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We win the peace but we lose the war. There is an absence of a mature plan for post-conflict operations. That leads to delays in restoring essential services, establishing a basic rule of law and restarting the economy. Our troops remain rather than return home as expected,
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and the cost of the entire operation ratchets up ever higher. I propose that after consultation there should be a radical overhaul of defence policy and how the UK conducts reconstruction and stabilisation. I would like a new stabilisation and reconstruction force to be created. I stress that that is my personal view, but I hope that my party’s Front Benchers and the Government will consider it. Such a force would allow Britain to complete the overall mission in a more timely and humane manner. We cannot rely on the UN and the EU to do that; we have seen that they are not capable of it. Nor can we rely on the Department for International Development to do it, because it does not work effectively in insecure environments. States such as Afghanistan lack the initial capability because the facilities are simply not there.

I want the military to lead a large-scale, specialist reconstruction and stabilisation force with the objective of filling the gap between emergency humanitarian assistance and longer-term development assistance, trained and equipped to make a prompt, visible and effective impact on the way of life so that the future looks brighter. I would like the force to be able to provide continued security operations, local policing, humanitarian relief, emergency housing, emergency shelter, food, water and basic health facilities and enable the restoration of power and grass-roots local governance.

That would be to plant the seeds; they would not be expected to flourish immediately. However, we would be proving to the locals that we meant business and wanted to empower them rather than take over. I should also like education facilities to be reconstructed and agricultural programmes to be initiated. The brigade-sized reconstruction force would have to be familiar with post-conflict non-governmental organisations and work with the EU, the Department for International Development and the USA. Gaining experience before we go in—that is my vision. Believe it or not, all that is happening today in Afghanistan thanks to our military, not by design but by accident. No one else is doing it.

Mr. Kevan Jones indicated dissent.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister shakes his head, but the mosque in Musa Qala is being built not by the Department for International Development, the EU or the UN, but by Royal Engineers. Why? Because that is exactly what they want to build, because the locals want it. We lost the town once before because nothing was happening. The Royal Engineers got frustrated, so they did things themselves. Let us acknowledge that no one else is better positioned than our military to do such work in that small window of opportunity of about six months to a year. After that, we could hand over to the many organisations that do such a wonderful job in those areas.

As I suggested, I envisage the unit as a brigade-sized one. That is the minimum size required if it is to be able to dovetail into the operational environments in which we are involved. I would leave the Ministry of Defence to determine the detailed make-up, but I would see a massive contribution coming from the Territorial Army, who have myriad skills. I am thinking not only of bricklayers and so forth, but of civil servants from the local council who could be TA-trained so that they could look after themselves in a dangerous operation and go straight to the local jirga to explain how to set
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up a simple council, for example. That is the energy that I would like to be put in, but that does not happen at the moment.

I turn to the long-term objectives. So important is a stabilisation force that I envisage a two-tier echelon developing in the UK. The first would be the combat brigades and the second would be stabilisation forces. Brigades would rotate, playing a similar role, so that there was a firm understanding of the importance of their work.

The first thing that will be asked about my plan is where the money would come from. DFID has a massive budget of £5 billion; the cost of being in Iraq and Afghanistan is £9 billion already. The capitation costs of a brigade is about £100 million a year. I envisage a small proportion of DFID’s £5 billion budget being taken away; it would be for humanitarian aid, but it would be given to the MOD so that it could establish a brigade-level stabilisation force to do the work.

General Petraeus said that our objective should no longer be to defeat the enemy, but to enable the local. That is taking rather a long time. It did not happen in Iraq and it is taking far too long in Afghanistan. There has been a revolution in how we conduct war; we have moved from operating on a cold-war basis to doing so on a counter-insurgency basis, and we require the same revolution in our peacekeeping capabilities. The US is doing exactly that, but the UK Government Departments continue to pursue separate agendas and territorial battles over funding. The consequence has been inefficiencies and delays in following our armed forces in their efforts to provide a secure enough environment for stabilisation work to begin. If we as a country are willing to step forward when other countries hesitate in order to support democratic values, defend borders and challenge rogue states, then we must have the right tools not only to fight wars but to keep the peace.

5.29 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I first join other hon. Members in welcoming the new Secretary of State to his post. Like me, he not only has responsibility for defence matters in this place but has a large BAE Systems facility in his constituency. I, for one, make no apology for that, and I am sure that he will not either, but he will need to judge matters carefully when he comes to make his decisions.

I welcome back to the House my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison), who was unable to attend our previous debate because he was serving abroad with the Royal Navy in his capacity as a reserve officer. It is good that this House has hon. Members who are able to continue to serve their country in the way that he does.

