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Dr. Lewis rose-

Willie Rennie: Wait, because the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Woodspring, has said:

In short, Labour and the Conservatives will never, ever disarm. With their words, they dismiss the treaty. The inability absolutely to predict events means that according to them, there should always be a nuclear deterrent. Irrespective of the threats, the cost and the treaty's aim to ease international tension and strengthen trust, they will always retain the full-blooded, gold-plated system. That directly contradicts the disarmament aims in the treaty.

Dr. Lewis: Does the hon. Gentleman understand the meaning of the phrase "general and complete disarmament", which was in the part of the treaty that he read out? It means an arms-free world. When we get to the stage at which we can safely have an arms-free world, we can safely have a nuclear-free world. If we have a nuclear-free world when countries are still at each other's throats and armed to the teeth with conventional weapons, we will make the world safe only for world war three. As long as other countries have nuclear weapons in a world such as we live in today, my party will want to have a nuclear deterrent.

Willie Rennie: That is the cold war mentality-it has never moved on. There is always an idea that because we cannot predict the future, nothing must happen. That is a pessimistic view of the world, and the Conservative Front Benchers have absolutely no hope on these issues.

Moving on to Iraq, surely the Government's biggest failure has been sending our troops to war on a false prospectus, ill prepared, ill equipped and then overstretched, tarnishing our reputation throughout the world and, worst of all, costing the lives of thousands. That stored up problems in Afghanistan, too-we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan by failing to maintain sufficient troops when we kicked in the door in Iraq. This part of my speech will be short, because it needs the least justification. It is plain and simple. The Government's character and judgment were tested and found wanting. Labour and its backers in the Conservative party will be haunted by that decision, which will live with them for years.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I remind right hon. and hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. I give advance warning that that length of time may have to be reduced to allow time for Front Benchers to wind up.

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4.50 pm

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): May I start by paying tribute to the great sacrifice that has been made by our troops when they have been deployed in recent years-in fact, in the 23 years that I have been in Parliament? I saw the courage, motivation, commitment and professionalism of those troops during my period as a Defence Minister, and I have continued to see those qualities displayed as the current chairman of the European Security and Defence Assembly. I have been to some of the war zones recently, including Afghanistan, and seen what has happened there.

I am extremely grateful that I managed to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is said that there is always a great queue to make a maiden speech and that one has to wait one's turn, but I rather fear that in this Parliament, there is going to be something of a queue to make a last, valedictory speech. I do not know whether this will be my last speech, but it may well be-I am very much in the hands of both the Prime Minister and you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and your judgment on who should be called. That being so, I should like to say that it was a privilege to make my maiden speech and to contribute to the House since, and to catch your eye today in such an important debate.

I should like briefly to say something about the European Security and Defence Assembly before I address what has been said by the Front-Bench speakers so far. When we discussed the Lisbon treaty in the House, we disagreed about many things, but we all agreed that European security and defence policy was an intergovernmental matter and that it should stay that way, and that the European Parliament had no locus whatever over it. We also agreed that it was important that defence policy was subject to scrutiny at international level. That should be the case for European security and defence policy. I hope that Front Benchers acknowledge the importance of continuing European-level scrutiny, and support a reformed European Security and Defence Assembly as the most appropriate body for that. I hope everyone agrees that it would be absolutely wrong for defence to become a responsibility of the European Parliament.

On the main debate, it pains me a little when party politics becomes involved in crucial issues for the nation. When I was a young man-this is my memory of recent political history-a minimal amount of party politics was involved in issues central to the defence of the nation. One damaging feature of more recent political history is that there is an increasing desire on the part of political parties-I am not blaming any one party for this-to make short-term capital out of issues that I believe, as I have always believed, are fundamental to the security of the nation.

I disagree with the Conservative motion because I do not think it was proposed in the context of what is right for the nation and for Conservative thinking about its future. When I look at the motion, I see an Opposition motion, pinpointing one or two faults that may or may not have been the responsibility of the Labour Government. I am not saying that everything in the motion is wrong, but my main argument with it is that it is a party-political motion that tries to nitpick faults, but does not deal with the real issues that affect the security of this nation.

