conflict: how we went to war with cavalry and emerged with weapons of mass destruction, and how the first, embryonic international courts of justice were established to deal with war crimes, such as the trials in Leipzig. We can remind them of women’s suffrage and all the social change that took place. It has been a great missed opportunity. I want to acknowledge the Under-Secretary’s initiative and applaud it, but I am disappointed that we did not seize the opportunity, particularly as we want to tell youngsters how important it was and what our armed forces were committed to. Although that war was prosecuted in a sloppy manner by some, the principle on which the UK went into that conflict, and the reason why Sir Edward Grey stood at the Dispatch Box, was a matter of international law. We tend to forget that. The UK got into world war one on a matter of important principle. Its prosecution by generals and others might not have been satisfactory—the carnage was appalling—but the principle was right and the United Kingdom should be proud.

Events such as commemorations help recruitment. They encourage people to think about the armed forces as a career, and we need to do much more about that. I am told—perhaps the Minister will correct me—that 10 per cent. of our Army recruits are from overseas. All are welcome—many of those men and women are most dedicated—but there comes a point when it is neither comfortable nor healthy for a disproportionate number of recruits to come from overseas. A few years ago, I think that the figure was 3 per cent.—there is no sign of the trend abating or reducing. Things that encourage our best young people to join the armed forces should be fostered. I mentioned the loss of the opportunity of commemorating the 90th anniversary of the armistice, but many other events are important.

In the United States, there is pride in uniform. I appreciate that we now encourage our armed forces to
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wear uniform whenever possible, and I understand why that did not happen in the past 20 years for reasons of combating terrorism, but we need to do far more. In a future debate, perhaps we could consider not merely using our reserve armed forces as ways of filling gaps or of simply bringing in special skills—although that is important—but moving them as units into conflict or peacekeeping situations.

I am proud to have 400 Nepalese Gurkha families in my constituency and I am totally bewildered by the Government’s continued stance towards them. Although the matter may be for a Home Office Minister, I believe that the Defence Secretary has an enduring pastoral role to play for those families. I therefore urge him to resolve the problem. The British Government have lost in the courts and public opinion is with the Gurkhas. It is a matter of justice and it is also popular, and I cannot understand why the Government cannot get their head round it. They would be applauded rather than criticised if they acknowledged those people’s right to have citizenship here and so on. I ask the Secretary of State to take the matter up with the various relevant Ministers.

Thurrock RAF Association has made representations to me that it is worried about some impediment to getting parcels to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps the Secretary of State or the Minister who responds to the debate can clarify the procedures and protocols, because I understand that they have received representations from RAFA criticising the arrangements and I would like to be able to reassure people that there are no such impediments.

Bob Russell: The most important thing is ensuring that parcels from families get through as a priority. If too many people show good will, especially at this time of year, many of our service personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq will not get the family parcels. We need to be careful.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I asked Ministers, in fairly temperate terms, to clarify the position so that we can reassure people or explain the problems. If there are impediments, can they be overcome?

I will talk about Afghanistan and Helmand province shortly. I know that other hon. Members have experienced the sadness of having to attend a constituent’s funeral. Recently I attended the funeral of constituent Nicky Mason of 2 Para, and I want to acknowledge his bravery in the field. He was highly regarded by his fellow soldiers and popular in the community of Aveley. We salute him today. We hope that his sacrifice and that of his colleagues has not been in vain and will produce a better political climate in the region.

The funeral brought home to me my obligations as a Member of Parliament. I say that because I cannot help but feel that a little while ago we as a Parliament failed in our duty. I remember when our green screens said that there was a statement by the Secretary of State for Defence and we came into the Chamber to hear it. I must admit that Helmand was not really on my radar screen, but we were told that we were committing our armed forces to that region. We can say with some pride that the United Kingdom stepped up to the plate in Helmand, but at the time none of us fully envisaged either the scale of the commitment that we were making or the absence of support from other countries. That troubles me a great deal.

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This week I asked the Secretary of State in a parliamentary question to indicate which of the 13 districts in Helmand province were under the control of the international forces or the Afghan army. His reply was that we had “presence” in a number of districts, but that was not the question that I asked. I asked which districts we controlled. Sometimes we need to be told the naked truth. The Government have a duty to tell us as a Parliament precisely, as of this afternoon, what we control and what “control” constitutes. Does control of a district mean a flag and a policeman in one of those fort-like places or does it mean something better than that? Some people are not prepared to ask difficult questions, so I repeat my questions to the Secretary of State: what districts do we control, which do the Taliban control and which are indeterminate, and what constitutes “control”?

Harry Cohen: Some of us think that efforts should be made to reach a political solution. There were rumours that the British were talking to some of the insurgent leaders, but that they had their knuckles wrapped by the Americans for doing so. We know that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has tried to start political talks, but we heard nothing from the Secretary of State about that process. Should something not have been reported to the House?

Andrew Mackinlay: In fairness to the Secretary of State, that is a matter of foreign policy. However, we are entitled to know in a defence debate what the military situation is. I fully acknowledge that in large tracts of Afghanistan there is relative stability and normal life—to the extent that there is normal life in that part of the world. However, I am deliberately referring to Helmand province, which is a large territory where the United Kingdom has stepped up to the plate, almost alone it would seem. That is why I feel an obligation as a Member of Parliament to probe on the issue. I am sure that everyone acknowledges that we need some political initiatives in our overall policy towards Afghanistan. Indeed, both the Government and the Opposition have acknowledged that, as do I. I also acknowledge some success in the country as a whole, but Helmand is costing our servicemen and women’s lives. Therefore, we have a special obligation.