We have had another well-informed debate—so much so that it will of course receive no attention from our friends in the media. Frankly, we might as well operate under Chatham House rules for all that it matters to them. I was most impressed by many of my hon. Friends’ contributions. It is a pity that at one point we were down to just one Labour Back Bencher. Many Labour Members participate in the armed forces parliamentary scheme, take an interest in defence and have defence interests in their constituencies, and I suggest to the Minister of State that he might try to encourage more of them to join in these debates.

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We heard excellent speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who have been in theatre recently. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State, has been delighted to receive so many plaudits for what was clearly an excellent speech. We were pleased to welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Goodman), who is a newcomer to our debates. We look forward to hearing from him again. He made some extremely important points, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East, about the importance of winning hearts and minds. All that I can do is to refer my hon. Friends to the excellent speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury made yesterday in Westminster Hall. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East referred to a reconstruction and stabilisation force, and rightly paid tribute to the role of the Royal Engineers as combat engineers. I have Gibraltar barracks in my constituency, and I am acutely aware of the important part that they are playing on the front line.

In the debate earlier this month, I pointed to the new geopolitical situation, particularly to the new assertiveness on the part of Russia following its spectacularly successful invasion of Georgia, its claim to large swathes of the Arctic, and the rebuilding of its military capability. Earlier this week, several of us met former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, whose assessment that Russia is returning to the more authoritarian style of the Government of the old Soviet Union confirmed my growing fears.

However, it is not just a resurgent and assertive Russia that we need to note. At the risk of being accused by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) of waxing lyrical on the plethora of alternative threats, I would like to refer to some of those already mentioned by other hon. Members. As Rear Admiral Chris Parry—who until recently was development, concepts and doctrine centre director at the Ministry of Defence—observed at the Jane’s-Cityforum conference this week, the projected population growth from 6.7 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050 will intensify competition for resources, climate change may intensify migration, and ideological pressures are increasing. Some of those aspects were acknowledged by the Secretary of State. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell)—I agreed with him on this point—rightly said that we are in a state of flux.

Many hon. Members have referred to the immediate imperative to secure the best possible outcome in Afghanistan in the shortest possible time and, as my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said, to establish clear benchmarks. However, there is a danger of becoming overly focused on that narrow objective. I well understand that today’s commanders feel the need to optimise for the most likely scenario, but to abandon the ability to engage in large-scale manoeuvre operations would render the security of the United Kingdom vulnerable. When General Dannatt said last year that our capacity to meet the unexpected was “almost non-existent”, that should have been a wake-up call. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I welcome the investment in the new range of armoured
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vehicles for Afghanistan for which I and others called three years ago, although we await the details of which major programmes will be slashed in order to pay for this £700 million commitment.

I fear that we are at risk of losing key military capabilities, either because there is no time to train or because we lack the necessary equipment. We should be under no illusions. The regeneration of a lost capability will not be remedied overnight, so we need to prepare, which is what defence of the realm is all about. I shall give one example: anti-submarine warfare. With the contracting fleet of Nimrod aircraft available and the heavy commitment to surveillance in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the Minister satisfied that we have the requisite capability to respond to a threat that could be posed by Iran, for example, or by Russia’s Akula II submarines, which I am told are extremely quiet and carry cruise missiles? As my constituent Richard Gardner, the editor of Aerospace International magazine, put it in this month’s edition:

Against the highly uncertain background to which many have referred in the two debates we have had this month, it is truly astonishing how this Government have slashed our military capabilities. I shall give some examples: infantry battalions have been cut by 50 per cent. from 107 in 1997 to 50 today; combat aircraft have been cut by 44 per cent. from 339 to 189; support helicopters have been cut by 33 per cent. from 77 to 52; and as we all know, destroyers and frigates have been cut by 30 per cent. from 35 to 25. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) intimated, rumours abound about the prospects for further reductions in the equipment programme. For the certainty of the House and British industry, it is time that the Government made clear where the equipment examination is going and when they are going to report to the House about it. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made the point that there is a lack of modern equipment to train on, and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) rightly provoked the Secretary of State into committing to provide full cover for the carriers, and we will hold him to that.

On the issue of equipment, I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that he will give maximum support to the export opportunities that arise from Britain’s defence industrial base. It is a pity he was not Secretary of State a year ago when the Defence Export Services Organisation was scrapped, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Benyon) rightly pointed out. That was an absolute disgrace. My hon. Friend pointed out that morale is low, and that some UK Trade & Investment staff have apparently refused to co-operate with the Defence and Security Organisation staff on moral grounds; we need to be told whether that is true or not. [I nterruption. ] The Minister says that that is rubbish, but the issue is very important.

