Previous Section Index Home Page

It has been difficult for colleagues to get to grips with a subject as broadly defined as defence in the world. I entirely agree with the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) that such debates
4 Jun 2009 : Column 481
are too broad in nature. My view is that the older concept of the single-service debate concentrated the minds of hon. Members, and concentrated the subject matter in the context of the various campaigns in which we were involved or likely to become involved.

Mr. Jenkin: Traditionally, in the past few decades, we have conducted such debates in peacetime. We are now debating a war, and it is absurd that we include it in a general debate about defence policy. It does not make sense.

Dr. Lewis: I accept that point, but even in the context of debating a war, it would be better not only to have specific debates on the specific combat parameters but specific debates on the individual services. Otherwise, we will see reflected in the debate the internecine conflict going on between those at the most senior levels of the armed forces. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)—who has carried out a very focused campaign about armoured vehicles and their inadequacies—has touched on that issue, too. She referred to the change in the nature of warfare, and to a particular speech that, she said, meant that we must move away from preparation for conventional state-on-state warfare towards configuring the main effort of our armed forces for the type of wars in which we are engaged today.

I have raised that subject previously at the Dispatch Box, and in my opinion people from particular armed services who take that point of view are going up a blind alley, and a dangerous one at that. Although it is terribly important to be able to configure our forces to fight counter-insurgency campaigns, and absolutely vital to ensure that we give our forces the resources to fight them effectively, we must never lose sight of the fact that the primary role of our armed forces must be to insure against the possibility that in 10, 20, 30 or 40 years we might face an existential threat to the peace and freedom of our homeland. I for one do not subscribe to the view that we must dismantle our ability to deter, and if necessary combat, another state armed with modern weapons systems that could threaten us in the future, just because for the foreseeable future we do not think that threat will arise. The lesson of the past, whether the late 19th century, the first half of the 20th century or even the post-war conflicts of the second half of the 20th century, is that when such threats materialise, the vast majority have not been anticipated.

Nick Harvey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Lewis: I am afraid not, because I have three minutes left. Please forgive me.

I was impressed by what the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) said about the past role of Porthcawl and the massing there for the D-day invasion. I have heard similar stories about my home town, Swansea. Swansea bay was the home of the second wave of the invasion armada. No part of the water could be seen, so packed was it with the vessels that were about to sail across the channel.

I was somewhat less impressed by what the hon. Lady said about the European Union keeping the peace. I must point out to her that the European Community, in the form of the European Coal and Steel Community, did not come into existence until 1953, and the common
4 Jun 2009 : Column 482
market itself did not come into existence until 1957. I do not think that there was any appreciable diminution in the threat of western Europeans fighting each other after 1953, or even 1957, than there had been between 1945 and 1953 and 1957. What really matters is whether the individual countries of Europe have democratic political systems. If they do, they will not fight each other, and if they have NATO, it is to be hoped that they will not have to fight anyone outside their boundaries either.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee, drew attention to the horrific prospect of a black hole in the defence budget. I have pointed out before, and I will point out again this evening, that we are in a strange situation. The defence budget as a proportion of GDP has remained constant both before and after the beginning of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which can only mean that we were fighting two counter-insurgency campaigns at one stage, and are fighting one counter-insurgency campaign now, on what is effectively a peacetime defence budget. That really cannot go on.

Let me say this in the last moments allocated to me. It is normally quite difficult to sum up a debate because there have been so many contributions. By the end of this debate we shall have heard six speeches from the Conservatives, including the two from the Front Bench. That is more than we shall have heard from the other two parties put together. There will have been three speeches from Labour Members, and two from Liberal Democrats. That is not the way in which we should be debating the most important defence matters of the year.

As no one is listening, let me conclude by sharing a confidence with the House. I actually rather like and admire the Defence Ministers who have been appointed by the Government, and I know that they probably did not want the debate to be held on this day any more than anyone else did. The question is: who did want that, and why? To hold a debate of this sort on a day when everyone is voting in elections suggests either a calculated insult or a complete disregard for—or misunderstanding of—the importance of the subject matter. I know that the Ministers will have done their best, but who was responsible? Was it the Chief Whip? Was it the Prime Minister? I think we should be told.

5.33 pm

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Despite the lack of density on the Benches, we have had our usual wide-ranging, thoughtful and informed debate. The Secretary of State opened it with a review of current operations, and a more detailed account of the evolving threats that we face and his response to them. I shall make a few comments on those issues, and then try to respond to all the points that Members have made.

We cannot afford to ignore the lessons of current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. We must capture and institutionalise them. The integrated military and civilian structures that we now have on the ground in Helmand have developed the hard way. We need to use them as a blueprint for how we do things in the future, not in theatre but in Whitehall and in the international context. That is why we in the MOD, together with our
4 Jun 2009 : Column 483
colleagues in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, lend our full support to the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the comprehensive approach. I believe that the Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), can make a valuable contribution, and may be able to help us all to drive the policy a little further.

