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One of the great advantages of such visits—in this case it was organised very ably by Captain Helen Falconer—was that we had the opportunity to speak to
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service personnel of all ranks from throughout the United Kingdom. As one would expect, as there are so many service personnel from Moray, I met a lot of them in Basra. The one message that I received consistently was that they are concerned about the time that it takes them to travel home on leave and that that time is effectively deducted from their overall leave period. Young men from Buckie and Orkney, serving with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Highlanders, explained that they were given 14 days’ leave from intense service on the front, and that it took them three days to travel home and three to travel back, effectively halving their leave time. I do not consider that acceptable, and I hope that the Ministry of Defence will re-examine its rules pertaining to the calculation of travel time for our serving personnel.

Let me now turn to the subject of Afghanistan, not least because of the biggest single loss of life among the UK armed forces there. I pay tribute to the 14 personnel who died aboard Nimrod XV230, which was based at RAF Kinloss, and to their families. I was pleased to receive the Secretary of State’s assurances, in reply to an intervention from me at the beginning of the debate, about the serviceability of the Nimrod fleet as well as the maintaining of the safety focus, which is extremely important. I shall return to that later—I hope that the Minister of State shares my concern about some ongoing serviceability issues—but I first want to say something about the broader aspects of the Afghanistan mission.

We need to look closely at our current position, as other countries are doing. I understand that the United States national intelligence estimate on Afghanistan, prepared by the United States 16 intelligence agencies, is set to highlight what they describe as harsh conclusions to the current strategy. It seems to me that we have limited breathing space for a major rethink over the winter months, when fighting subsides and a new United States President reviews his options. It is our brave troops who are literally on the front lines as the situation deteriorates. The Taliban have regrouped, the heroin trade is flourishing, and we are backing a Government with significant corruption problems. Meanwhile, too many ordinary Afghans are seeing precious little reconstruction and development,

It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of Afghan history that this is a recipe for disaster. We need a major rethink now. Sadly, the United Kingdom misspent most of the opportunity that it had to make progress in Afghanistan by becoming embroiled in Iraq. The SNP and Plaid Cymru believe that the time has come to look at all the options before it is too late.

My time is running down, but there are two wider points that I want to make that are important. Defence policy, from our perspective, is sadly still decided in this place, but many of the attendant support mechanisms and the charity sector dealing with military matters are devolved or self-standing. That is visible by those of us who have decided to wear Scottish poppies; some may not be aware that they are doing so. I am pleased that colleagues from England are supporting Poppyscotland here today.

I am pleased also that one of the first acts of the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), who is responsible for veterans in the UK Defence Ministry, was to travel to Edinburgh last week to meet Stewart Maxwell, the SNP
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Minister in the Scottish Government with responsibility for such matters. I am pleased that the UK Minister was able to learn about the tremendous progress that has been made in the past 18 months. For the first time in Scotland since devolution we have a Scottish Government who have set out a programme for assisting veterans across Scotland. There has been a whole series of improvements to the situation inherited from the Labour and Liberal Democrat Administration in Scotland who, sadly, did not have such a focused policy.

My last point is about Trident. The Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that one of the universal principles that guide the policy perspectives of anyone in a democracy is that of standards of democracy and consent. I found it slightly jarring to contrast those comments with one of his first visits in post to Faslane, an excellent facility that will be a tremendous base for conventional naval forces in Scotland. The Secretary of State chose to travel to Faslane and to criticise those of us who do not want Scotland to be home to a system of weapons of mass destruction. It is not just the SNP that believes that; the Scottish Churches, the Scottish TUC, the majority of voters and the majority of Labour voters in Scotland believe it. I hope that the Secretary of State, who is not present now, takes the opportunity to reflect on the fact that when he talks about democratic consent he should apply that to public opinion in Scotland.

We are debating defence matters in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. It is important for all those servicemen and women who may be watching or reading what we discuss today that they understand that our support for them is not dependent on our support of Government policy or on the constitutional arrangements within the UK. The most important message to all our servicemen and women, and to all the charities that support them and their families, is that we salute them all.

4.48 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): We respect the Scottish National party’s respect for our armed service men and women. We have rather less respect for its defence policy. I seem to recall that it wanted the economic policy of Iceland until fairly recently; perhaps they want a similar defence policy for Scotland. I do not think that the Scottish people, on reflection, would choose that.

I dedicate my remarks to 2 Para, who are holding their service of remembrance for fallen comrades today in Colchester.