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The motion does not deal with the threat, and in a debate on defence it is pointless to discuss anything else without a vision of the threat. Defence policy, by its very nature is best-guesswork to some extent. We cannot foresee the future. Winston Churchill said in 1922 that he could not envisage a situation in which Britain would be at war with Japan. I am sure that he said that with the best intentions, but he was very wrong, because he was not taking a long view. The lesson for us all is that it is very difficult to predict exactly the shape or the nature of the world ahead. I would have hoped that the motion today would have considered the threat.

We may all agree about what we see immediately before us. We know that there is a threat in Afghanistan from failed states and terrorist organisations that would destroy democracy, given the chance, throughout the rest of the world, using areas such as Afghanistan, parts of Africa and, indeed, other areas in Asia, to develop bases, interfere in the education of the people and begin terrorist activities. We also recognise that there are problems in the middle east. We do not know exactly how they will play out, but they are a major threat.

One of my arguments with the Liberal Democrats is that they are so party political in appeasing and appealing to people who think that war will not exist in the world because people will be good, that they fail to consider the security of the nation. They cannot answer the question about future arguments between states. At the moment, defence may be about protecting oneself from terrorism, but there are no guarantees-remember Winston Churchill-that in the future there will not be conflicts between states, sometimes with different terrorist organisations being part of those interstate conflicts. In my view-and I have held this view for a long time-it would be extreme folly for Britain to give away its nuclear deterrent given that possible political situation in the future. There is no purpose in having second-level deterrents: we have to have top-level deterrents if we are to protect the interests of the nation. That is the issue to which the Liberal Democrats and some other parties have to face up.

I would be interested to know the Conservative Front Benchers' position on this issue. I know the views of some Conservative Members, but what is the position of Front Benchers on the nuclear deterrent?

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Our position is crystal clear and I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not know it. It is a shadow Cabinet decision, and has been for some time, that we are committed to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

Mr. Henderson: If that is an absolute guarantee, I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman was able to give it, and I hope that it will be given prominence in Conservative thinking on defence policy. I did not expect the Conservative party to come up with an all-embracing outline of what an SDR should eventually produce today, but I did expect some thrust about where it saw the threat coming from in the future. Apart from those threats that I have mentioned so far, does it see a threat from cyberwarfare? Does the Conservative party think that there is a threat from the impact of climate change on, for example, food prices or the availability of food or water? If the
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Conservative party thinks that those are threats, surely we should have heard something about that from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, but there was nothing about that at all. My view is that cyberterrorism is a real threat and could be a major part of any war front in future. It has to be countered, and the resources have to be found to do that.

I return to the point that I made in my intervention on the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). Does the Conservative party accept that there are choices? Opposition parties do not really have to identify choices, but in the run-up to the general election, the public want to know what the different parties are saying about the nation's defence. They want to know whether the parties have accepted that, in the real world, there are choices. We cannot have everything: that is the nature of things. Expenditure has to be allocated. Therefore, the starting point is the threat. Once the threat has been identified, then the question is: how much of the nation's resources are we prepared to spend on it? We still spend more, I think, than nearly every other European Union country.

Linda Gilroy: We are second.

Mr. Henderson: Yes, we are second. We therefore spend a significant amount already, but is public opinion going to wear a greater amount of our gross domestic product being spent on defence? Those on my Front Bench raised that issue with those on the Conservative Front Bench in earlier exchanges, but I am not yet clear whether the Conservative party will guarantee the existing percentage of the nation's resources being spent on defence, should they win a general election. That will be a key point in the election, and I will be watching what the Conservatives say on that very carefully. Indeed, I would have liked to hear something about it in today's debate, because our armed forces will be listening to and watching this debate. They will want to know what the future is for them, and whether they will be properly resourced, regardless of who forms the Government after the next general election. Cost is a factor; one cannot get away from cost.

