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Nick Harvey: I respect what the hon. Gentleman says and I understand his argument, but the point that was made at the time was that one could not have such a
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thing as a timetable for withdrawal, and the fact of the matter is— [Interruption.] That was not the point that was made at the time; the point was made that we could not have a timetable for withdrawal, but of course we can have a timetable for withdrawal. Clearly, it has to be a timetable that takes account of the circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that we can have such a timetable and, ultimately, as was always going to be the case, that is precisely what we have ended up having.

The arrival of a new US Administration is a very welcome development. That is already giving rise to a remarkably swift reconsideration in the United States of its approaches to some of the significant issues with which we are ourselves tied up.

Mr. Kilfoyle: Will the hon. Gentleman also touch on the changes taking place in Europe, notably the decision by the Czechs no longer to participate in the futile missile defence programme, which the official Opposition, along with the Government, seem to be hellbent on pursuing, regardless of Obama coming into office?

Nick Harvey: That is certainly a very interesting development, as, of course, is the French decision to rejoin fully the NATO command. These are all factors that affect the circumstances in which we organise our defence in the UK.

It seems to me that in the UK defence is still the poor relation in the progressive agenda. We have seen new thinking in education and health and on the environment, but in defence we remain stuck with some outmoded habits and a lack of new thinking. As has been said, it is perfectly true that there has been substantial and significant reorganisation of our armed forces since the end of the cold war, but it is still possible to level the criticism that we remain too much configured along cold war lines and that there is a need for further reorganisation to get us configured for the modern-day realities. America has, I believe, woken up to this; President Obama is planning an overhaul of US defence procurement and strategy, bringing it out of the cold war era. When, I wonder, will we? In every debate Ministers are urged to set up a new strategic defence review so that we can reassess and realign defence, where necessary, and make new decisions about how to face future threats and challenges, yet still they resist any suggestion that that should happen. I am confident that after the next election, whatever its outcome, a strategic defence review will be set up, but it could be doing its work a great deal sooner if some of the scoping of it were to be set in train now and were to be subject to some debate before the election.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Is there not a danger that if we are still fighting the last war to happen—or the last that did not happen—and still have a cold war mentality, there will be some, particularly in Russia, who interpret that as being a threat to them and that will end up distorting their foreign and military policy? That may make our maintaining a cold war strategy, in part, a reality, rather than the reverse; the deployment of missile defence may be making the situation a lot worse.

Nick Harvey: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I do not think it takes very much for the Russians to interpret anything they choose as some sort of provocation, but one certainly does not want to give them any additional grounds for doing so, if one can help it.

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One can only hope that by the time we next have this debate, most of our involvement in Iraq will be over. I echo the points made in yesterday’s debate about the fact that we should be getting on with the process of setting up an inquiry into exactly what we achieved there, what went well, what went wrong, why we got involved in the first place and what lessons we might draw from that for future engagements, particularly if we maintain, as the outcome of the strategic defence review, as I hope we will, a commitment to an interventionist policy and to expeditionary warfare. I hope that lessons will also be learned for operations in Afghanistan, where there are still many challenges ahead, most notably the real problem of overspill into Pakistan, which is, itself, very unstable at the moment. We will have an ongoing task preparing the British public for what will be a protracted conflict.

The economic crisis poses a new threat to our national defence. We have been aware for some time that there is a black hole in the Ministry of Defence finances. A year or so ago, it was estimated at £2 billion, and it is in no danger of shrinking—indeed, there is every likelihood that it will get bigger and bigger. Estimates of true defence inflation vary; some say that it is at least 3 per cent., whereas other figures that are cited are higher. It is clear that the defence industry is not going to remain untouched by the current economic difficulties, and this will bring uncertain consequences for the skills bases, contracts and projects involved.

In these uncertain times, the defence industry is partly immune from the wider malaise, but we must be careful to ensure that the economic difficulties do not impede further our activities overseas or the delivery of vital resources to the front line. The recent Defence Committee report highlighted that, even now, there are problems with equipment. Our track record on procurement is like a broken record: delayed, over budget and below requirement. The Government have yet to face up to the reality of how on earth they will be able to afford all the programmes that are still in place in principle on the budget that is available at the moment and what they will do to get industry on board, to try to make the delivery of existing projects more efficient.

As part of the present crisis, we should look at current procurements, but problems from the past are also catching up with us. We have heard that Nimrod is to be grounded, which is an admission that the fleet is not fit to fly. It seems to have taken Ministers a long time to arrive at that conclusion, whereas aircrew, coroners and others have been saying for some time that the aircraft are not airworthy. It does not surprise me, in the light of the current economic storm, that Trident and the proposal to renew it have been mentioned. We heard from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) that some distinguished retired military figures have been debating it. We heard from the Minister that people have been debating it on the conservativehome website. There is renewed interest in the subject in the light of the economic crisis.