Reference has been made to NATO. One problem is that UK industry has tried—and to some extent succeeded—persuading the emerging democracies of central Europe that have joined NATO to re-equip their air forces with planes that we wish to sell to them, for perfectly legitimate commercial reasons. However, given those countries’ contributions to NATO, they do not need super-duper air forces. Their best contribution could be made by providing some more heavy lift and so on. We need to discuss in the coming period how NATO can have true interoperability and how people can make a real contribution to the alliance, rather than going for a national status symbol. I understand the significance of air forces, but we have tried persuading those countries—and to some extent we have succeeded—to kit themselves out with fighters and other sophisticated and expensive equipment, which frankly do not add to NATO’s clout or influence in the world.

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Finally, the Opposition spokesman referred to piracy around the world. I am concerned that, for example, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is an overseas territory, there is an acute problem of people smuggling and refugees, mainly from Haiti. That island Government do not have the resources to control or to police that problem, yet the Royal Navy does not have a permanent presence there. I would have thought that protecting our overseas territories would be core business for our armed forces. We also have an obligation to the population of those territories. Also, out of naked self-interest, we do not want such a burden to emerge in these small territories, because we will eventually have to absorb the resulting illegal immigrants and refugees. I realise that there is a problem of resources, but it should be part of our core business to protect and promote small overseas territories, particularly in relation to illegal smuggling of people, refugees and so on.

I am pleased to have had this opportunity to rehearse these points in the House today. As all other Members have done, I congratulate our armed forces personnel on their dedication, on the courage that they demonstrate and on the skills that they bring to bear in very testing circumstances. I salute them. We, as a Parliament, owe it to them to be more probing into whether we are succeeding. We might not like to hear the news, but if we are not succeeding due to certain deficiencies, it is down to us to vote the moneys and the resources to ensure that those people are fully equipped.

3.11 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I start by echoing the words of tribute to the men and women of our armed services at every level, on the front line and at home, and to those who help and support them, those who equip and supply them, and those who look after them when they come back. In particular, I pay tribute to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who have just returned from a gruelling tour of duty in Afghanistan, and to my own constituents, the marines and engineers who have gone out there to take over from them. We should all be very proud of what they are doing, often in very difficult circumstances.

I should also like to welcome the new Secretary of State to his new responsibilities. Like the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), I recall shadowing him in his health role some years ago. I was rather surprised when the hon. Member for Woodspring suggested that he expected to find a more bipartisan atmosphere in our debates from now on, but he then went on to surprise me, because I found myself agreeing with much more of his speech than I usually do. It was one of the best speeches he has made on defence. Perhaps I was wrong to think that we would not find bipartisan support for a number of things, because, in fact, we are doing so.

I also pay tribute to the Secretary of State’s predecessor. I entirely agree that he was a straight and decent man, who did a difficult job in very trying circumstances. Rumours have been circulating all year that, when a reshuffle came, he wanted to divest himself of his responsibilities. I have no idea whether that is true, but I think that he can look back at the time he spent as Defence Secretary with pride and satisfaction.

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For five years, defence policy has been focused on, and to a great extent overshadowed by, our intervention in Iraq. Sometimes to the detriment of our forces, our capabilities and our wider operations, the Government have remained somewhat too steadfast—to my taste—in their involvement in that country. That has had a considerable cost. During the time of our involvement there, we have lost the confidence of many allies and friends around the world, and diverted our attention away from the real problems, not least those in Afghanistan, which predated our involvement in Iraq.

We now have a new Secretary of State in charge, however, and I very much welcome what he said at the weekend, and again in our debate today, about the drawing down of our forces in the region. It may be that our time there is drawing to an end, and if so, I welcome that very much. I know that our troops are currently involved in training the 14th division of the Iraqi army. The previous Secretary of State said in an answer in early September—I think that the new Secretary of State has more or less confirmed this today—that this will be completed early next year. I gather that we are also anticipating handing over the Basra air base by the end of this year.

I very much hope that we can assume that we are coming to the end of our significant engagement and that we have not been given yet another elastic deadline. Questions need to be answered about the draw-down to what I understand will be a few hundred troops remaining. I am particularly keen to understand where they will be and how they will be protected. The Minister of State was asked in the Select Committee on Defence about the minimum scale of forces that are capable of protecting themselves. If we are talking about drawing down to a few hundred, clearly they will not be able to protect themselves.

I think that we have a much more sensible basis on which to build a long-term bilateral partnership with Iraq of the sort that the Secretary of State was defending. I see no problem with, or have any objection to, British expertise continuing to be available as the Iraqi army and nation rebuild themselves. If we want to be friends of Iraq, it is appropriate that we should do that, and the sooner that we bring our skills and expertise to Iraqis in modest numbers and not by dint of keeping a self-protecting force there, the better it will be for Iraq, for our involvement in Afghanistan and for the strain on our resources, manpower and finances. I hope that we are seeing the beginning of our withdrawal from any significant engagement in Iraq.

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