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I feel that I have neglected all the people who have contributed to the debate, so I shall try to make amends very briefly. I enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), and I am only sorry that no other Liberal Democrat MP was present to hear her make it. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) has made a consistent case about the follies of getting involved in Afghanistan, but his point was anticipated neatly by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary when he pointed out that unlike the Russians—and for that matter, unlike the British in the past—we are not out to conquer Afghanistan. We are out to work with people
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and groups in Afghanistan to enable them to deal with terrorist elements there. The reason why our casualties, grievous as they are, have come nowhere near the sort of levels incurred by the Russians, is precisely that difference. They were out to conquer and we are not.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea made a masterly speech, and I would sum it up as follows, “We don’t mind who runs Afghanistan, as long as they do not give a base to al-Qaeda.” There is a certain amount of credibility on the line here, both for NATO generally and for its individual component nations. For NATO generally, that is because it responded when one of its countries came under attack, and because it has invested a lot in the campaign. However, not all NATO countries have invested anything like the same amount, and that needs to be considered. I welcome moves in NATO to start examining how interventions are funded, and I believe it is moving in the right direction with the suggestion that if some countries are not so willing to undertake the fighting, they should be more willing to put money into a central pot to help finance those of us that are.

We have heard a number of dissenting voices, but at the end of it all there are only two ways of leaving Afghanistan. One is to capitulate, and basically to say, “It’s okay. You can house international terrorist organisations. They can launch attacks on our major cities and we will not respond.” The other is to identify the main elements in the country—not just the ones that we regard as the most democratic but the real power brokers—and say, “Look here, we don’t want to run your country, but we cannot tolerate a situation in which you allow splinter groups of foreigners to attack us, so we want to negotiate a deal.”

As most insurgencies do end in a negotiated deal, I close by reminding the House of one fact: when one negotiates a deal, one must negotiate from a position of at least equal strength to that of one’s opponent. We might not be able to win militarily—we never thought we would—but we are certainly capable of ensuring that our opponents cannot defeat us. When they realise that, the basis for a deal will be available and the outcome will be the isolation and removal for good of the cancer of al-Qaeda.

5.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I think that everybody would agree that this has been an extremely lively debate, in which people have spoken straight from the heart and from many different perspectives. That is just what such debates should be about. The Government will take on board and reflect on all the points that have been made from all those perspectives.

I shall briefly address the various contributions. I start with the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), whose attitude was generally supportive of what the Government have been trying to do in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We are grateful for that and appreciate it. Whichever Government happen to be in power, our foreign policy will always be more effective around the world if there is an element of bipartisanship. We recognise that and are grateful for it when it occurs.

The right hon. Gentleman complained that the Government had not kept Parliament well enough informed
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about Afghanistan or reported to Parliament at regular intervals. Frankly, I was a bit surprised to hear that complaint. The Government gave an extraordinarily full response to the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, whose Chairman is no longer in his place, on 23 January, which is not very long ago. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had a chance to read it yet, but I am very happy to pass it across to him if he has not had the opportunity to get his own copy. When he reads it, I hope that he will find that his complaint is not quite as well founded as he first thought.

Mr. Jenkin: I cannot believe that the Minister really thinks that a sanitised response to a Select Committee report—we all know what responses to Select Committee reports are like—is a substitute for regular parliamentary statements, which mean that Ministers can be cross-examined by the House. That is the least that we ask for. It is unprecedented that a military campaign should be in progress and statements given so rarely.

Mr. Davies: I cannot accept that remark, because Select Committees are not marginal; they are a central part of the institution of this place. The Government’s responses to their reports should be in the mainstream of the whole mechanism of accountability on which a successful legislature depends. The response to the Foreign Affairs Committee report is full and detailed, and I believe that if the hon. Gentleman reads it, he will see that his criticisms are not well founded.

Mr. Holloway: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Davies: I will, but I want to answer some of the questions that have been put to me, and I will not be able to do so if I take too many interventions.

Mr. Holloway: I said in my speech that I thought that some members of the Government had finally got the message. The conversation that the Foreign Secretary is having now with General Petraeus is probably much more panicked than what comes through in a Select Committee report.

Mr. Davies: Perhaps I will be briefed in due time about what is happening at the moment. However, I do not have extra-sensory perception, so I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the details of a conversation that is currently taking place elsewhere.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked me several questions, including how many US troops would be deployed in Afghanistan, in Regional Command South and in Helmand, and what the command structure would be if there were an increase in the American commitment. All those questions are relevant and important, but of course we do not know the answers yet. We have not received any concrete propositions from the new American Administration.

It would be invidious and—I know the right hon. Gentleman agrees—contrary to the basic principles of diplomacy to give contingent answers to questions that have not yet been asked by an ally. He will simply have to be patient, and we will see whether any requests are made to us and, if so, how we respond. If there are major, significant changes in our policy or stance on any matter, we will make a statement before the House, first off, as a priority.

Mr. Holloway rose—

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Mr. Davies: I will give way again to the hon. Gentleman, but it may be for the last time.

Mr. Holloway: Forgive me, but the Under-Secretary’s comments do not square with the fact that groups of our officers at Permanent Joint Headquarters are holding meetings with the Americans to discuss force numbers in Helmand.