Mr. Kilfoyle: It is not only distinguished ex-military personnel, but they have been fairly outspoken. I would far sooner listen to people who have been on the front line than the armchair generals of the television studios or newspaper columns. Ted Postol, the man who designed the Trident system, has pointed out that it could be
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adapted for the needs of our country, if that is what we wish, instead of spending an as yet indeterminate sum replacing it.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is right to ask questions about this issue. We believe that the House was premature in seeking to make a decision two years ago. A final decision does not have to be made, and in truth will not be made, until main gate, which is the point at which the Thatcher Government made the political decision about Trident. The significant costs of Trident replacement will begin to rack up only midway through the next decade. I do not suggest that the questions need to be answered today, any more than they had to be two years ago, but it is right that the questions are being asked. They will continue to be asked from now right through to the time at which any decision is made. It is especially apt that the questions arise at the moment, as we progress towards the 2010 non-proliferation treaty conference talks.

I listened with interest to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who expressed his sincerely held view, which can be fairly characterised as being that there were no circumstances in which he thought it would ever be possible for the UK to give up its nuclear deterrent. That is a point of view, and he is entitled to hold it, but if he, as a Minister, were to articulate that position on behalf of the UK, it would undoubtedly put us in breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. We have binding and solemn commitments under that treaty that it is our duty to try to fulfil at all times.

Personnel must be our priority. Withdrawing from Iraq will alleviate some of the burden, but Afghanistan will continue to take its toll. The mental health casualties will start to become more apparent in the coming years, and we surely all agree that more needs to be done to tackle this issue head on. However, I welcome the progress that has been made recently. We still have a huge problem of alcohol and substance abuse among former personnel, and a high proportion of prisoners—one in 11, or some 8,000—are ex-services.

Preparing our service personnel for life after the armed forces, whether that be rehabilitation, medical care and support or further skills and education, still needs to become more central to our thinking. For service personnel and their families we must do more to honour our commitments. In particular, a recent National Audit Office report revealed that housing was still in a sorry state. As I have said before in these debates, at the current rate of progress, it will take 20 years to bring all the housing up to scratch. That was widely pooh-poohed at the time, but I was intrigued to note that the NAO report arrived at the same figure.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a legacy of the privatisation by the previous Government of the MOD housing stock to Annington Homes? It also represents the failure of this Government to address the problem, because 12 years down the line the public purse is still spending a small fortune for property that it does not, and will never, own unless legislation is introduced to bring MOD housing back under MOD ownership.

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Nick Harvey: There is no doubt in my mind that the Annington deal was a bad deal for the taxpayer and that we have, in a sense, been paying a price for that ever since. I must say that the Government have a nasty habit of aggregating routine maintenance, rent and improvements and of presenting the sum of those costs as though the total was all being spent on improvements. That, I am afraid, is misleading. It will take a long time—

Mr. Kilfoyle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Nick Harvey: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman a couple of times, and I think that it would be better if he made a speech himself, if he can catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The fact is that nearly a third of service personnel and their families are unhappy with the standard of accommodation.

We have mentioned already that there are interesting developments in Europe. The US, for example, has made it clear that it wants to deal less with the UK as a bridge to the European Union and more with the European Union as a whole. Although we must continue to have a strong bilateral partnership with the United States, it is in its interest as well as ours to have a stronger European partner this side of the Atlantic. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues are exploring avenues for greater defence co-operation, particularly now that the French have changed their stance in such a significant way. I hope that in the fullness of time, such co-operation will come to enjoy the support of all parties.

UK defence, in my view, is in drastic need of an overhaul. We need a new strategic defence review and a good hard look at the configuration of our defence and the infrastructure behind it. The economic crisis only adds to the imperative to deliver cost-effective and vital projects efficiently and to tight deadlines. As John F. Kennedy once said:

Let us not get entrenched in the economic crisis to the detriment of our defence capabilities, but seize this opportunity to come out the other side with a more effective, efficient and decisive armed force.

2.52 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con): I hope that the Minister is enjoying his time in the Ministry of Defence. I recall vividly that when I was appointed Secretary of State for Defence, I received a letter from the late Julian Amery, who said, “You will enjoy the Ministry of Defence. They spoil their Ministers and make them feel heroic.” As Defence Ministers inspect guards of honour, sit in tanks and fly in planes, one can understand what he meant.

I want to begin by addressing what is, in a certain sense, a paradox. The Government will constantly say, as they have said for many years, that there is real growth in the defence budget and that there has been over the period that they have been in office. Technically, they are correct. They will also maintain that the UK, after the US, spends more on defence than virtually any other country in the world. That, too, is correct. However, one recalls the remark that one can use statistics like the
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drunk man uses the lamp post—for support rather than illumination. The Minister and the Government know as well as the rest of us that although those statistics might have some technical accuracy, they are combined with equally important facts that were referred to by my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary.

