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4 Jun 2009 : Column 450

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): An increasing number of young ladies are now playing roles in the armed forces. What is the hon. Lady’s view of females being put in the front line of infantry regiments, in the killing field?

Mrs. Moon: We have women in the front line in all sorts of roles, and women have shown their capacity to meet the requirements of the front line in those roles. I see no problem in women undertaking front-line roles.

Later this year, as part of the scheme, I will visit Afghanistan and I look forward to seeing not only the security activities of our forces, but the work they are undertaking in capacity building, protecting civilians, stabilisation and reconstruction, the use of aid, training and political engagement. That is work our forces have undertaken over the years across the globe, and of which we can be rightly proud.

If we are to be successful in the region, we must also undertake those responsibilities in Pakistan. We know that Pakistan, as a nuclear state, faces instability. We know that the Taliban have secured bases in Pakistan. The risk to the world of an unstable Pakistan or a Pakistan where the Taliban have access to nuclear weapons is too frightening to contemplate.

Our armed forces have played a crucial role in keeping peace in the Balkans. Across Africa, we are looking at protecting civilians and at stabilisation and reconstruction. In the Falklands, we still maintain a critical military presence, providing security to the people who live on those islands.

It is inevitable that as some of the old threats to our national security begin to fade others will replace them, but our common values of democracy, individual liberty, the rule of law and the peaceful resolution of disputes require us to be vigilant and prepared. Sometimes our armed forces will have to be deployed to defend those values. When those occasions arise, we must ensure that we are fully prepared, that our armed forces are resourced and that they are fully supported both before and after deployment. They rightly deserve quality housing for their families and quality training and equipment. As we increasingly understand the effects of trauma from the tasks that our forces are asked to carry out, the experiences that they encounter and the grief that they face, we must also provide quality psychological support both before and after deployment.

I understand that in this complex world, the MOD has two key tasks: defending the United Kingdom and its interests while strengthening international peace and stability. As we approach the anniversary of D-day, it would perhaps be appropriate to remind ourselves of a quote from Winston Churchill:

3.12 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I always welcome the opportunity to debate defence in the world, but I echo the observations of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). There is one date in the annual parliamentary calendar that is the most notorious graveyard slot, and that is usually the first Thursday in May, when we have a round of local elections. This year, it happens to be in June and is even more of a graveyard slot, because the
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local elections coincide with the European elections. I was absolutely astonished to see this piece of timetabling when the agenda came out for this week. Nevertheless, we plough on and this is a welcome opportunity to discuss these matters.

Like others, I start by paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in the service of our country. On this occasion, as we are having this debate at a time when operations in Iraq are largely concluded and withdrawal is about to commence, I particularly want to say that although my colleagues and I did not agree with the decision to invade Iraq, we very much pay tribute to the courage, professionalism and dedication of all those who have served throughout the engagement in Iraq, including those who have given their lives and those who have come back from those operations wounded in body and in mind. They have done what the nation called on them to do and we should pay tribute to the service that they have given.

Mr. Jenkin: I want to refer to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point about the timing of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) suggested that the debate was taking place now because the Government regard it as unimportant. Perhaps it is because they regard this debate as so important and yet embarrassing, because of the failures of Government policy, that they have decided to put it on this day.

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I suspect we will never know quite why it was, but the discussion that the hon. Member for Woodspring imagined taking place in the Leader of the House’s office sounded altogether authentic to my way of thinking.

Although the debate does, in a sense, mark the end of most of our activity in Iraq, I am sure, and hope very much, that we will regularly debate not only the state of security in that country and the wider region but the progress of economic development—a subject that has been mentioned—so that we can judge over the longer term what the overall impact of the west’s involvement there has been. However, our attention now rightly focuses largely on Afghanistan, where our troops are working tirelessly, but where it is widely recognised that we have a long, hard job still to do. There is no prospect, in any way, of a quick fix. The death toll has risen quickly in recent weeks, and the insurgents are constantly employing new and ever more deadly methods, to which we have to find new ways of responding.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who speaks in the House on defence procurement matters, said in response to a question on Monday in this Chamber that more and more equipment was being delivered to the front line, and we have to hope that that is right. In some cases, he did not give many indications of numbers and quantities; I suppose that he might reasonably say that he would not want to broadcast some of that information. However, we still have serious ongoing concerns, both about the provision of armoured vehicles—I readily acknowledge the significant progress that has been made on that—and about helicopter lift capacity, which will become a real problem the longer the engagement goes on in Afghanistan.

