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In thinking about how to respond to the debate, I decided that I ought to start by at least trying to reply to the point made by the Chairman of the Select Committee,
the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). He raised the point, which is raised with us repeatedly, about the level of understanding of defence issues, of our armed forces and of the operations in which they are engaged not being as high as it should be. We all bear a responsibility to address that. It is not only the ministerial team who need to try to explain and inspire, but every one of us. When we consider the efforts being made, it is the responsibility of all of us in the House to explain the dangers, the sheer hard work undertaken on our behalf by our armed forces and all the associated defence issues.
Having quoted Pericles, the right hon. Gentleman descended into some despair, but I do not accept that the people are foolish. We have come a long way, even in the past year, in terms of peoples level of recognition and understanding of armed forces issues. I have noticed that, and I do not think that it is just because of where I stand. The people have moved and developed a greater understanding of defence issues and our armed forces. The work done by the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) helped in some small measure to focus that increased recognition. [ Interruption. ] I know how he is loved by those on the Opposition Benches, so I thought that I would throw his name in.
We have made progress on such issues, but we need to do more. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) talked about the need to commemorate past sacrifice and past wars and operations. I do not think that we do nearly enough to educate our people about our military history and try to ensure that they understand and can ground where we are now from our history. We ought to make more effort in that regard.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire related that lack of understanding to our current operations in Afghanistan. Again, I agree that a lot needs to be done to make people understand not only why we are there and what we are doing, but the massive military complexities of the theatre of operations and the huge political complexities, which in many ways are even more difficult than the military ones.
I do not think that anyone expects the task in Afghanistan to be easy. All the parties represented in the House recognise and accept that we need to do it. Although it is very niceand something that we ought to doto try to build the Afghan nation, to try to give the Afghan people basic rights, to try to enable Afghan women to go to school and to try to stop the mediaeval nonsense that comes from the Taliban being imposed on the Afghan people, the real reason that we allow our young people to go there, and sometimes to die there, is that it is in our vital national interest to pursue this issue. We therefore have to try to increase peoples levels of understanding.
I wish that, when one or two Members of the House visit the Afghan theatreor any other theatre, for that matterthey would go there with at least a half-open mind. Some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) appeared to display a prejudice, rather than a half-open mind. I would have hoped that he would have least looked at some of the
achievements. Of course, a lot of those achievements have been delivered by our troops in highly dangerous environments
A lot of those achievements have been delivered by our troops in highly dangerous environments, where only they can do the reconstruction. They know that, and they know that it is about inspiring people, about winning hearts and minds, and about winning people over.
The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire needs to do a bit of a job himself, in inspiring his own party. If we are genuinely going to explain defence issues to the nation, we need to start by not deceiving the nation over defence spending. Some Conservative Members on the Front and Back Benches, genuinely want a big increase in defence spending; I understand that. Some, however, repeatedly seek to give the impression that they are committed to that, but they are not. Their own party is not committed to any increase in defence spending. If we are going to try to explain, to develop a level of understanding and to inspire, we need to start with a little bit of honesty, do we not? When the leader of the Conservative party said that he did not back any of the Governments current spending levels other than the health spending level, I know that it upset a lot of people on his Front Bench. Let us acknowledge that. Neither the Conservative party nor the Labour party is committed to any increase in defence spending whatever. If we are going to inspire and explain, we ought at least to be honest.
Mr. Jenkin: I have the highest respect for the Minister, but will he be honest and tell the House exactly what the financial situation is in the Ministry of Defence? It is an open secret that he has not got the money to fulfil the equipment programme that he says he is committed to, and we are now reading in the papers that a big programme is going to be cut. The Secretary of State might not have used those actual words, but that is clearly the impression that he left with The Sunday Times. When are the Government going to be honest about the real situation?
There are many challenges in the defence budget, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Our people are stretched, and they have been working at above capacity in recent years. We do not deny that. I know that he honestly believes that we ought to commit
to a huge increase in defence spending. Equally, however, he knows that his own party is not committed to such an increase.
Linda Gilroy: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we all bear a responsibility to exercise self-discipline when we talk about these things, and that it is particularly important that the Opposition should not play into the propaganda war that is going on in Afghanistan?
Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is right. There is misinformation and, on the odd occasion, mischief. It does not help us to develop an understanding and to convince people that our operations in Afghanistan are in our vital national interests and that we need to proceed with them.