Looking ahead, we also need to ensure that, despite the economic challenges, we get the balance of decisions right so that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we can “stretch, surge and recover”. There are two elements to that. First, we must understand the capability mix that we need in order to fight both present conflicts and those we may face in the future. We must not be starry-eyed about the options open to us. We do not have the scope that the Americans have to flex budgets from hybrid warfare to conventional warfare. We have to get more out of our equipment and we must have flexibility from our people—we have that—and we must use it to the full. We must also think across the full range of our responsibilities. Secondly, we must ensure that our own financial controls and acquisition structures help rather than hinder our efforts to drive down costs and deliver timely capability. I think that Bernard Gray’s report will be a very good starting point for the work that we need to do on that.

Finally, we need to make our international institutions as effective as possible. We need to make them relevant to the public they are supposed to serve. The UK must work with our partners to drive forward reform in the international sphere: in the United Nations; through a new strategic concept in NATO, the cornerstone of our defence; and by strengthening the European Union’s ability to play the role that it undoubtedly can.

I understand why many Members throw their hands up in frustration—or in downright antagonism—whenever Europe is mentioned, as it can be frustrating, but we cannot hope to counter the threats of today on our own. We must persevere in building flexible solutions rather than fuelling bureaucracy. I believe we have managed this well in the anti-piracy operation off the horn of Africa, where we have provided command and effective co-ordination not only for our European partners, but for many other nations as well.

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) discussed the rules of engagement for piracy and why pirates were released recently by the Royal Navy. That was not down to a lack in the rules of engagement; we have flexed the rules of engagement to make absolutely sure that our people are able to counter the threat of piracy, but we also have to respect the fact that we are getting a lot of assistance from Kenya. It is happy to take people to where we have the evidence to prosecute them, but we should not—we must not—abuse the hospitality, as it were, given by the Kenyan nation. Therefore, where evidence does not exist, we need to be sensible and disarm and destroy inappropriate equipment and be prepared to set people free. The kinetic element is only part of the structure being put in place to counter piracy, and of course I accept that it cannot be dealt with purely within the maritime environment. The
4 Jun 2009 : Column 484
Royal Navy is holding the ring for us and is providing some mitigation, but the problems of Somalia are the cornerstone of the issue.

Mr. Jenkin: I just wish to make it clear that I am sure that the rules of engagement reflect the legal advice that has been given, and that I make absolutely no criticism of the commanding officer of the ship involved, but will the Minister explain what is wrong in law with detaining someone who clearly has all the paraphernalia of piracy and is, circumstantially at least, exhibiting a threat? This seems inexplicable. The law must be deficient in this regard, and it must be changed even if we need a UN resolution in order to be able to do so.

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes, but whose law needs to be changed? We have to take these steps while accepting what the Kenyans are prepared to do for us and being enormously grateful to them for their efforts. Let me say, as I said at Question Time, that I have no intention of allowing the Royal Navy to be used as a taxi service for asylum seekers—that will not happen while I am Minister for the Armed Forces and if that means that we have to set people free off the coast of Somalia, we will do so. We will do what we can in the circumstances.

The hon. Member for North Essex said that he thought our attitude to the American capability on counter-insurgency was arrogant. I do not see that arrogance in our military and I do not believe it exists in the body politic in this country either; there is great respect for the work that was done first by General Petraeus in Iraq and which is now preached by General McChrystal in Afghanistan. Huge leaps have been made in capability and doctrine by the American military. We must recognise that, and we buy into it totally—we need to work alongside them.

The hon. Gentleman and the Chair of the Defence Committee talked ably about the complexities involved in the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and said that much more needed to be done. I do not detract from that at all, but we need to understand that Pakistan is a sovereign nation, it has its own priorities and red lines and it is a very important player in this circumstance. We have to work with the Pakistani Government and not attempt to impose something unacceptable on them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) is a new member of the Defence Committee, and I thank her very much for her effort and the work that she is putting in on that Committee. She lamented the lack of recognition that there is for our armed forces. I genuinely believe that there has been a phenomenal improvement in that regard over the past couple of years, which is much welcome. It is deeply welcomed by the people at the hard end—those who do the fighting and the dangerous work on our behalf. Sadly, as many in this House recognise, she is right to say that a recognition of their amazing capability and the amazing people that they are does not transfer to the level of understanding that we need among our population about the issues with which our forces deal. We all have a duty and a responsibility to try to work on that and improve that understanding.

My hon. Friend responded to a question from the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who later raised the issue again, on women in close combat. We
4 Jun 2009 : Column 485
are reviewing the issue and we will do so without prejudice or precondition. The situation is not simple because there is no simple front line. We have women who are involved in logistical operations—supply lines and so on—in Afghanistan and they have effectively involved themselves in close combat, because they are obliged to do so. As we review this, we must take into account the complexities of the warfare that we are fighting and the fact that female members of our armed forces are, from time to time, in the thick of it, alongside their male counterparts. I do not think that we can have a politically correct situation on the one hand, or have prejudice on the other. We have to be objective as we undertake the review.

