Previous Section Index Home Page

I appreciate that we will have to wait a little longer to hear the terms of the bilateral deal that will be agreed between our Government and the Iraqi Government beyond 31 December, when the UN mandate concludes, but I hope that the House will discuss that in detail at some point. We also await with interest the attitude of a new American Administration. We will know soon what political complexion that will be, and we have heard slightly different remarks from the two candidates as to their view of long-term involvement in Iraq, but perhaps in either case we should judge what they say in their early days in office rather more than what they had to say on the campaign trail. I think that from early next year, more and more of our defence debate on current
30 Oct 2008 : Column 1094
operations will focus, as it needs to, on what we are doing in Afghanistan, rather than on what we have done in Iraq.

I opposed our involvement in Iraq. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Woodspring, I am not aware of anyone who says that our troops have done nothing beneficial in Iraq. It is not my view that they have been in any sense wasting their time there or that they have not contributed something positive to the well-being of the people of Iraq. However, it is a measure of how badly planned the post-war involvement was that a full five and a half years on, we are discussing issues such as the availability of power and water, which in some parts of Iraq are not back to the state that they were in during Saddam’s regime. I welcome any progress that we can make, but we should not be in this situation five and a half years on.

Dr. Fox: As a matter of interest, the objection of the hon. Gentleman’s party was based not on the quality of the planning for the post-conflict scenario, but on their view that we should not have been there in the first place. Had we not been there, the people I met in Basra would not have the improved security there; nor would they be looking forward to some of the material benefits that might accrue as a consequence.

Nick Harvey: That is not what I said. The hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways. I do not recall that a purpose of invading Iraq was to restore the water supplies. As he well knows, our objection was that it was completely illegal and we were sold a duff prospectus on the purposes of the engagement. However, I honestly do not think that at this stage there is a great deal of purpose to be served by trawling over all that.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Nick Harvey: I can see that it is too much for some to resist.

Linda Gilroy: Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that having seen off the weapons inspectors, the dictator Saddam Hussein would not have become an even more serious threat to the security in that region at that time and, therefore, to our security at home?

Nick Harvey: That was certainly not my assertion, but, as the hon. Lady knows perfectly well, the terms, timing and nature of our involvement in Iraq were issues of profound division at the time, and remain so to this day.

However, attention now turns to Afghanistan. As the Secretary of State observed, there are fundamental problems there, and the position is very complicated. No one ever said that it would be easy, and indeed it will not—it will clearly be a very long haul—but we need to retain a steadfast commitment, and this is by no means a time for faint hearts.

During his short time in office so far, the Secretary of State has already visited both Afghanistan and Iraq, and I welcome what he has said since his return. It is clear that there are complex issues for us to tackle. Our involvement in Afghanistan looks set to last for many years, but I am still not convinced that the general public are entirely clear about why we are there, what
30 Oct 2008 : Column 1095
our objectives are, or by what yardsticks they can judge the effectiveness of what we are doing there. Their confusion will probably have been increased by remarks such as those of Brigadier Carleton-Smith, although I agree with others that he should not be condemned for what he said, because there was some essential truth in it. As he remarked, we are not going to win this war by military means alone.

The hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) has intervened a couple of times to raise the issue of talking to and negotiating with the Taliban. It is pretty much an open secret that the Afghan Government do it, that the tribal elders do it, that the Pakistanis do it and that we do it, and it is entirely right that we should. The Secretary of State said that it could not possibly be part of the solution for us to hand over any part of power to those who had not laid down arms and who were maintaining the stances that they had taken in the past, and he was entirely right to say that, but there is a world of difference between saying that and saying that we would not be willing to talk to the Taliban.

I remember appearing on the BBC’s “Question Time” on the day it emerged that the Major Government had been talking to the IRA. David Dimbleby turned to me and asked, “Are you outraged that it has emerged that the British Government are talking to the IRA?” I replied, “I am not half as outraged as I should have been if it had emerged that they were not doing so.” It is entirely logical and right that such dialogues must take place if we hope ever to reach a point at which the opposing sides could be reconciled and made part of a lasting solution.

The Secretary of State was right to say that we could not establish any form of agreement with the Taliban unless and until they agreed to renounce what they had been doing, but we cannot hope to reach that point without engaging in some sort of dialogue with them. I do not know by what means it would take place, or whether it would begin for real now or later; but there is no way we will find a lasting solution unless and until it becomes part of what we are trying to do.

During our last defence debate a couple of weeks ago, I stressed how vital it was for us to send more helicopters to Afghanistan as part of our work there. The Government’s statement yesterday about the issue of more protected vehicles was welcome, but I emphasise yet again the need for more helicopters, especially in view of the expected life of the existing helicopter fleet.

