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30 Oct 2008 : Column 1119

I also wish to discuss two people, whom I visited at Selly Oak some months ago: Rifleman Stephen Vause, who was in a coma, having been injured in Basra while serving with 4th Battalion, The Rifles; and Corporal Tony Burbidge. After I saw Stephen Vause in Birmingham, he went to the neurological centre at Putney, and he is now making fantastic progress at Headley Court. Having seen him more recently, when I noticed that he had progressed so much, and having spoken with his wonderful mother, Jessica Cheeseman, I realised that Stephen will require lifelong care and his mother and his wonderful family will require support for him for the rest of his days. We must consider such issues when we talk about the wounded.

The other soldier I wish to speak about is Corporal Tony Burbidge, a career soldier, who was shot in the arm in Basra. I was not with him for long enough to make a full assessment, but he had regimental sergeant major written all over him—he was a real warrior, and the Army loses people like him at its peril. I do not know whether he has yet passed his fitness test to re-enter full service in the armed forces. There was much debate about that when I bicycled 350 miles with him for Help for Heroes. He said to me that he was struggling to reach the precise level of fitness required to return to full strength. I hope that the Army and the MOD can cut such people a bit of slack. I wrote to his commanding officer, Rupert Jones, and was heartened by his reply—like all good regiments, the Rifles will look after its own. I hope that MOD will recognise that if such people cannot make the precise fitness grade, we will lose a real asset and there will be many more Corporal Burbidges to look after.

I would have liked to use the second part of my speech to talk about a much more contentious issue—the appalling Government decision to axe the Defence Export Services Organisation—and about why it is so damaging at a time when we must build up our balance of payments and support our manufacturing industry. However, I recognise that there is not enough time, so I shall wait for the Queen’s Speech debate to make that contribution.

5.6 pm

Mr. Paul Goodman (Wycombe) (Con): Like other hon. Members, I begin by honouring the work that our armed forces are undertaking, especially in Afghanistan and Iraq, and by paying tribute to those who have been wounded and who have died.

This is the first time that I have spoken in a defence debate since my election to this House in 2001, which might suggest to Members, if they did not already know, that I am not a defence expert. The main threat to our armed services abroad is, of course, the same as that which endangers us at home, although less directly. Defence policy and security policy are inextricably linked. It is in that context that I want to consider a matter raised by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey)—the domestic and foreign implications of recent US military action in Pakistan.

As some hon. Members know, I have the largest number of Muslim constituents of any official Opposition Member. Those who seek to defeat our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan usually claim to act in the name
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of their religion. My constituents, together with the overwhelming majority of British Muslims, reject that claim unambiguously, but have been troubled, as we all have, by those who seek to drive a wedge between British Muslims and their fellow citizens of other religions and none, and whose key strategic aim is to win the hearts and minds of young British Muslims, to denigrate Britain’s mainstream Muslim leadership as “kuffar” and, ultimately, to replace that leadership with the leadership of extremists.

Those who worship at Islamic religious institutions in my constituency come mostly from a deeply traditional Islamic background and originate largely from Azad Kashmir and Pakistan, as do up to 1 million other British citizens. I wish, therefore, to address Pakistan and its role in relation to our defence and security. The movement of people between Britain and Pakistan is habitual and frequent, and enriches both countries. I have visited Pakistan and Kashmir twice and addressed meetings there, present at which were many British citizens planning to return to Britain in due course.

What happens in Pakistan and Kashmir touches many British Muslims more directly than events elsewhere and nearer to home, and events are taking place in Pakistan that directly affect the security of that country, which is of course an ally. On 3 September, US forces launched a ground raid into Jalal Khel, a village in south Waziristan near the Afghanistan border. About two dozen people were killed. The Americans claimed that they were insurgents, but the Pakistan Government said that they were civilians. I appreciate that the truth is often hard to establish in a war in which insurgents do not wear uniforms. However, the raid was not a solitary incident.

In recent weeks the US has launched repeated missile strikes in Pakistan. It has been claimed that George Bush, in the final months of his presidency, has signed an executive order giving US special forces carte blanche to operate in Pakistan. These events have been closely followed in Britain by citizens of Pakistani and Kashmiri origin.

We must, of course, appreciate that the war in Afghanistan in which British lives are at risk does not stop at the border. I understand, as we all should, the frustration of US and NATO commanders who know well that plots hatched in Pakistan cost blood and treasure, as the saying has it, in Afghanistan. Some may believe, not altogether without reason, that Pakistan is doing less than it could to combat insurgency in the tribal areas, to which Pakistan, of course, will counter that it has already done much at the cost of some 1,400 Pakistani lives—another sacrifice that we should honour.

We should be unwilling to comment on any individual action. None the less, I believe that we should draw some definite general conclusions in the interests of our security and our defence. Pakistan is not in a stable condition, to put it mildly. That is not to say that it is in the grip of extremism, as some reporting suggests. That would be a grotesque misrepresentation. In the recent elections, the extremists fared poorly, even in the north-western areas, which are sometimes portrayed by parts of our media as a hotbed of unchallenged fanaticism. The Pakistan Peoples party, which won most seats in February’s election after the terrible murder of Benazir Bhutto, is essentially a moderate party.