The first issue we have to face is that the Government no longer have a defence policy. The writing was on the wall for years. The mismatch between commitments and resources has become progressively worse. The publication of the national security strategy in March marked a tipping point. It stated the Government’s determination to

That was an implicit admission that, after the 2008 three-year spending review, the MOD could no longer pretend to make ends meet. The Government can no longer maintain all the current commitments alongside the maintenance of the capabilities set out in the strategic defence review to keep the UK at the top table of
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military nations in the future. The Government’s defence policy is collapsing. This follows the 10 years since the SDR, during which the armed forces have been increasingly underfunded, leaving an ever-widening gap which can be bridged only by continuing the run-down of manpower and extending the delays in orders for new equipment—with all the extra costs involved in that—and by the cancellation of training not directly relevant to the present counter-insurgency campaigns.

The armed forces have just to keep making do, and they do so brilliantly, with the prowess, skill at arms, bravery and dignity that is their hallmark. However, they have been operating beyond the Ministry of Defence’s defence planning assumptions for a period longer than the second world war. Such sustained overstretch means that, for example, half the new British Army officers deployed on operations have never done their live fire and manoeuvre exercise at the BATUS—British Army training unit Suffield—training area in Canada, which used to be a prerequisite. It also means that the term “pinch point trades”, which used to apply to a few specialist jobs in the services where there was a shortage of trained people, is now applied to the infantry as a whole. In order to meet the Government’s own targets for concurrency—that is, maintaining harmony guidelines—the number of infantry battalions would have to be increased by 10, from 39 to 49.

Overstretch has been a deliberate Government policy; they have consciously run a foreign policy dependent upon the force of arms whose ambitions have outstripped the sustainable capability of the armed forces. Moreover, that looks set to continue. Whatever capacity is withdrawn from Iraq over the coming months looks likely to be almost immediately redeployed in Afghanistan as part of a US-led military surge. I do not necessarily oppose that policy, and I have no doubt that the armed forces can continue to deliver, but only in the short term, as the Chief of the Defence Staff himself has said. This sustained period of overstretch is having dire consequences, which we in Parliament, who are elected to be guardians of the long-term national interest and the welfare of those who would give their lives for us, should regard as completely unacceptable.

The first consequence is military. I have been advised that the long-term attrition on people and equipment means that the MOD now privately estimates that even if it were to withdraw from all current operations immediately, the armed forces could not fully recuperate before at least 2017. That means that we are close to breaking the Army—a notion introduced to the debate on defence not by an Opposition MP, but by the Chief of the General Staff. The same applies in different ways to the other two services.

The second consequence is the human reality of this military exhaustion. Why should men and women fight and risk their lives? They do so because they believe in what they are asked to fight for, and they believe that their country will look after them and those they love. I have looked into the faces of exhausted helicopter pilots, listened to soldiers back home who are haunted by their experiences, heard sailors who have cancelled their leave or their training and left their families to be with their ship on operations, and shared the grief with bereaved families. We must not take it for granted that
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the men and women of the armed forces will always be there when we need them. The steady flow of those leaving early is testimony to the strain on them, yet it has become an insidious part of the Government’s defence policy consciously and cynically to exploit the extraordinary good will and resilience of these men and women. It cannot go on for much longer. I appreciate that the Government have begun to address questions around the military covenant, but we should keep reminding ourselves that this aspect of their exploitation of the good will of our servicemen and women is completely morally indefensible.

There is a third consequence, which is yet more serious and profound. The national security strategy and the Secretary of State’s hint to The Sunday Times that a big programme would have to be cut both demonstrate that there is now a deliberate act to compromise our nation’s long-term security as defined by the SDR, which set out all the essential things we need, simply for lack for funds. The terrible dilemma facing MOD officials and service chiefs is what to do. What should they cut to keep the show on the road in Afghanistan? Should it be the carriers and joint strike fighters, with their global power projection? If we are to have them, are they not simply crowding out other vital programmes? The Minister shakes his head, but he knows that that is the question that faces policy makers in his Department.

What about cutting the Astute submarines, which are vital for the protection of an ocean-going navy? Could the Government possibly cut more surface ships, or Future Lynx, the new workhorse helicopter for all three services? Even if they cut 70 of the Future Lynx—no number is yet confirmed—the number of helicopters in the UK armed forces will be fewer than half the current figure by 2020.

The difficulty is that coherent defence policy does not stand alone but must be part of the UK’s overall foreign and security strategy. The current self-deceits, inconsistencies and financial constraints make it impossible to frame a rational long-term policy. We need a Prime Minister to decide what sort of country we realistically want to be, and what role we can realistically afford to play in the world.

We are stretched across the middle east and central Asia with long-term commitments, like a colonial power, but with little public understanding of why we are there and paying so much in money and sacrifice. Are Iraq and Afghanistan to be the last gasp of the so-called ethical foreign policy? We need a defence review to resolve the painful dilemma that is being lived out by our armed servicemen and women, but before that the Government must forge a new foreign and security strategy to reflect a coherent view of the UK’s role in the world—the world as it is, not as some would wish it to be.