We also need to look to the wider region. I should like to know what dialogue has taken place between the British Government and America about American incursions into Pakistani border territories. On Sunday an American drone killed 20 people in Waziristan in Pakistan, and the raids continue. It is surely an irony that the security of Pakistan may now be threatened as our allies step beyond the bounds of the original mandate. I do not seek to minimise the problems that exist in the border territories, but we need to be careful that we are not opening a can of worms in unsettling Pakistan, which is absolutely vital to British interests in that part of the world. We must proceed with enormous care.

The Secretary of State has identified tackling the opium trade as one of our chief objectives, and he is right to do so. Given the scale of heroin addiction in
30 Oct 2008 : Column 1096
Iran, I should be interested to know whether we have had any discussions with the Iranians about this. It is known to be something about which Iran has enormous concerns. I appreciate that we are significantly at odds with Iran over uranium enrichment and other matters, but it is vital—given that Iran has been involved in the west of Afghanistan—that we should have discussions with it.

On strategy, the hon. Member for Woodspring quite rightly pointed out the folly of continuing to operate on the basis of defence planning assumptions drawn up in the context of 1998. Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be viewed just as add-ons to our general strategic outlook. They have to fit in far more fundamentally to our view of things and what we are trying to do.

The Secretary of State has started to give a lot of thought to his new responsibilities and has identified some of the headline priorities, but before any of the key decisions can be tackled we have to go back to the drawing board over some of the big strategic issues. Some would characterise the decisions that need to be made as a tension between the priorities dictated to us by the wars of today and the longer-term threats that might emerge in other scenarios, where we have to retain a capacity to deal with what might emerge.

Although they did not really do so today, the Conservative Front-Bench team can, when they get the bit between their teeth, wax lyrical on the threats that we might face at various points in the future. I always feel that, rather like the Old Testament, they should not be taken too literally, but neither should they be disregarded. They are absolutely right to say that we cannot concentrate entirely on the priorities of today at the expense of any consideration of these issues, but the purpose of arriving at a defence strategy is to strike a balance between them. I am not content that doing that on the basis of calculations made a decade ago is a sensible way forward.

The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chair of the Select Committee, asked the Secretary of State where the procurement of the new armoured vehicles fits into the FRES programme. The Secretary of State’s reply was that the two had nothing to do with one another. One was funded by urgent operational requirements, the other was a long-term plan for the future. This shows precisely the problem that I am trying to illustrate. We cannot view these things in silos, as they all have to be moulded into a defence strategy that guides and governs the decisions that need to be made.

There is a backlog of unpleasant decisions that need to be made, as I am sure the Secretary of State is now only too aware. He has been hinting in the media that it may become necessary for one of the large procurement projects to be cancelled. This will be difficult when some are rooted so firmly in the constituency of the Prime Minister and others are rooted so firmly in the constituency of the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, there are some big decisions that will have to be taken, and it is essential that they are taken in a strategic context. I have read suggestions that the joint strike fighter might be cancelled and have wondered at the sanity of that. The project is absolutely fundamental to my understanding of our procurement strategy.

The biggest problem is the mismatch between the commitments on the one side and the resources on the other. I hope that one of our significant commitments,
30 Oct 2008 : Column 1097
namely Iraq, is now winding down to a point at which one can begin to get these things back into balance. As we look forward to what the purpose of our armed forces might be, I believe that we will have to look afresh at how we co-operate with our allies. As part of that we must recognise the different amounts of weight that different NATO countries have been pulling. There will have to be an enhanced role for co-operation in defence matters at a European level.

The Secretary of State said—and I had some sympathy with him—that his remarks on this issue were not designed to give rise to the sort of headlines that we saw about there being a European army. Let me make it perfectly clear that I would oppose the creation of a European army; it would be unthinkable for British citizens to sign straight up to a European army that was subject to a European political tier, but that is not at all what is being talked about. However, it is clear that the European members of NATO must pull more weight in the NATO partnership.

Given the economic strength and potential of Europe, European countries have a responsibility to co-operate much more than before, not only on procurement but in a wider sense. There is no need for anyone to be alarmed about this. There are circumstances in which British troops belonging to the British armed services will find themselves operating under either a UN flag or a NATO flag, and there is no reason why, in other circumstances, they should not also operate under Europe’s colours. In my view, there is no encroachment on our sovereignty in that. There is, however, a responsibility for there to be more rational planning and co-operation with our European neighbours if we are to pull our weight in the future.

We should not be in splendid, budget-restricted and tired isolation; stronger capabilities, greater co-operation and constructive use of resources could only be of benefit to us, Europe, NATO and the world. I hope very much that, having mapped this out as a way forward, the Secretary of State will give more energy to it and ensure that it becomes a reality in future.

3.31 pm

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to speak, albeit briefly, in this afternoon’s defence debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on his new appointment, which I think is somewhat inspired—I am sure that prediction will be proved right in future. The fact that this is the second full defence debate in almost as many weeks is a sign of what a powerful influence he will be in the Cabinet; two Thursdays out of the past three or four have been set aside for defence, and I hope that sets a pattern for the future. I also congratulate the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), on giving a well-balanced speech, and I hope it points to what we can expect in future defence debates.