A number of hon. Members mentioned helicopters. The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) accused us of having a chronic under-availability in air capacity. I hope he recognises that there has been a 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in the Afghan theatre. The main increase has been in the number of Sea Kings, which are now fitted with the new rotor blades that enable them to operate. Eight additional Chinooks are being modified, and we have bought an additional six Merlins. If we get the transition in Iraq that we are all hoping to see in the near future, it will potentially make the Merlin fleet available for use in the Afghan theatre.
The hon. Gentleman asked what we are trying to achieve on piracy and about additional capacity. Our motives for getting involved in the European operation are to increase the capacity that is available to deal with the pirate problem off the east coast of Africa and to capture the political will of our allies. We are going to be able to ensure that there is no conflict with the operations of Combined Task Force 150. By providing the command structure ourselves from Northwood, which we have offered to do, and having provided a contribution towards the European security and defence policy operation on piracy, we should be able to ensure that the operations are complementary. It gives us a lot more capacity for dealing with piracy than we would otherwise have. HMS Northumberland is on station, armed with beefed-up rules of engagement and able to take on the pirates, and to confiscate and destroy their equipment.
Issues to do with decompression were raised. The hon. Gentleman made us aware of some grades in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who have decompression capabilities available to them. I do not know what decompression is available to Members of Parliament when they leave theatre, either. Our people have a six-month tour of operation. They get rest and recuperation. We have introduced decompression for very good reasons. I hope that we can keep that up, develop the thinking behind it and ensure that we use that decompression methodology to minimise the stress on our personnel coming back from theatre.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock raised an important issue at this time of year: parcels and post for theatre. We have tried to discourage people from getting involved in the generous acts that they want to participate in because of the consequences that inevitably flow from them. Our people in theatre want to receive parcels and messages from their loved ones at Christmas. We have got the free post facility for them. If the system is swamped by unnamed packages, it inevitably delays what is most precious to the people who are spending Christmas in theatre.
We are trying to develop other schemes and methods whereby people can show their appreciation. There are voucher schemes and the uk4u charity. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), is looking at how else we can enable people to show their appreciation to the troops at Christmas time without creating the unforeseen circumstance that unsolicited mail creates of blocking that which is most precious to our peoplemessages and parcels from their loved ones.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) raised the issue of Devonport, inevitably and yet again. We are committed to the sustainability of the royal naval base at Devonport. We know that submarine work alone will not provide that. We need other depth work to smooth the workload there. We are committed to delivering that. On top of that, flag officer sea training and the amphibious expertise will be based, kept and maintained at Devonport.
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this issue again. I am also delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan), hereprobably more delighted than he is to be here, or indeed to see me here. This is a continuation of a very broad debate that began in Westminster Hall about a week ago, which raised many concerns and questions. Because we were desperately short of answers to those questions then, I shall leave the Minister plenty of time to answer them now. He nods; I am sure that he will fulfil my every wish.
The Mole Valley constituency borders London. It contains large areas of green belt, which are Londons lungs. It consists of almost all the Mole Valley district council area, and five eastern wards of Guildford council. It also contains very large areas of outstanding natural beauty, special protection areas, special areas of conservation, commons and farmland. It contains two small towns and perhaps 32 separate villagesat least, they are separate at the momentand there is a deep desire in the area to retain them as separate communities. That is recognised in the draft plan, even if it is contradicted by other parts of it. If we ignore genuine gardens, including back gardens, there are very few genuine brownfield sites to be included in the plan for growth.
I accept that more homes are needed. I became very aware of that when as a Minister, back in 1997, I saw and understood the house projection figures. Mole Valley and, indeed, Surrey as a whole generate their own increases: children leave home and look for somewhere to live, grandparents are much more independent than they used to be, and the divorce rate is fairly high, which means two homes rather than one. There has been immigration into the area from elsewhere in the United Kingdom and from abroad, as people have come to the area looking for work.
Over the years, both Mole Valley district council and Guildford borough council have enabled considerable growth to take place. In fact, I believe that both councils are more than meeting their current housing requirements. Almost all those gains have been what we call windfalls: building in back gardens, the demolition of a single house and the building of two or three houses in its place, or the demolition of several neighbouring houses and the building of a small group of new housesor, in some cases, relatively low-rise blocks of flats.