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Pakistan has an articulate, educated and westward-looking middle class. The vast majority of people there want what people everywhere want: prosperity, security and freedom. However, as I say, Pakistan is deeply troubled at present. We have seen the recent film footage of the terrible explosion in Islamabad, which cost the lives of more than 40 people, and we remember the Bhutto murder.

The moderation of the people of Pakistan must never be underestimated, but one would be bold to predict a trouble-free future for that country in the medium term and especially in the short term. A key British strategic aim must therefore be to support the fledgling Government of Pakistan. The US military intervention is having an unwelcome effect in Islamabad. Only last week, Pakistan’s Parliament passed a unanimous resolution calling for an end to military action. It urged an urgent review of national security. I appreciate that there is a dispute about the effect of the resolution and that it was not a reaction to US actions alone. Pakistani politicians are well aware of the Saudi peace initiative, but this development was worrying.

As I say, we should be unwilling to comment on any individual action. We have to ask ourselves some hard questions. Are those actions likely to inflame extremism in Pakistan? The answer is yes. Are they likely to have a significant effect on countering the insurgency? I am not a military expert, but I suspect that the answer is no. Is the damage that they do in driving up extremism in Pakistan greater than any good that they might do in countering insurgency? Again, I am afraid, the answer must be yes. That harm has repercussions here at home. There is no need for me to labour that point.

Those on the Treasury Bench have a responsibility this afternoon. I look to the Minister who responds to the debate to make it crystal clear that the Government believe that as a rule there should be no military intervention by outside forces in Pakistan without the permission of its Government and that any such intervention damages our defence interests, compromises our security and undermines the position of a key ally at a time of great need.

5.13 pm

Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): Robert Kagan writes of how the world is returning to normal. The author of “The Return of History and the End of Dreams” writes of how many of the post-cold war strategic assumptions are coming to an end. In place of a world dominated by an all-powerful American hegemony, the world is becoming more multi-polar. Kagan writes of how new regional powers are emerging and have begun to jockey for advantage: China, India, Iran and Russia. He suggests that the democracies of the world—Britain, America and others—face a new challenge from resurgent autocracies.

There is also the threat of radical Islamism. On 11 September 2001, the strategic environment was changed profoundly. It seems that the world is in rapid flux, yet those who make public policy move more slowly. Danger does not necessarily come from the resumption of age-old great power struggles, but from our unpreparedness for them. Too much of our defence policy remains based on residual assumptions that no longer necessarily hold. Policy is too often the product of ad hoc decision
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making. What is supposed to be strategic calculation is little more than policy formed in response to tactical necessity. We are ill-prepared and weak when it comes to the challenges that lie ahead. Already, our armed forces are seriously overstretched. We have asked them to do too much, on too little, for too long.

For many people, the answer is simple: spend more money—an extra £10 billion here, an extra £10 billion there. However, after a decade of the Government hosing additional money at health and education, we know that more money alone does not always achieve the improvements expected; so it is, I fear, with defence. Any additional expenditure on defence needs to be accompanied by reform. Hosing more money at defence alone will not improve our armed forces. Before spending more money, we need to end the years of indecision and strategic drift. Above all, we need to end the racket that is contemporary defence procurement policy.

Our defence policy should be informed by an assessment of our foreign policy objectives, by careful, cool-headed, level-headed consideration of our national interest, and by an assessment of various strategic assumptions. That is what should determine how we prepare our armed forces. Foreign policy calculations should shape our defence strategic guidance, and our defence priorities should then be determined by what is in the defence strategic guidance. It is simply bogus to pretend that that is what happens today. Anyone who thinks that it is does not really know what is happening in the Ministry of Defence. For example, where in the current draft of the defence strategic guidance are there planning assumptions or scenarios that call for two new carriers?

Labour came to power promising to overhaul defence procurement, yet according to the best-selling author Lewis Page, its defence industrial strategy amounts to business as usual. The defence industrial strategy is more about industry than defence. It does more to safeguard the interests of selected contractors than the interests of the armed forces. The DIS is good at putting large amounts of public money on to the balance sheets of a few contractors, but that is about all it is good for. The DIS talks about best value for money, and improving delivery and costs, but all the evidence shows that the DIS promises things that are almost by definition mutually exclusive. We cannot both shore up our defence industrial base and provide our armed forces with the best value kit in the world; it is a logical impossibility.

The DIS is, in reality, a corporatist, protectionist racket. Lobbyists for the DIS on the political left justify it as a means of preserving jobs. The same arguments once trotted out to justify Government subsidy of British Leyland are used to legitimise squandering our defence budget. To those on the political right, the fig leaf justification is about something called sovereignty of supply. The same arguments were once trotted out to justify the corn laws.

