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1 Mar 2010 : Column 702

Mr. Arbuthnot: Indeed so. It seems to me a bit unfortunate that the informed views of Boscombe Down should be dismissed in the way that some later commentators within the Ministry of Defence have dismissed them. Suggestions that the software was positively dangerous, which have come out since that date, are not suggestions that I rely on as being true. I simply rely on those suggestions as giving rise to doubt, and only in those cases where there is no absolutely no doubt whatever can deceased air crew be found negligent.

Mr. Jenkin: I just wanted to place on the public record the fact that as shadow Secretary of State for Defence in, I think, 2002, I suggested to the Government a process for trying to resolve the matter. That process involved setting up an inquiry with a retired judge, a retired military officer from one of the other services and a suitably technically qualified person to review the decision in order to allow the Government in a dignified manner to come to a conclusion about these issues, which cannot be resolved in the House. Why does my right hon. Friend think that the Government have refused to take such a course of action?

Mr. Arbuthnot: Yes, my hon. Friend did make that suggestion. I do not know the answer to his question. I do not know why, essentially, senior Air Force officers have dug their heels in, but I hope that the Minister, when he comes to the meeting, will approach it with an open mind, because this is an issue of the greatest importance. It is an issue of fairness for those who have died in the service of their country, and there can be no more important matter for a Minister to deal with than that.

6.8 pm

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Defence is one of the most important areas of politics, and it ought to be debated fiercely, so I am astonished that the Opposition seem to have run out of steam. There seems to be no passion, fire, drive or urge for government, and we are only-what?-two months away from an election, so is today's debate an indication that the Opposition are preparing for another term of opposition? It certainly seems like that to me.

I shall take my theme from the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who earlier said that she believed that repetition is a good line to pursue. This may come as a surprise to some Members, but I want to raise the question of the aircraft carriers to try to establish the exact position of the relevant parties. In ascertaining the official Opposition's position, I have to take cognisance of what happened last week.

A group of convenors-shop stewards-from the country's shipyards came to the House to meet representatives of the two main Opposition parties. They met the Liberals, and normally I would tell people that there is no point meeting them, because they do not matter very much. There is talk of a hung Parliament, however, so on that occasion I thought that such a meeting might be appropriate. In the event that a coalition comes to pass, or there is a hung Parliament in which individual issues are voted on, Liberal support in those circumstances would be important, and the convenors went away gratified that the Liberals had made their position absolutely clear. They were supportive of the
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aircraft carrier; they would be prepared to support it in the event of a hung Parliament; and the convenors very much welcomed that support.

However, the convenors were greatly depressed when they went to meet the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who, speaking on behalf of the official Opposition, made it clear that the action that a Conservative Government would take on day one would be to examine the break clauses in the contract. Had he said to them, "I'm afraid I can't tell you anything because it will take us six months to set up a review, and then a year to have the review, and then maybe a couple of weeks at the end of that to decide on it, so it will be 18 months or so before we can come a decision", they would not have been happy with that, but they could have understood it, because that had been a relatively consistent position; indeed, it was the Liberals' position until they accepted the strength of the convenors' arguments. But no, the Conservatives said that on day one they would examine the break clauses-no one examines the break clauses on day one unless the intention might be to apply them on day two.

We are therefore absolutely certain that the Royal Navy and the aircraft carriers are safe with Labour or the Liberals but sunk with the Conservatives, or, indeed, with the nationalists, who would not build any aircraft carriers on their own.

Mr. Jenkin: Why was the Secretary of State not prepared to give the assurance that the hon. Gentleman has been seeking from the official Opposition?

Mr. Davidson: That was my next point, because I want to consider the Government's position.

Unlike the Opposition, when we look to the crystal ball, with the Government we can read the book and see what they have done. If the Government intended to cancel the aircraft carriers, they would have done so before now. They proceeded to order the carriers, and they have restructured the contract for the carriers. That was most helpful to the shipyards involved because, admittedly at additional cost, that decision has spun out the work over a longer period, which means that they will have no gap-no precipice-at the end of the aircraft carrier contract before further contracts arrive. As a result, there is no fear of the work force being dispersed or of enormous lay-offs and the like-lay-offs that would be almost impossible to reverse later on by trying to pull workers back. I recognise that the Government go through the motions in saying that everything is up for discussion in the defence review; none the less, it is perfectly clear from reading the book that they are committed to the carriers.

Mr. Quentin Davies: Let me make the Government's position absolutely clear. We are contractually, morally and politically committed to the aircraft carriers. On Friday, the Secretary of State took part in a steel-cutting process in Portsmouth, and I took part in a steel-cutting process at the A&P Tyne shipyard in Newcastle, to demonstrate our commitment to the carriers. I do not think it is possible for a Government to make their position plainer than that.