Another thing that has to be dealt with-I will have to précis this point because of the time-is that we cannot have everything to defend our nation, even if we could face the cost. We have to decide what the core provision is-that is, what is there in case we need it at any time-and then we have to know how much flexibility there is, so that we can have additional provision to meet any exigencies that arise along the way. That is an important issue, and it has a huge amount to do with the procurement budget. I am trying not to be party political about this point, but again, I did not hear from the Conservatives whether they believed that movement across the sea required the building of two new carriers and whether that would be sustained, regardless of anything else that was decided in a strategic review. That is another question that will be asked.

However, the important question is: what is the core provision? Core provision is usually straightforward, and includes, for instance, intelligence, which will be crucial in future, and an Army that is at least the same size as what we have now-or perhaps bigger-and deployable. That is crucial core provision. Drones and various other unmanned aerial vehicles appear to be an
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essential part of core provision in the future; therefore, choices have to be made. Do we spend our air budget on drones and other intelligence-gathering equipment? Or, do we spend it on aircraft that can precision-attack, even in bad weather-at the moment it is questionable whether some of our aircraft can do that-or on air-to-air combat aircraft? Except for in a small way in the Falkland Islands, we have not been involved in air-to-air combat on any significant scale since the Korean war-that is, if my memory is accurate. I am happy to be corrected on that, but the last time was certainly a long time ago. Yet as a nation we still order air-to-air combat aircraft. Is the aircraft priority the defence of our naval capacity?

Those big issues have to be faced. They are all about choice, and some are about additional choice. We need to have the core provision, but there must be a capability beyond that, which will allow us to augment, depending on the situation that we face. Lift is another matter that the strategic defence review needs to consider. We cannot have deployable troops without the necessary lift capacity. We also need to ask whether we envisage ever again having a major conflict in areas furth of where we are, as we say in Scotland. Could Britain ever again engage on her own in a conflict à la the Falklands, or will we always be involved in an international intervention, with NATO, the European Union or another coalition of the willing? If we envisage the vast majority of our future deployments involving such coalitions, we need to think much more carefully about how we co-operate with the others who are deploying, and to what extent interoperability exists regarding our equipment. That, too, is a key issue that must be dealt with.

Many defence issues relating to the security of the nation need to be debated. The Conservatives could have done much better in their motion today. They could have looked at the big issues and explained how they intended to approach them in a strategic review, were they to be in government. They could have identified areas of consensus with the present Government on policies that they believe should be pursued in the interests of the nation. Those are the issues that should have been in their motion. They are not, however, and I will vote against it tonight.

5.6 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). His speech illustrates one of the problems that the Government have had over the years: they have had too many Defence Ministers. He might recall that when he was a Minister and I was his shadow, he took me to Slovenia on a sensitive and difficult mission to convince an emerging democracy of the importance of the Opposition being joined at the hip with the Government on defence policy. That important mission symbolised something very important, which the hon. Gentleman has talked about. Our discussions this afternoon should not detract from the position that everyone in this House, from whatever political party, supports Her Majesty's forces up to the hilt, and that whatever the politicians ask them to do, we back them as they do it, even though we might disagree with it politically.

That does not, however, mean that the Opposition can renege on their duty to hold the Government to account-through the Select Committee, through challenging them in debates such as these, or in any
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other way-on the ways in which they have or have not fulfilled their support for the armed forces. I hope that this debate will not become too party political, but it is an inevitable part of the strength of our military position that we hold the Government to account for the decisions that they take, without in any way departing from the vital principle that we in the House support Her Majesty's forces, even if we argue about the ways and means. Similarly, we never have a vote in the Select Committee on Defence; I cannot remember there ever being such a vote.

I agree completely with the motion. It makes some very constructive points, particularly about the next strategic defence review. I remember criticising the Government in 1998 for not saying that they would have a review in four or five years. I remember arguing that we should adopt the American or Australian system of having a regular review every four or five years. It is nonsense to say, "Oh, well, we've had some updates since then," as the Government's amendment seems to suggest. A rolling programme of defence reviews every four years would have avoided some of the difficulties that we have had-for example, in moving from Iraq to Afghanistan, and in the flexible approach needed in assessing risk these days.