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I think that it was the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) who tabled a question some months ago about the likely availability of helicopters in years to come, as existing helicopters go out of commission. Making even the most optimistic assumptions about the in-service date for new helicopters that will follow, one can see that there are serious problems coming up in the next few years. I still do not feel that we have heard any adequate response from the Government on how we will get our helicopter lift capacity up to that which the troops need in Afghanistan. I welcome initiatives such as the one that the Government undertook with the French Government to try to boost the availability of helicopters at a European level, but thus far, I do not think that it has yielded much. I hope that they will stick at it, though, and I hope that more NATO countries will provide helicopters for the operation. However, the last time I saw an answer on the subject, only three had been committed; they were from the Czech Republic.

The lack of helicopter capacity is becoming a big issue. People have been going on about it for a long time, but I just do not feel that a response commensurate to the challenge has been forthcoming. I know that we await decisions on some routine procurements, whether they be from AgustaWestland or whoever, but I wonder whether the sheer scale of the problem will require interim solutions to be found, even if ultimately longer-term solutions will point in a different direction. There is an availability of helicopters, although they are possibly not of the sort of capability that we would ideally want in the helicopters that we will build and develop in the long term. However, there are short-term solutions, if the Government are willing to consider them.

It has already been said in this debate that any consideration of Afghanistan increasingly needs to take into account the situation in Pakistan. Obviously, the Americans have done that by appointing a single envoy to deal with both problems. There are very worrying developments that should cause us all concern. The unstable state of Pakistan is greatly worrying. Although its Government’s forces have hit back seemingly quite effectively recently, the underlying problems are there for all to see. Also, increasingly reports are coming through of Taliban elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan coming together—up to now they have had certain tensions, and there have been difficulties between them—because they recognise that they have a new challenge to face, particularly as America is committing more troops to Afghanistan. It is hard to predict or sense exactly how that will play out on the ground, but it raises the point that, as far as quite authoritative reports would have us believe, the Pakistan intelligence agency had, for good or ill, been providing resources to the Afghanistan elements of the Taliban in anticipation of having to deal with them at some point after the west had completed its operations in Afghanistan. Those elements are now cosying up to the Pakistan Taliban, so we end up with the possibility—by no means unprecedented—that the Pakistani military will find itself confronting an enemy to whom it has contributed arms and equipment. That, I hope, will at the very least give it pause for thought in terms of the future, because there is a self-perpetuating cycle in the region, whereby funds that are given for one purpose end up having a completely different and unanticipated impact.

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The spill-over between the two countries is potentially difficult, because to date NATO’s Afghanistan operation has relied very much on safe and easy routes through Pakistan and on the resolute support of Pakistan. The question of whether in the future we will be able to count on that to anything like the same degree worries me considerably.

I, like the official Opposition’s Front-Bench team, have said in previous defence debates that there is a long overdue need for a strategic defence review. It remains a mystery to me why the Government, uniquely, do not seem to think it necessary. We know that the Ministry of Defence is under intense budgetary pressure: there is, by anyone’s reckoning, a black hole in its budget; we regularly discuss in the House the impact of overstretch and ongoing operations; and we know that the difficulties, needs and demands on the defence budget will increase inexorably year on year. However, we know also that, in the wake of the economic crisis, the next Government will have a major task on their hands to try to control public expenditure in such a fashion that restores some equilibrium to the nation’s finances. They will have to take some immensely difficult decisions, balancing the different demands on the public purse which will come from the different Departments. In that context, in particular, a strategic defence review is absolutely fundamental and necessary.