As far as the defence industrial strategy is concerned, I am afraid to say that I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich. He is entitled to his view, but I have to put on the record that some of the things that he said about buying off the shelf are not
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the policy of the Conservative party. The policy of our party is to ensure that we have sovereign capability over key equipment, such as the joint strike fighter, and his suggestion that the whole procurement programme is a corporatist, protectionist racket is very wide of the mark.

Moreover, for the benefit of those in Yeovil, to whom I spoke when I visited Westland 10 days ago, we feel that the Future Lynx is the only game in town. I hope that the Secretary of State will make a decision on that quickly.

Dr. Fox: Where’s the Yeovil MP?

Mr. Howarth: My hon. Friend asks where the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) is. He waxes lyrical in his constituency about this matter, but he never turns up to take part in these debates, which is a great shame. I visited Yeovil; perhaps he would like to visit the House and participate in these debates.

Let me deal with personnel. We all rightly pay tribute to the calibre of our armed forces, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex said in a passionate speech, which I salute, a huge burden falls on members of the armed forces and their families. That is why national focus has shifted to the military covenant. It is important to remember that the covenant is not between the armed forces and the Government, but between the armed forces and the people. We are the representatives of the people, and it is our duty to ensure that the people fulfil their part of the covenant. We do it by pressing the Government to ensure that they deliver on behalf of us all, as the people, with whom the covenant is made.

The Defence Committee, so ably chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), drew attention to the relentless impact of operational tempo on the armed forces, especially the Army and Royal Air Force. Ten per cent. of Army personnel exceed the target of 415 days’ separated service in any 30-month period. To put that in context, it means pretty much being away from the family for half the time in a year and a half—nine months. It is a huge commitment, which we need to appreciate. At the same time, 10 per cent. of RAF personnel exceed the 140 days in any 12-month period on detached duty. That is four times the target rate.

As at 1 September, the Army was 3,300 below strength—nearly 4,000 if account is taken of Gurkhas over the trained requirement of 3,000. The RAF is 1,260 short and the Royal Navy 1,360 short. The hon. Member for Thurrock and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who is proudly wearing his 16 Air Assault tie—as Aldershot was formerly the home of the Parachute Regiment, he and I share an affection for it—pointed out that an over-reliance on Commonwealth recruits has developed. In 1998, there were only 360—210 of whom came from Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. However, last year, there were no fewer than 7,240—more than 2,000 Fijians and another 1,850 from the Caribbean. The Minister should listen carefully to the points that Members of different parties have made about the extent of the over-reliance.

My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) pointed to the wave of liabilities that arises from the
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extensive injuries that our armed forces have sustained on operations. We are not only considering physical injuries—my hon. Friend referred to the work of Combat Stress. I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury for Help for Heroes—I am proudly wearing its bangle, as does almost every Army officer I meet. Those charities do a fantastic job, as do the Army Benevolent Fund, the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund and others. It is not all Help for Heroes, great though that charity is. They all do fantastic work.

Combat Stress has 8,000 people on its books, with 1,160 new referrals so far this year—a 16 per cent. increase on last year. That is a serious matter, and the nation must step up to the plate to meet those people’s requirements in future. We, as parliamentarians, cannot allow the issue to be ducked. I hope that the Minister has heard the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury. Corporal Burbidge and his friends should be found a role in the military. I am sure that it is possible to do that.

I conclude by referring to the Ministry of Defence’s annual report and accounts for 2007-08. They reveal:

The Secretary of State says that his military advisers assure him that that can be managed. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex said, the indictment by the Ministry of Defence of its own conduct seriously undermines its claim to have a coherent policy. If we add into the equation all the potential threats that could be out there, which I enumerated earlier, we can see that our capacity to meet the unexpected is almost non-existent. Our capacity to meet a major threat is non-existent, because we do not have the force structures to deal with one; we have been limited to the force structure that we now have for expeditionary operations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, our duty to the nation is to point out the potential risks to our freedom and security. The people must then decide what role they want the UK to play in the world. We cannot continue to say, “This is what needs to be done, but here is a budget that we know is inadequate for the job.” That is why we shall have a defence review immediately after the next general election. I make no secret of the fact that I would relish the challenge posed to the current ministerial team by my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for North-East Hampshire to inspire the nation to understand the importance of defence in the maintenance of the freedom and prosperity of these islands.

5.45 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Once again we have had an excellent debate. However, I do not have time to respond to all of the many valid points that have been raised in every corner of the House—a very knowledgeable House—about defence policy.

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