Over the past 12 years, we have seen a dramatic reduction in the number of aircraft and combat ships and in the manpower of the armed forces. We have also seen the Government’s inability to carry out the task that they have appointed for themselves without extraordinary overstretch for the armed forces and an unprecedented use of our reserve forces, to which I shall return in a few moments’ time.

So how does one explain the fact that despite real growth the outcome is so depressing? Part of it, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said, was that the increase in the cost of procurement projects is vastly greater than any retail prices index might show when it is used to determine the defence budget. That is clearly part of the explanation, but another element has been the continuing and increasing pressure to improve—quite rightly, in many ways—the pay and allowances for our armed forces. That, too, is something that we welcome, but it has the consequences to which I have referred.

However, the Government cannot escape the fact that another part of the explanation is that their policy over the past 12 years has resulted in far greater use of our armed forces in a series of wars, conflicts and operations. That has not been funded simply by the reserve, because it has involved a much greater utilisation of equipment. The fact that that equipment is used far more often means that it has a shorter life and constantly needs to be repaired and improved, and the overall impact has been of a very serious order.

I freely acknowledge—indeed, I take great pride in the fact—that, after the US, the UK and France are the only countries that can claim a significant ability to deploy armed forces around the world. There are larger armies—in Russia, India and China, and so forth—but, for various reasons with which I am sure that the House is familiar, the UK and France remain very important countries. I deliberately include France in this regard because it is comparable with the UK in the sense that both countries are able to match diplomacy with military capability, where that is appropriate. That is hugely desirable but, despite the incredible economic growth we are told we have had over the past 12 years and the huge increase in cash going to the MOD, there has still been extraordinary overstretch in all sorts of ways. If that has been true during the years of plenty, what do we have to look forward to now, given that we have entered a period for which there are extremely lean implications?

The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that there was a need for a review at some stage. I think that he is right, but we must clarify what we mean by that. In a sense, I am addressing my comments on this matter to both Front-Bench teams because, although there will undoubtedly be a need for a review, it cannot be only a defence review or limited to our armed forces. Any review must combine the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with the Ministry of Defence in a way that has not happened before. Only then will we end up with a coherent and deliverable policy that does not repeat the mistakes of the past.

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Most of the time, our defence and armed forces are not an end in themselves but the means to an end determined by our foreign policy. Defence is the handmaiden of foreign policy: it is one of the means—although not the only one—by which we sometimes have to implement or advance our foreign policy objectives.

Frederick the Great once remarked that diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments. Over the past 12 years, our armed forces have been used to a degree unprecedented since 1945. Under Mr. Blair, and the trend has continued under this Government, we have had a series of wars. Of course, wars did not begin in 1997, but what has been unprecedented is that most of the wars since then have not been wars of necessity. Instead, they have been wars of choice.

I do not want to go today into the question of whether the choices were right or wrong. That is a separate issue but, in the past, most of the wars that we found ourselves in were ones in which either we or our allies had been attacked. War therefore became necessary, because no other option was available. However, the wars in Kosovo and Iraq were wars of choice, and the same is true of what happened in Sierra Leone: even though that was a very small combat operation, it was still a war of choice on the Government’s part.

I concede that the war in Afghanistan is more difficult to determine, because of 9/11 and the rest of the background. One could say that it was an intervention of necessity, but in every other respect the operations that have been putting such huge pressure on our armed forces were not imposed on the British Government. They were something no Government could have ignored; they were decisions, right or wrong, that the Government chose to take. If we are in that world, it is crucial that this essential review—whether the Government are Labour, or indeed Conservative—not just takes into account the foreign policy that the Government of the day want to pursue, but must actually be based on it.

I have made no secret of my dislike of the policy of using our armed forces to intervene in other people’s wars, but I want the United Kingdom to continue to have a global world role. We have much to contribute to the world and, for the most part, our contribution is highly beneficial, but the worst possible outcome would be for us to continue to have aspirations towards a global foreign policy while we refuse or are unable to provide the means to implement it, in particular its military component, whenever it may prove necessary. That would be the worst of all possible worlds.

I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), perhaps more than to the Government—they are at the end of their term and we are about to begin ours—that implementing that role will be a crucial requirement. We know that the Government have been reluctant to deal with the comprehensive spending review, no doubt because they have problems not just with defence but with all sorts of areas of expenditure. However, with the exception of health and, I think, overseas development, there would be no ring-fencing of any budget by a future Conservative Government. In a way, I welcome that; it is right and proper that such matters are examined without preconditions and without too many pre-qualifications, but it is crucial that the next Conservative Government deal with the problem—as much as the Labour Government have failed to—in a way that does not continue the desperately serious overstretch of recent times.

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