Defence procurement is run in the interests of the big contractors, not our armed forces. Billions are spent on what it suits the likes of BAE Systems, VT and others to supply. The taxpayer pays a high price for protectionist procurement; the soldier pays a blood price. I shall give one example. In Afghanistan, helicopters allow our troops to cover distances quickly and give us tactical flexibility, yet there are not enough of them. Why? Protectionist procurement. In a letter to me, dated
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31 July last year, Lord Drayson admitted that the MOD had not run a competitive tender process to replace the Lynx. It was, he wrote

Thus the alternatives were never fully considered.

A £1 billion contract to build helicopters was awarded for a helicopter that cost almost 50 per cent. more than the alternatives, and which would not be ready until at least 2012. That is a long time to wait if one is in a minefield in southern Afghanistan. Sir Kevin Tebbit, who was the permanent under-secretary at the MOD when the decision to exclude rival bids was made, did not have to wait anything like that time before he joined the board of the company that got the contract. Our armed forces in Afghanistan pay a blood price for the shortage of helicopters. The price of protectionist procurement is paid in English blood in Helmand.

It is ironic that the helicopter that eventually lifted Corporal Mark Wright and his comrades off the minefield in Helmand was apparently an American Sikorsky—precisely the kind of alternative never considered by the MOD. Those who think that procurement policy should be about protecting jobs should perhaps remember that. Sikorsky tells me that it wrote to the MOD, offering to supply some 20-plus lift helicopters within months. It tells me that it took Sir Kevin’s former Department longer to respond to the offer than it would have taken the firm to fulfil it.

Protectionist procurement weakens us. The idea that it can somehow strengthen our standing in the world to purchase military equipment from only a handful of supposedly UK suppliers is nonsense. We need off-the-shelf defence procurement. In any market where there is a constraint on supply, the seller sets the terms of trade; so it is in defence. The DIS restricts supply to a few privileged contractors. No through-life approach can stop the taxpayer being ripped off, or the armed forces being denied the kit that they need to have on time, every time.

We need to consider making off-the-shelf procurement the default setting for our defence procurement policy. BAE Systems and VT might not like it, but it would ensure that our armed forces had the kit they need to do the tasks that we set them. It would help us to meet the challenges that Robert Kagan writes about in his book. We need off-the-shelf, multilateral procurement, working in collaboration with our democratic allies.

5.19 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to be the concluding Back-Bench speaker in what has been a very interesting debate on defence policy. There has been huge focus on Afghanistan and that is where I will focus my remarks as well. I have recently returned from yet another trip there and I am concerned that we might be heading towards a civil war there unless we see some huge changes in strategy.

It is seven years on and there are four clear areas of concern. First, there is a lack of international co-operation, with a mess of confusion of command and control between the UN, the EU and DFID. Every day, £700 million is spent on military matters in Afghanistan
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but only £7 million a day on humanitarian matters, and that ratio needs to change. Our soldiers are at the top of the hill, holding the ground, looking over their shoulders, expecting something to happen in the village below. It does not happen and that is why they stay longer and longer, wondering what they are doing there.

My next concern is the Afghan constitution, which we touched on in an interesting debate yesterday. I do not believe that the one-size-fits-all solution is suitable for Afghanistan, which is a wonderful mixture, with myriad ethnic groupings, alliances and allegiances. They do not all look to Kabul and President Karzai for leadership, but to their local jirga and the local head of the town or the village. That has been completely ignored in the constitution. We need to look at local autonomy, giving a little emphasis to the local leadership, but that has not happened. The only time that the 10 ethnic groups, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) touched earlier, ever came together in the past was when a foreign force came in and they joined together and rallied to try to destroy it. Then they returned to arguing with or fighting each other. We need to recognise and celebrate those differences, not think that there is one size that fits all.

There is also a lack of vision or strategy for the country. Access to the markets is limited. If any country has some product to sell to an international market, it needs to be able to reach that market. The three main arterial routes in Afghanistan are difficult to travel. There has been no decision to build any railway; only the Iranians are considering one in the east of the country. We need to ensure that there are better methods of reaching the Indian ocean and the trans-Siberian railway to export whatever produce can be grown. Before the Soviet invasion, Afghanistan was one of the greenest countries in the world. That has now been lost because of the lack of irrigation systems; 92 per cent. of the water runs out of the country and only 8 per cent. is harnessed. Those are the sort of issues that need to be tackled, but no one is doing so because each area is working on quick impact projects rather than following a bigger plan, linking together and providing a marketing strategy that can lift the country off its knees.

It has taken a long time to understand what is happening in Helmand and to achieve co-ordination between the MOD, the FCO and DFID. There is talk of handing over to the local military, but I am afraid that only 400 soldiers have been trained locally, and that is not enough. Despite a target of 135,000 soldiers, there are only 400 of combat capability.

After seven years in Afghanistan and five years in Iraq at a cost of £9 billion to the taxpayer, it is right to ask why it is taking us so long to make the transition to peacekeeping from war fighting and whether we could do better. Recent military engagements are increasingly characterised by the rapid defeat of the enemy by a relatively small deployment of forces, but an inability to respond to the ensuing lawlessness, which ratchets up. It starts with looting and eventually the enemy starts to regroup, and nothing happens during that small window of opportunity of limited security.

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