In our part of Surrey, green-belt areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, commons and the like are considered sacrosanct, and any suggestion of encroachment prompts an almighty and united protestthe sort of outcry, as I told the Minister in the Westminster Hall debate, that there would be in his constituency in the event of proposals to build on Tooting Bec or Tooting Graveney common, Garrett Green or Tooting Gardens. I probably know those sites as well as the Minister does, and I am sure that he would be manning the barricades hand in hand with his very popular local authority to defend them if there were any proposals to build anything at all on them. We will see the same effect in Mole
Valley if a threat is posed to any of those green-belt and other special pieces of land, but it is there in the plan.
There was deep concern about the initial figures in the South East England Regional Assemblys draft plan, but there is now absolute horror at the increase proposed by the Government inspector, and at a number of other changes apart from those straight numbers. For example, the figures are now not a target but a floor. There is an implied acceptance that some of the green belt must go, along with a refusal to accept the windfall growth that I mentioned earlier.
As I have said, the growth of recent years has resulted from developers purchasing large single properties, or making an amalgam of small purchases, in order to demolish them and build additional properties. A sensible prediction of windfall growth can be made, and should be allowed to be built into the response from local authorities. No large disused industrial sites, or even moderately sized brownfield sites, are easily available. If windfalls cannot be included, and if the targetsor floorsremain, precious green-belt land will have to be lost and settlements or villages will have to be amalgamated, although that is contrary to the plan.
The Minister for Housing, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), on Monday accepted in the Select Committee that the windfall houses should be taken into account. She said that they are
housing additions from whatever source they come.
On a more basic point, many feel that the population growth prediction is highly questionable. For example, there seems to be no account taken of outward migration. Further, there is a respectable theory that constantly to supply in an attempt to meet demand simply encourages increased demand.
I am deeply concerned that there appears to be little or no effort to use the planning system and other systems within the Department to encourage job growth in slow employment areas. The provision of jobs in northern deprived areas would help to reduce immigration and housing demands in the south-east. Recently, huge funds for RDAs, which could have been used in that area, have been moved forward to this financial year for housing budgets: £25 million from next year and £275 million from 2011-12. These funds could have been used to ease the pain in the south-east and the north. It is obvious that more houses mean more people, and more people mean more demands on the roads, greater demands on the health services and huge and increasing demands on education and police.
Some years ago, when the former Deputy Prime Minister made one of his rare visits to his own Departments Select Committee, the infrastructure issue in the south-east was raised, specifically in relation to the anticipated south-east housing numbers. The right hon. Gentleman agreed that housing development and improved infrastructure should move hand in hand.
Secondary schools in Mole Valley are overflowing and children are being bussed miles to get an education. The county has no school capital funds and road improvement plans have been shelved because there is no money. Hospitals, rather than being improved and enlarged, have been threatened. There are three serving my constituency and we have had to fight to save them. Two have been saved, but there is still a big question mark over one.
My requests to the Minister tonighthe can take these away to the Minister for Housingare as follows: first, to rethink and reduce the figures to below those of the original SEERA draft, at the very least; secondly, to allow windfalls to be taken into consideration; thirdly, to ensure that the green belt, areas of outstanding national beauty, special protection areas and special areas of conservation and commons in the south-east remain sacrosanct; and fourthly; that finance for Surreys education, transport and hospitals be allowed to grow to meet even those new reduced housing targets.
The Minister for Housing appeared to show some understanding of the issue at the Select Committee, and I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary took this message to her. I left an area of New Zealand that was spectacularthe Lord of the Rings area. The Minister may have seen the films. It gives me enormous pleasure to take New Zealanders from that area, who are so proud of their scenery, to the Surrey hills. They, equally, are stunned by what they see. Those hills must not be concreted over.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): It is a pleasure to be able to respond to the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I had the pleasure of taking my wife and two daughters to New Zealand so I have seen for myself what a wonderful country it is. I also spent some time in his patch when I was a student, so I also realise what a wonderful constituency he represents. He knows that we have something else in common; he was the leader of Wandsworth council, on which I was a ward councillor for 12 years. He will recall the banter we exchanged in a Westminster hall debate last week about some of his legacy, as seen in my surgery each week arising from the crisis faced by those on the housing waiting list.
I have listened to the hon. Gentlemans speech today, and to the contributions he and other Members made to last weeks Adjournment debate on the south east plan to which he referred, and I am aware of the concerns he has raised and the reasons for the passion exhibited by him both today and during last weeks debate. We recognise the sensitivities and genuine concerns he has raised, and I for one would not accuse him of nimbyism at all.
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