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Royal Assent

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act:

Corporation Tax Act 2009

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Defence in the UK

Debate resumed.

1.47 pm

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I add my condolences and those of my colleagues to those expressed by the Minister? Our thoughts and prayers are with the families, not only of those killed in action but of those who have been injured, in their ongoing suffering. The House should remember the sacrifices that they, too, have made.

It has been a privilege for me, like the Minister, to visit our armed forces in different parts of the UK, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and to share the pride in and enthusiasm for what they do in our name. It is because of the esteem in which we hold our armed forces that so many of us were outraged by the events mentioned by the Minister involving those who chose to protest against the bravery and professionalism of our troops returning home from operations. I am sure that the whole House agrees that those returning from overseas deserve the full support of the British public, and nothing less. I think that decent-minded people were appalled and disgusted by the actions of unrepresentative extremists at the welcome home parade in Luton. It is, after all, thanks to the bravery and commitment of the men and women in our armed forces over many years that we have the freedom of speech that those nasty individuals were abusing, and they should be reminded of that fact.

The best way for us, as a society, to show our contempt for those people and our support for our troops is not to ban protests, as some have suggested, but to outnumber the protesters and drown them out. What could be a better response to what we saw in Luton than to see huge supportive crowds cheering home our returning forces? Our deeds, not our words, will show what we really stand for. That fact was demonstrated a few days after the Luton parade, in Watford, where a parade by the Royal Anglian Regiment drew out thousands of people cheering as the troops marched through the town centre. The crowed was supportive, appreciative and, in some ways, defiant—a complete contrast to those ungrateful, unrepresentative extremists in Luton. Too often we allow minority voices to hijack the debate. The British public, the Government and Parliament must do all we can to encourage public support for the armed forces.

As we debate the subject of defence in the United Kingdom, we would be negligent if we overlooked two major elements underpinning our nation’s defence and, indeed, our role in the world: our nuclear deterrent and our ability to project power with aircraft carriers. I shall discuss the carriers first.

An argument is made in some quarters that the carriers are useless because they will be of no help in the sort of conflict we face in Afghanistan. As things stand in the deserts of Helmand province, that is true, but it is beside the point. Nobody has ever tried to make an argument for the carriers on the basis that we needed them for current operations in Afghanistan, but I remind sceptics that there was a time, in the early days of the conflict in Afghanistan, when aircraft carriers were vital. For example, HMS Illustrious, with its 16 Harriers,
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which took part in the initial attack in October 2001, when there was no regional airbase that could quickly and easily be used.

The argument against the carriers is also based on the false assumption that state-on-state conflict is a thing of the past. Unfortunately, history shows differently. Possessing the aircraft carriers in the 21st century will allow us to project power, influence and force in a way that would not otherwise be possible. In an era of globalisation, Britain’s economic, trade and security interests are not only to be found here at home, in Gibraltar or in the Falklands, but around the globe, from the strait of Hormuz to the Malacca strait and most everywhere in between. In this complex world, British interests and the defence of the UK have no geographical boundaries, in the way that perhaps they did in the past. Because of that, we must have the ability to project power, influence and, if necessary, military force around the world.

It is unfortunate that the Government have presided over delay after delay in the two carriers. They have now been in planning and design for twice the duration of the second world war. In December, right before the Christmas recess, we learned from a written statement that we can expect a further delay of up to two years. That was initially blamed on the joint strike fighter’s entry into service, but we have since learned that that was not the main reason at all. I welcome the carriers as an important addition to the fleet and call on the Government to do everything they can to ensure their timely entry into service. However, we might ask why, when the Government are talking about bringing forward spending projects as part of the fiscal stimulus, major defence projects are being put back. But the current delay is only the tip of the iceberg in this Government’s treatment of the Royal Navy. The journey that has led us to where our Navy is today has been one of serial betrayal by the Government.

Time and again since the 1998 strategic defence review, our Navy has been blackmailed into accepting cuts to its fleet to ensure the eventual addition of the two new carriers that are so desperately needed. Back then, our Navy agreed to cut its fleet of 12 attack submarines to 10 and its fleet of 35 destroyers and frigates to 32, in return for the promise of the two carriers. A decade later, we find our Navy with only eight attack submarines, with a probable future reduction to six or seven, and an astonishingly low number—22—of destroyers and frigates. Maritime commitments have not decreased since 1998—in fact, they have risen at a time when our Navy has been slashed, mothballed or, in some cases, sold off. Having an aircraft carrier capability allows us better to protect our global interests, but it cannot be used as an excuse for any further cuts to the capabilities of our Navy.

Mr. Bob Ainsworth: Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that the biggest recent peacetime naval building programme is going on in the country.