I wish to speak on three defence policy items that I consider to be of major importance: the first is a big defence policy success; the second, unfortunately, is a defence policy failure, which I think could end up being a catastrophic one; and the third is a policy issue that I hope we can resolve this afternoon.

The first issue is defence training. I congratulate the Government on their policy of completely transforming and rationalising defence training across all three services
30 Oct 2008 : Column 1098
through the defence training rationalisation programme. I was delighted with the Department’s statement three weeks ago that phase 2 and phase 3 transformation of technical training—so-called package 1—is on track and progressing well. We should get an investment decision in a few months and the final contracts signed approximately a year after that. This major and radical transformation of training will ensure that British servicemen and women have the best technical training in the world—aeronautical, electro-mechanical engineering, computer science and information technology. People will all be trained under one roof. They will be using 21st century technology and training methods, and they will be the best in the world. However, that is taking some time; 10 years will have passed by the time the scheme is up and running.

We have already been through the same process for the officer corps, at the tri-service training academy for leadership and management training. We on the Select Committee on Defence had the privilege of visiting the defence academy at Shrivenham just the other week, and we saw at first hand the superb training that is being offered to our officers—the best in the world. It has been a huge success and an important part of the defence training rationalisation programme. We look forward to the follow-up, which is the technical training of other ranks being transformed in the same way.

The project is so big that the construction programme alone is on a par with the London Olympic project. It is a 600-acre development programme and something like 4,500 servicemen and women will be trained there at any one time. The construction programme will create almost 2,000 jobs in the local community. The facility will provide not only the best training in the world for our servicemen and women, but because the qualifications will be civilian-recognised, it will provide a skills base for this country in some of the most prized and sought-after skills in the world. Once those men and women have been trained, they will always be in the British economy, and could be called upon in future.

The project will amount to a huge saving in the defence training budget over the next few years. Yes, it is a £12 billion private finance initiative project over the next 25 years, and a complex and very large project on which we are well advanced, but the payback is that it will rationalise the delivery of all training across the services, avoiding duplication and creating huge economies of scale. We will actually save money for investment on the defence front line, which is where we want all the spare money to go.

In the current difficult economic times, if the Chancellor of the Exchequer is looking for a public sector project to provide jobs, stability in the economy and investment in training for the future of this country, and to save money, I can think of none better than the defence technical academy at MOD St. Athan. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] I can tell that everyone agrees with me, and I would like to place that on record.

I congratulate the Government on their approach to training and their rationalisation programme, but I now wish to raise a subject on which I do not congratulate this Government or previous Governments. It is a huge defence policy failure that could store up serious problems for us in future. We on the Defence Committee have just published our 14th report, on recruitment and training, which draws attention to the problem.

30 Oct 2008 : Column 1099

Our policy of recruiting British ethnic minorities into the armed forces has been a complete and utter failure. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the situation is getting worse, not better. As the Defence Committee found, the official statistics tell us that the recruitment of ethnic minorities has risen from a baseline of 1 per cent. in 1999, which is a highly suspect figure, to 6.1 per cent. by January 2008. The problem is that those figures have been fiddled. The MOD counted British ethnic minorities in 1999, but then counted Commonwealth recruits into the armed forces by 2008. Those Commonwealth recruits were already there, but they were not counted in the figure that was given in 1999. The official figure for the recruitment of ethnic minorities in this country’s forces is 4.8 per cent., but I must tell the House that the more accurate figure across the three services is about 2.3 per cent.

Why do I think that is a problem? As an ex-servicemen who will always support our armed forces, I am concerned about the effect on their reputation. As the Defence Committee pointed out, our armed forces need to reflect the society that they serve, but a bigger and bigger gap is growing between the armed forces and the society that is out there in the community, and that is dangerous. When I was a serviceman, in the 1960s, the armed forces did represent the society in which we lived—unfortunately, that meant that the forces were homophobic, by and large, class-ridden and overtly racist—but that is not the case in the 21st century. We ignore at our peril the need for the armed forces to reflect the community that they serve.

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those efforts to recruit some ethnic minority groups may be damaged by the American incursions into Pakistan that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) mentioned?

John Smith: No, I do not. Unfortunately, we do not have time to go into the details of the whys and the whys not. I merely point out that the United States of America has one of the highest levels of recruitment of ethnic minorities in the world, and that is because it has a proactive policy.

The situation is also dangerous because it restricts this country’s ability to recruit and retain military personnel. If the armed forces were colour blind, we would be recruiting 20,000 more men and women into the RAF, Navy and Army, and many of the recruitment and retention problems that this country faces would largely be eradicated. Because the armed forces are not colour blind and we are recruiting only 2 per cent. instead of 10 per cent. from the ethnic minority population—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. I have an unfortunate problem in that I have seen this from both sides; that includes tabling amendments to the Select Committee report on this subject. Does he recognise that the report said that one of the problems could be found within those communities themselves, and that we had to address that? I am addressing it now.

Next Section Index Home Page