Mr. Davies: They square entirely. Conversations are going on about all sorts of things at all times with our allies—and so they should. I repeat that we have had no formal, concrete or specific requests or recommendations, and I speak advisedly because I know that I am speaking on the record.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks asked about helicopters in Afghanistan. Strangely, he said that was not so interested in helicopter hours or availability, he simply wanted more machines. Helicopter hours and helicopters with the right sort of capability, whether lift or ground support, at the right time—available as rapidly as possible to commanders on the spot—are important. We have made a considerable increase—60 per cent.—from the beginning of 2007 to the end of last year in the availability of helicopter time to our forces in Afghanistan. This year, there will also be a substantial increase—25 or 30 per cent.—including some Merlins, which he mentioned. We are also re-engining several Lynxes to enable them to operate on a 24-hour-day, seven-day-week, 365-day-year basis. I may have contributed modestly to that, and I set much store by it. That would constitute a considerable increase in our capacity. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that we have addressed the issue.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) spoke a little about Afghanistan and rather more about Pakistan. He acknowledged that the emancipation of women in all areas that ISAF controls or that are under our influence has been one of the great, positive changes in Afghanistan since ISAF intervention. The main thrust of his speech was about Pakistan, a country with which he is obviously familiar. He made the point that many other hon. Members made: that Afghanistan cannot easily be disentangled from Pakistan, which cannot easily be disentangled from relations with India, which cannot easily be disentangled from the problem of Kashmir. We all accept that.

We feel some sympathy for the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been abandoned, not only by the defence and foreign affairs spokesmen of her party, but by all her colleagues in her parliamentary party. None the less, she delivered a well-informed and lucid speech to which we enjoyed listening. She made some significant points on behalf of her party, including saying that more troops may be necessary in Afghanistan. She put it in the subjunctive, but it was an important point. She also said that United Kingdom should be prepared to make an additional small contribution. I note the word “small”. In that respect, the Liberal Democrats seem rather more decisive than Conservative Members, who do not express themselves so clearly on the matter. One sometimes suspects that—to use the term that was used yesterday rather memorably—there is a little bit of opportunism in the air. [ Laughter. ] That will probably be my last party political swipe of the evening.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Sarwar) spoke with great knowledge about the history of United States-Pakistan relations. Obviously he knows a lot about the background and a lot about Pakistan’s history. I was glad to hear that he had led a delegation of colleagues to Pakistan, because it is extremely important that we maintain such contacts. As he said, we do not have just a long-standing historical relationship with Pakistan, which goes back to what the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) calls the Raj, or a large number of citizens here whose family origins are in that country. We do not want our links to be just historical; we want them to continue—to be burnished and kept alive. Such initiatives are extremely welcome and valuable.

Now I come to the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle. The House always enjoys his contributions. I do not think that I have ever heard one without learning some new historical fact, and today’s was about Lord Salisbury telling the viceroy of India that he needed to use a larger-scale map, which is certainly a memorable phrase. The hon. Gentleman always enlightens the House, but he is always a pessimist about any British involvement anywhere. He said—I hope that I noted down his words correctly—that we want to “get out of Afghanistan altogether”. I do not agree with that, for reasons that I will come to in my concluding remarks. However, the House will have greatly appreciated his excellent speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) was also a pessimist. In fact, his analysis and predictions were extremely close to those of the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle, although I do not imagine that they agree on many things in the House. My hon. Friend said one thing that I have to dispute, which is that Kandahar is almost entirely in the hands of the Taliban. I was in Kandahar last month and I can testify that that is not correct.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made an extremely well-informed speech, as one would expect. He started by saying that our involvement in Afghanistan is very different from the Soviet occupation and cannot be compared to it, and that we went in basically to defend our essential interests. I totally agree and shall say a few words about that. Indeed, there was much in his speech with which I quite agreed.

The right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane)—

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): He is a Friend of yours.

Mr. Davies: I beg your pardon, Mr. Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham—I can fairly say that he is a friend of mine in every sense of the term—accused the Government of having no sense of a strategy. I think that we do have one, and I hope that I can persuade the House of that.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) spoke interestingly about the need for wealth creation. We quite agree that ultimately the solution must lie in wealth creation. I agree with her that stability is an essential prerequisite for wealth creation and that security is an essential prerequisite for stability.

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The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) again asked for more time for such debates. The House will have listened to that request and no doubt the party managers and business managers will have noted his point. He said that we must persuade our European allies to make more of a contribution to Afghanistan. We have had a number of discussions of that sort. However, I fundamentally disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point. It is certainly much better to have allies there with caveats than it is to have no allies there at all. It would indeed be very nice if our allies were prepared to reconsider some of the caveats from time to time, but we greatly welcome the valuable contribution that they are making.

Finally, the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) put forward what I might call the Holloway plan. I do not agree with it, but we will take it on board as one of the various suggestions that have been made about how we ought to proceed.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) spoke a lot of sense, as he normally does, but I take his point about inadequate funding of our defence budget with a pinch of salt. Until recently, the Conservative party was not prepared to say that it went along with our defence budget. The Conservatives have made additional commitments, such as on the three battalions, which is quite absurd, but they have not said what they will cut back if they go ahead with that commitment. I can give him an assurance that we always finance our military commitments overseas out of the reserve. We have always done so, and I cannot imagine that we would ever change that policy. I can give him an assurance that we will fund—

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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Traffic Management (County Durham)

6 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I wish to present a petition on behalf of the residents of Brancepeth village in County Durham, and others.

The petition states:

And the Petitioners remain, etc.


5 Feb 2009 : Column 1085

Prejudice and Mental Health

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Mr. Frank Roy.)

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