We have to ask the basic question, what does the nation expect its armed forces to do in the years to come and how can we achieve that? The question has also to be asked, are we all still of the view, as I am, that we should continue the task set out in the previous strategic defence review of acting as a force for good throughout the world? Some have called it liberal interventionism, and if the answer is yes, that we are, what are its implications for manpower, equipment and expenditure? If those of us who believe that we should remain willing to play such a part want to take the public with us and convince them that, in the climate that I have described, painful and difficult choices have to be made between competing demands on the public purse, the only way in which we can hope to do so is by having a major national debate about the armed forces’ role and the resources that should be made available to them. The only sensible way to go about that is through a Government-conducted defence review, and I very much hope that, whatever Government are in power after the election, which cannot be far away, they will see that, if we want to continue to play such a part, we need to take the public with us.

Dr. Fox: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is also a need for better predictability and empiricism in the process? Does he agree also that we need to begin a defence review by asking what Britain’s national interests are; what the predictable threat environment is; what capabilities we require to protect those interests in that environment; what equipment programmes we require; and, then, to assess our budgetary capabilities? We need to bring logic and empiricism to what is currently a chaotic process.

Nick Harvey: I entirely agree with all that. If at the end of the process, which we should approach in exactly that way, we still find a gap between what we sincerely want to do and what we believe we are capable of
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amassing the resources to do, we will have to consider how we can best co-operate with our allies, particularly in NATO, to ensure that the resources that we can make available dovetail as effectively as possible. In that way, even if we are not capable of doing on the very widest front all the things that we want to do alone, we will at least be capable of ensuring that they can be done in co-operation with our allies. Better collective planning with our allies would enable that, but an absolute prerequisite is a systematic, evidence-based and empirical approach to a review, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

I cannot understand why the Government continue to resist. This side of an election, I would have thought that at the very least there would be some benefit in both sides of the House agreeing the sort of questions that need to be asked and the sort of approach that might be taken, even if in reality the work of the review would not begin in earnest until the other side of the election.

Huge procurement projects are sitting—notionally, at least—on the Government’s books. We are waiting for answers, but the Government cannot make decisions about the projects because of the economic circumstances. It is not always possible to identify precisely what the dilemmas are, for reasons to which the hon. Gentleman has alluded in the House before. I am thinking of this country’s deficit in terms of the transparency of our procurement processes compared with those in many other western democracies, where national legislatures can scrutinise in far more detail the procurement decisions and dilemmas faced by the Governments in question. We do ourselves no good service in this country through the opaque way in which we go about many of these things.

I have repeatedly urged that we need a new approach to procurement, because, more than anything else in the defence field, it has not been a success in recent decades. One can point to the egregious examples of procurement mishaps, but our procurement processes are not adequate right across the piece. We have to start them again from scratch. In respect of procurement and of maintaining strategic defence industries, we need to look more effectively at how we co-operate best with our natural allies.

There have been some terrible co-operative procurements, but that does not mean that we should be put off the idea altogether. I abhor the approach that has looked at European defence procurements and then got into the realms of pork barrel politics by divvying up the work through the absurd notion of juste retour. The defence industries are well ahead of the political community in having already organised themselves along international lines; very few of the companies are national—they are all transnational, multinational and international. National Governments have some way to go in catching up with and taking advantage of that.

The hon. Gentleman rightly alluded to the renewed threats presented by the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran. If either country goes ahead with its nuclear programmes, in the wake of international condemnation and in breach of the existing treaties, that will inevitably trigger proliferation among their neighbouring states. I welcome the efforts by French President Sarkozy to try to re-engage Iran in a new dialogue about its nuclear ambitions. I regret that the progress that seemed to be being made with North
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Korea appears to have gone into reverse gear. Next year, we have the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference. I hope that the new dialogue that appears to exist between President Obama and Russia is capable of giving some renewed impetus to the course of nuclear disarmament. However, the good news that one might detect in their rapprochement has to be balanced against the more worrying news in North Korea and Iran.