It is Labour’s combination of over-ambition, naivety and lack of funding that has led us to this pass. We remember the extraordinary Chicago speech that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave in the heat of the Kosovo crisis. He proclaimed that his actions were

He added, casually, that

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I kid you not. How did anyone take such amateur philosophising seriously? How could any serious foreign policy practitioner distil any principle from such meaningless cant?

That attempt to overlay our foreign policy with a spurious moral authority that it cannot possess has had disastrous results. We have tangled our military capabilities with legal complexities that result in terrorists being held prisoner in Basra in better conditions and safer accommodation than we have been able to provide for our own servicemen. [ Interruption.] The Minister says that that is rubbish, but I saw it with my own eyes. The soldiers in Basra live in soft accommodation; the prisoners are in hardened accommodation.

The result is the Royal Navy being instructed not to capture pirates off the horn of Africa for fear that they might claim asylum. The Government gave the Department for International Development a remit that set it up as though it were a state within the state, apparently answering to an altogether higher moral authority than the mere interests of the nation that pays its bills. Our armed forces, who have the responsibility for winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan, have to wade through swathes of bureaucracy to access a few million pounds for quick-impact projects, while DFID squanders billions on the corrupt Government in Kabul in pursuit of probably unattainable, and certainly less urgent, political objectives.

Whatever we have to do in the short term we must do, but in the long term we need a new defence policy reflecting realism about the world and about what we can do, and based on the interests of the UK and the likely threats to the safety and welfare of our people over the next 20 or 30 years. We face a perfect storm of modern threats: non-state terrorism and insurgency, Muslim extremism, weapons proliferation, Iran, the rise of nationalism, Russia, the new threats arising from climate change, population growth and food and energy scarcity. All those are now set against the background of an unprecedented global financial crisis, which will have economic and strategic consequences that are as yet hard to assess.

Ditching the chaos of the ethical foreign policy is a pitch not for amorality but for moral realism. Of course we have obligations to the wider world, but we must surely recognise that our first duty as parliamentarians is to secure the safety and well-being of the fortunate people born, or who have come to live, in these free islands. That includes the need for a defence policy that preserves our safety, maintains our influence and honours our obligations to our servicemen and women and their families, and for which we must therefore be prepared to pay.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Four hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye before the wind-ups. I cannot reduce the time limit without giving any notice, because to do so would be unfair. Seven and a half minutes for each contribution would allow all hon. Members to get in, if there is a mood of co-operation.

5 pm

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I shall seek to abide by that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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It is excellent that the words “Help for Heroes” have been mentioned on a number of occasions in tonight’s debate. A year into the life of that charity, of which it is an honour to be a trustee, I wish to pay tribute not just to those who started it up, particularly its inspirational chief executive, Bryn Parry, and to the wonderful army of volunteers, not just those in Wiltshire, who have kept the office going and who have fielded all the requests and the enormous sums that have arrived there from all around the country, but to the fundraisers all around the country, who have worked so hard. It has been an inspiration to be involved.

Interestingly, as has been said in the debate, people in Britain have now got it; they are able to divorce what they may or may not feel about the rights and wrongs of the operations in the world in which we are partaking from their complete and universal—almost universal—admiration and respect for our armed forces. When one talks to commanders, of whatever rank, who have returned from operations, what is clear is a universal pride in the performance and courage of those whom they have commanded. We must remember that this is the hoodie generation—the PlayStation kids—who are performing so well; they are performing as heroically as their grandparents and great-grandparents did in a more heroic age.

In the few minutes available to me, I wish to raise a few points about our care for the wounded. When people are injured on operations, they receive first-class treatment on the battlefield. When they go to medical facilities such as Camp Bastion, they receive first-class treatment there too. They then come to Selly Oak, which is a world-class organisation. I am not one of those people who signs No. 10 website petitions asking for the restoration of military hospitals, because if I were still in the Army and I were wounded, I would want to go to Selly Oak. It is a centre of excellence where people have developed real skills in dealing with cranial injuries, gunshot wounds and all sorts of other requirements.

People then go to Headley Court, another fantastic organisation, which will be further improved thanks to Help for Heroes and a big injection of cash from the Government. My point is that we hope that after going to such places, the personnel return to their unit. If they do not, and they cannot continue in the Army, they may have to go back to their community; we all represent those communities. There are people living in our towns and villages who may not outwardly have a visible disability, but who might have a disability inside their heads. We are only just starting to understand post-traumatic stress. We know that it can manifest itself again 14 years after an event, so there has to be a system in place to look after people if post-traumatic stress revisits them at any point.

People with a disability who are trying to come to terms with life without a job and without the support of the military family are massively important. So, I am delighted that Help for Heroes has managed to support Combat Stress, Skill Force— another wonderful charity that gets servicemen into schools and other learning institutions, so that students can benefit from their presence and they can learn a new trade—and the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association. The help that has been given is enormously good.

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