The hon. Member for Colchester also raised the issue of the despicable literature—there is cross-party consensus in the House on its nature—from the British National party about Johnson Beharry, and I am glad that he did so. I am not free to sign his early-day motion, but if I was, I would rush to the Table Office to do so.

Mr. Blunt: Next week, Bob.

Mr. Ainsworth: That soon!

I have agreed to finish my speech shortly, and I am aware that I have not managed to reply on all the issues. The hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) recognised the huge improvements to vehicles that have been made, but he was very concerned about helicopters. We will soon have a Merlin free to go to Afghanistan, and before the end of the year we will have eight Chinook too. There has been a massive increase in the number of hours of helicopter availability, but we can never have enough helicopter lift and I accept that we need to do all that we can to provide it.

Mrs. Moon: The Opposition have claimed that no one was listening to this debate. I can advise my hon. Friend that I have already received an e-mail from a gentleman who does not live in my constituency, a veteran from Penzance called Mr. Brian Jenkins—not the Member with the same name. He served in the armed forces between 1969 and 1971 and he has been following the debate today. I am sure that many others also have.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank my hon. Friend for that information, but in response to the many hon. Members who have complained about the timing of the debate, I must point out that we all share a responsibility for failing to work together. If people are unhappy that we have five defence debates on motions for the Adjournment,
4 Jun 2009 : Column 486
they should stop spitting every time the word “modernisation” is mentioned and be prepared to work with others to put the defence debates on a better footing. If there were a genuine cross-party attempt to do that, it would be successful.

Dr. Fox: It is clear to anyone who has followed the debate that the complaint has not been about the number of debates, but that the Government business managers purposely put this debate on today, polling day, when a minimum number of Members would be present to take part. It was also squeezed by a topical debate, so that one of our full defence debates—on some of the most important issues, including Afghanistan—was allowed four hours in the parliamentary year. That is a disgrace.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is being disingenuous. He and his party pushed for the topical debates. If we are to be genuine about this, we need to accept that if we want five debates on defence on the Adjournment, there will be consequences. If we wanted to change that, we could—

Ann Winterton: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Ainsworth: No, I am about to conclude. I will respond in writing to Members whose points I have not managed to address. I know that the hon. Lady has asked me to do that on one particular issue.

While we plan for the future, our focus must always and rightly remain on current operations in Afghanistan. Our people are fighting and, sadly, sometimes dying to bring stability to that benighted country. They are entitled to expect 100 per cent. support from everyone in defence, Government and industry. That is the very least that they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.


Business without Debate

Business of the House


4 Jun 2009 : Column 487

Safeguarding Children (Private Schools)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —(Ian Lucas.)

5.49 pm

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab): I am grateful to have secured this Adjournment debate on an important subject. It is perhaps appropriate that it should take place on a day when there are local government elections, as a tier of local government deals with education. It is precisely that that I want to talk about.

The subject of the debate is a general one—the safeguarding of children in private schools—but I will draw on a specific example in my constituency, which is the case of St. Peter’s independent school. The aim of this debate is to call on the Government to give children in private schools the same level and type of protection as children in state schools; to ask the Government to close a loophole that leaves directors of children’s services unable to intervene in independent schools to protect the welfare and safeguarding of children in the same way as they can intervene in state schools. Children should have the same safeguards whatever type of school they are in and those powers should be exercised locally by the local authority, which has overall responsibility for protecting the safety of children in that local authority area.

I am not going to go into all the events surrounding St. Peter’s, despite the protections that this Chamber provides. There are children studying at that school and their interests have to be regarded. There are also children in my constituency who were former students at the school and their private interests must be regarded, too. I also want to stress that this is not a matter of private schools versus state schools. Many independent schools have very good practice in child safety and well-being, as they have in education. There are also associations for independent schools that provide support and advice in these important areas. Those factors were all well documented in Roger Singleton’s excellent review of safeguarding arrangements in independent schools.

The problem that I want to identify and focus on is what more is needed to ensure that there are proper safeguards in place for the small minority of independent schools that fall through the net, and where standards are not acceptable to ensure that any problems can be dealt with quickly and locally. Although I am drawing from an example in my constituency, that issue is also of wider concern to directors of children’s services in other parts of the country.

In the case of St. Peter’s, the lack of proper safeguarding arrangements and the lack of powers to allow the local authority to intervene have had serious and continuing consequences for some of the children and, indeed, for their parents. I would argue that much of the delay in dealing with the problems, because of the lack of adequate powers to be operated at a local level, has made the situation more acute for everyone concerned.

Back in 2000, an Ofsted inspection of St. Peter’s found:

Next Section Index Home Page