Dr. Fox: Yes, and as I will say later, that programme is over schedule and over budget, and it comes in a period when the Navy has suffered unprecedented cuts but is still being asked to carry out a wide range of functions. The Navy was told that it needed a certain number of frigates and destroyers to carry out the tasks set out in the strategic defence review, but year on year, the Government cut back on those. It is only the astonishing
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professionalism of the Royal Navy that has enabled us to carry out so many of the tasks so well during that difficult period.

Many of the same arguments for supporting the carrier programme are applicable to the nuclear deterrent. The Minister began by asking about the commitment of my party to a nuclear deterrent. If hon. Members think back, they will remember that my party has always been committed to such a deterrent. It was those on the left who tried throughout the 1980s to go for unilateral nuclear disarmament and who did not support the nuclear deterrent. There are three reasons why we must have a nuclear deterrent. The first is the unpredictable nature of the post-cold war era. The harsh reality is that in many ways we had it easy with the bipolarity and general predictability of the cold war. As opposed to the concept of east versus west, or democracy versus communism, the global security environment in which we are now forced to operate more closely resembles the multipolarity of the 19th century—not the 20th century, for which our instruments of national defence are structured. No one can accurately predict the threats that the UK will face between 2025 and 2055, when the next generation of the deterrent will be in service, just as no one 20 years ago could have predicted the speed of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the nature of the conflicts in which we are involved in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Secondly, nuclear weapons simply cannot be uninvented; they will remain part of the international security picture in the future. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea and their attempted acquisition by Iran are real threats to our security. We do not have the right to gamble with the security of future generations. Thirdly, the United Kingdom has traditionally played a bigger role in acting on a number of global security-related issues than many of our medium-sized allies, especially in Europe. Consequently, we are more susceptible to future nuclear blackmail by rogue states in possession of nuclear arms.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I am listening closely to the hon. Gentleman. Do I understand the logic of his argument to be that there are no circumstances in which it would ever be possible for the UK to renounce its nuclear weapons?

Dr. Fox: If, in the improbable event that we were able to technically uninvent nuclear weapons, they did not exist in any other part of the globe and there was no chance of them coming into existence in any other part of the globe, that might be a realistic suggestion, but while they do exist and while this country may be threatened with or subjected to nuclear blackmail, we must maintain a minimum nuclear deterrent. There are strong arguments for big reductions in the number of warheads held globally. There is a strong economic, moral, political and military argument for big reductions in the stockpiles of Russia and America, and I can see no strong argument against such reductions, but we in the United Kingdom have to be the arbiters of our own destiny. We have to be able to determine our own security, and while nuclear weapons exist, we in the UK are prudent and wise to retain and maintain a minimum effective nuclear deterrent.

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Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): In the light of what the hon. Gentleman said, what does he make of the letter of 16 January in The Times in the names of Field Marshal Lord Bramall, General Lord Ramsbottom and General Sir Hugh Beach—people who would not normally be partial on these things—which was headlined, “The UK does not need a nuclear deterrent”? Would he say that they are old soldiers who are out of touch?

Dr. Fox: They are perfectly entitled to their opinion. I happen to think that it is wrong. The nature of the threats that we face has changed quickly from the relative symmetry of the cold war to a range of other asymmetric and complex threats, and it could very well change again. Ultimately, the onus of explanation is not on those of us who wish to retain a deterrent, but on those who want to scrap it. They must tell us why they believe that they can predict the risks that we will face in half a century’s time. The Government’s White Paper, published in 2006, described the independent British nuclear deterrent as

I fully endorse that sentiment.

It is an interesting element of the political debate that many of the opponents of the carrier programme and our nuclear deterrent are the same individuals who at other times claim that Britain is already too dependent on, and too close to, American foreign and defence policy. In fact, not having the aircraft carriers or a nuclear deterrent would make us even more dependent on the United States for our security. While British and American interests are likely to coincide in the future, and the Anglo-American relationship remains our most important strategic alliance, the UK must ultimately be able to guarantee its own security.

It has been widely reported in the media and written answers that Russia has once again taken up its cold war habit of probing UK airspace. I understand, as we all do, that for operational security reasons the Government are unable to comment in detail on the Floor of the House on what actions have been taken to deal with Russia’s actions, but I hope that in his winding-up speech this evening, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will be able to give us an idea of the number and frequency of incursions and offer the House assurances that procedures are fully in place to deal with them.

In addition, will the Minister say whether his Department has seen an increase in Russian submarine incursions into British territorial waters? We hear often about Russian planes challenging the integrity of our airspace, but seldom, if ever, about what is going on below the surface. There is good reason to believe that such incursions are occurring, and as we are an island nation with only three naval bases, it is an important matter. I hope that he will address it.