I think, too, that the motion is entirely justified in pointing out the muddle, post-Iraq war, in post-conflict resolution. It is perfectly obvious that we did not work it out then, and that there was no joined-up government-it may have had something to do with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), who was then Secretary of State for International Development, and her particular view of the Iraq war-but NATO and the allies made a big mistake in not settling down properly to study what was going to happen after the war.

If we are to have a new system of defence reviews on a regular basis-I hope we do-we have to be prepared to stand back even further and perhaps give a new role to voices such as that of the Defence Academy of the UK at Shrivenham, which does a great deal of thinking about these issues; I salute the academy for that.

The motion is also quite correct in pointing out what nonsense the cut in the helicopter budget of £1.4 billion in 2004 was. It was indeed folly; there is no ducking that. The deficiencies in the procurement of the A400M and the air-to-air refuelling capability have been a major blight on military planning ever since. The cuts in the frigate and destroyer fleets of the Royal Navy were a great mistake, as was slippage on the carriers. The provision of aircraft for the aircraft carriers is also looking difficult, in view of where the joint strike fighter is in terms of planning and production.

The motion is also correct to point out the deficiencies in the military covenant, particularly housing. That is true in my constituency, as it is true, I am sure, in those of many other hon. Members who have military garrisons or quarters in their constituencies; they will be familiar with the sort of problems that arise. Only last month I visited some married quarters in Netheravon in my constituency, where I found some tired old 1950s housing. To be perfectly honest, it should be bulldozed and started again. It has been patched and repatched, but there are still holes in the roof, leaking walls, rising damp and so forth. In this day and age, this is not the sort of accommodation that we should expect our forces or their families to be placed in.

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Because Project Allenby is happening close to my constituency, and in it, I know that the Ministry of Defence is engaged in the biggest single building programme it has ever carried out. It includes many upgrades of existing houses as well as the construction of new married quarters and single person service accommodation. It was astonishing when the Ministry of Defence recently cut £14 million from the housing budget, hitting the upgrading of married quarters for 4,000 families-and at the stroke of a pen up the road there in the Ministry of Defence! That is having a huge impact on the lives of 4,000 service personnel. That was another great mistake-whatever one may say, looking back in history, about what happened with Addington Homes and so forth, which seemed such a good idea at the time. We should beware of failing to take the issue of military housing seriously.

The Government amendment has plenty in it with which I can agree, but it is rather over the top in talking about "31 new ships", as it is probably true that those were all ordered by the Conservative Government; certainly most of them were. The amendment also refers to improved medical services. Of course that is true. What happened at Selly Oak is controversial but very good; what is happening in Headley Court is very good; support for combat stress is very good. It is also true to say, however, that the military depend to a substantial extent on the national health service. The demise of the old military hospitals was the right decision to take, and NHS consultants are now heavily involved both on the front line, on secondment from their NHS hospitals as in the case of the Salisbury district hospital, and through the specialties they can provide, such as plastics, burns units, rehabilitation facilities and so forth in NHS hospitals, which are widely used by the services-and quite right, too.

Something has, however, gone wrong with welfare services. My constituency has seen cuts in the Army welfare services, which I greatly regret, because they put a bigger burden on local authority services. My local authority currently spends about 500,000 pounds a year on looking after servicemen and their families.

Where would our military welfare be if it were not for Help for Heroes, an organisation that has really caught the imagination of the British public? We know that the British public have the greatest admiration for all our armed forces in all three services, but is it not astonishing that they are putting their hands in their pockets-to the tune of about £8 million a year-to support Help for Heroes, which in turn supports organisations such as Headley Court, the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, and the Selly Oak patient welfare fund? Where, indeed, would Help for Heroes be without my constituents Bryn and Emma Parry, who founded it? We are all deeply grateful to them.

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