Some very tough decisions need to be taken in the defence arena, and I do not believe there is any realistic chance of that happening this side of an election. Those decisions should not be kept waiting for too much longer. For that reason, I share the wish of others to see an election as soon as possible so that a new Government have the authority to take some of these difficult decisions because, whatever the final conclusions, they will have an opportunity cost. I hope that the dedication of our armed forces, who are fighting in many different parts of the world on our behalf, will be matched by a determination in the Ministry of Defence to resolve some of the issues that have been awaiting decisions for far too long.

We are very well served by our armed forces personnel, and there is some way to go yet before we really do justice to the work that they are putting in on our behalf around the world by ensuring that we sort out our priorities and equip them with everything that they need to guarantee their safety and the success of the operations in which they are engaged.

3.32 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I want to begin, if I may, by saying that this debate is an absolute disgrace. It is quite wrong that an issue of such crucial importance is always debated before an empty House. We have to find a way of bringing out the debate in such a way as to capture the imagination of the people of this country and, frankly, of this Parliament. At the moment, we are talking to an empty Public Gallery, an empty Press Gallery and an empty Chamber. None of the important things that we will say about this vital subject, which is central to the survival of this country, to our values, and to democracies across the world will be listened to at all. We might as well not be here.

Having said that, I still have one or two things that I might as well say. When we had a similar debate this time last year, we would have been reminding ourselves that Basra had been completely transformed as a result of the “Charge of the Knights”. We would have looked at Iraq and thought, much to our surprise in many ways, that things had gone much better than we might have expected. We should all share in the tribute paid to our armed forces for the immense things that they achieved in Iraq and for the massive sacrifices that they made. We express our thanks to them for that.

I was always more optimistic about what we could achieve in Iraq than about what we could achieve in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we have had the benefit of operating in a larger coalition. Coalitions bring strength, but they also bring weaknesses and difficulties. The weakness is a lack of coherence and a risk of international suspicions and resentments. There is a real
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risk that some of the problems of Afghanistan will always be thought to be somebody else’s problem. We are operating in a coalition there, and we cannot achieve everything that we want to because we do not have the final say. Partly because of that, we are failing as an international coalition to recognise the enormous size of the task that we are facing.

In the Balkans, we put 20 times as many troops and 50 times as much resource into a problem that was rather easier to solve. In Afghanistan, the key task that we face is bringing governance to a country that, frankly, has not had it in the past. We have as our secondary task the destruction of the crop that is the main livelihood of much of the country, which is a rather challenging task in itself. The tools that we have to achieve those two tasks are the Afghans themselves, who are wonderful people but do not really like being told what to do by foreigners.

The Select Committee on Defence is about to begin an inquiry into the comprehensive approach. It is a great honour to chair that Committee, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) for her contribution, recent as it has been. I can assure her that is hugely valued. We are lucky to have a dedicated group of members and a wonderful support staff who ensure that our inquiries are as productive as they can be.

The questions about the comprehensive approach are difficult to answer. Are we tying the development of new livelihoods in with the security that our forces bring? For example, will the road network be kept secure from improvised explosive devices so that people can get their produce to market? Will it be kept secure from roadblocks, sometimes police roadblocks, where protection money is demanded despite a tiny margin of profit? That is the sort of thing that local people in Afghanistan worry about. All those issues have to be dealt with in a country that has little education, mountainous terrain, no secure infrastructure, no policeable borders and no natural resources. It is awash with weapons, most of them provided by us. The task is a large one to face.

Dr. Fox: I hope that one of the most important issues that the Defence Committee will examine is Britain’s ability to carry out construction in a conflict environment. It seems to me that until we are able to develop that capability, there will be a major gap in our ability to deal with conflicts such as Afghanistan should they arise in any other part of the world.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, who has put his finger on a most important point. That is one of the matters on which we will concentrate heavily in our inquiry into the comprehensive approach, and I am grateful to him for making that point. I believe that it was my hon. Friend who said that local government in Helmand is making good progress under Governor Mangal, who I agree is an extremely effective governor, but it is good progress from an extremely low base.

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