Those who think that state-on-state warfare is a thing of the past need only look at the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia and the build-up of Russian armed forces to have a sense of foreboding. One thing is certain: the global economic downturn has not deterred Russia from driving ahead with vast military reforms, requiring huge sums of money. On the contrary, it looks like it is spending at an ever-increasing rate. Russia may
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be building up from a low base, given the degraded state of its conventional forces, and it may not pose a direct threat to the security of this country, but the Russian leadership has shown in Georgia how it could destabilise our allies and threaten our security indirectly through a stranglehold on energy supplies. The cyber-attacks in Estonia, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan, for which the finger points at Russia, mean that we must maintain our vigilance and invest in the technology to deal with threats that could in future occur in this country.

Our armed forces have seen a lot of combat in recent years, in the Gulf war, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Improvements in body armour and vehicles have meant that many injuries that were once fatal are now survivable. We will see many disabled young veterans, and our society will have to adjust to that. However, that is only the visible damage: what is invisible must concern us as well. I would like the topic of mental health in the armed forces to be much higher up this country’s political agenda.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham, told GMTV earlier this week that a study had shown that

yet even if that is correct, it represents just under 4,000 people. That is a lot of individuals requiring a lot of care. The hon. Gentleman went on to claim that the study showed that those who had not been deployed on operations suffered more than those who had. There was something unclear about that, as it is true only of those suffering from mood disorders and depressive episodes. In fact, the report clearly states that the rate of post-traumatic stress disorder was higher among those deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan than among those not deployed there.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I said that.

Dr. Fox: The Minister says that he said that, which I accept. However, PTSD often takes a long time to manifest itself. I fear that, with deployment after deployment, year after year, the mental health problems we face now, if unchecked, could become a mental health crisis, partly because our armed forces are operating at a tempo for which they are neither fully resourced nor fully manned.

Mr. Jones: I recognise the problem of PTSD, but does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the number of people involved is small? It is higher among those deployed, as we would expect, but the important thing is to ensure that we do not confuse the broader issue of the mental health disorders that members of the armed forces face by concentrating overmuch on PTSD.

Dr. Fox: Clearly they are separate, if related, issues, but the point about PTSD is that the number of people affected now are, almost by definition, the tip of the iceberg, because of the late presentation of the condition. We can expect to see more cases in future, and we as a society have a moral duty to prepare for that. We cannot look after only the physical injuries of those who fight in our name. We must place equal importance on those who suffer mental trauma.

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Mr. Brazier: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point about this problem, which affects very damaged people, albeit a small number, who need help. Does he agree that perhaps the most disadvantaged group of all is those who have served in the reserves and cannot go back to a unit that is there full-time to look after them? Does he agree also that we could make far more use of reserve medical officers, who know what it is like to serve in uniform but are already embedded in the NHS, in solving the problem?

Dr. Fox: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend. Indeed, our servicemen and women in the Territorial Army experience a further, unique set of problems. When a member of the TA returns home from operations, there is little or no formal support group or structure to fall back on, or camaraderie with fellow troops who have had similar experiences. There are no familiar faces on a base and no friends to meet for a pint to talk about what they have gone through. More often than not, TA service members simply return to their civilian jobs and go back to family life without the safety net apparatus that is provided by being a member of the regular forces. They are at particular risk. We have a duty to recognise that and put in place mechanisms to guarantee their safety.

The important point that my hon. Friend raises is that the increased use of the TA means that there is likely to be an increasing rate of growth of those problems in future. We are developing a problem for our forces as a whole, but the TA in particular represents a potential mental health time bomb that, in many ways, we are not prepared to deal with.

Mr. Jenkin: Is my hon. Friend aware that Combat Stress, the mental welfare charity for ex-servicemen and women, has reported that whereas in 2005 only 5 per cent. of those presenting with PTSD were unfunded by Government help, that figure has now risen to 43 per cent. and is continuing to rise? That is putting great strain on the charity’s resources. Given that the disorder arises directly from employment in Her Majesty’s armed forces, is that not something that we really have to address?

Dr. Fox: Indeed it is. Mental health services are the Cinderella service in the NHS, and as a society we must re-evaluate whether the way in which we treat those with mental health problems represents the social values that we would like to see in the world’s fifth richest country in the 21st century. I met representatives of Combat Stress yesterday. Such charities do a wonderful job, but we will have to do a lot more if we are properly to fulfil our obligations to those who, as my hon. Friend says, suffer as a consequence of fighting for our security.

They way in which we deal with the welfare of our armed forces is integral to dealing not only with the issues that we have mentioned but with our recruitment and retention problems. One thing that we need to consider is how we treat our armed forces compared with other public servants. I shall give one tiny example of mismatch that I was unaware of until my most recent visit to Iraq.

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