Mr. Davidson: I thank the Minister-that was very clear. Even the Liberals would agree that it was clear, because we find ourselves in agreement with them on
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this matter in seeking coalition support, and there is no point in trying to find arguments where none exist. We are therefore in a position whereby two parties are unequivocally supporting the aircraft carrier and one major party is not prepared to come off the fence.

I cannot help but think that the Tories do not really have their heart in this. This debate has been extremely lacklustre on the Conservative side of the House. There has been no fire or passion, and no indication at all that they are preparing for Government. The collapse in the polls is echoed by the collapse in Conservative morale and commitment to this cause. I can understand that some Conservative Members who are making their valedictory speeches may not wish to express enthusiasm, because there is not a great deal to be enthusiastic about on the Benches that they are departing from. However, the most noticeable aspect of this defence debate is that this is an Opposition who have run out of steam long before the general election-and long may that continue.

6.14 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): The hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) may not have given an enthusiastic speech, but what I am enthusiastic about is our courageous armed forces who are fighting in Afghanistan as we speak. I would like to pay tribute to them, particularly all those who come from Shropshire, including regular and reserve forces. On this St. David's day, I pay particular tribute to all the fallen sons and fathers from Wales-many have given their lives in serving Her Majesty's armed forces. Part of the strength of the armed forces of the United Kingdom is that they represent all the regions, despite the best efforts of the current Government to dismantle regiments from different parts of the United Kingdom. That strength lies in the fact that many of these people come from different parts of our great nation.

I pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) for her long and distinguished service in this House and her championing of our armed forces, particularly for their protection through improved fighting vehicles. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for his long and distinguished service in this House, including on the Defence Committee. Their contributions to these debates, which have always been enthusiastic, will be sorely missed. Perhaps what the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West said might be a little more credible if we occasionally saw more Labour Back-Bench Members contributing to these debates. As ever, there is absolutely nobody on the Labour Back Benches, and we certainly see no Liberal Democrats-no surprise there.

Afghanistan is an important mission. It is important that the Government continue to make the case, with cross-party consensus, for this war. If we withdraw prematurely, it is absolutely certain that al-Qaeda and its affiliates and associates will regroup, set up their training camps, and bring their fight to the streets of Britain. Despite our being in this phoney election period, I wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister's comments on this war, because it is not a party political issue: it is a question of nation before party and national security before party politics. I endorse the Prime Minister's stance on that issue, as do our Conservative Front
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Benchers. It is important that we win in Afghanistan, whatever the definition of winning is-we will have to wait and see. Of course, there will eventually be a political settlement, but that cannot come until we weaken our enemies further, so we need to stay the course.

We also need to stay the course because it is important that NATO holds together. NATO is an imperfect military alliance, but it is the best alliance that we have. It has served us, pretty much, fairly well over the past 60 years, and we need to ensure that it is not undermined, as it would be if we withdrew prematurely from Afghanistan.

Linda Gilroy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the key to drawdown is a transition to Afghan responsibility, which will be welcomed by Afghans and the allies alike when it can happen?

Mark Pritchard: I completely agree with the hon. Lady. We all want to see in Afghanistan a stable, democratic Government who represent all the different tribal and ethnic groups within the country. That is the only way in which that Government will be sustainable in the long term.

We need to stay the course in Afghanistan, because if we do not, that will be a huge morale boost to jihadists and extremists across the world. We need to be resolute, firm and determined. We also need to recognise that wars are not run on an hourly news basis or according to a 24-hour news cycle. Every loss is a personal tragedy for the families involved; indeed, it is a national tragedy. However, there has never been a bloodless war, and it is absolutely wrong for some parts of the media to suggest, when we are losing men and women on the front line, that we are being defeated, or that we should withdraw, or that we should surrender. War is bloody, ugly, dirty and unpleasant, but the sacrifices that have been made in Afghanistan are a sign of the courage and resoluteness of our armed forces, and more importantly of their progress there, rather than anything to the contrary.

I pay tribute to armed forces from other parts of the world, such as those from Canada, which has suffered huge losses. I pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins and hope that the people of Canada will similarly recognise the importance of staying the course in Afghanistan. I hope that the new Government of Prime Minister Harper will be able to make the case for ensuring that the troops remain beyond 2011.

Similarly, I pay tribute to those from the Netherlands who have fallen. The Netherlands is a close European partner and ally, and I hope that its Government will soon be reconstituted and that, more importantly, the case will be made for the importance of staying the course in Afghanistan. The troops from the Netherlands are professional and some of the best in the world, and we need them in Afghanistan. I hope that the people of the Netherlands will recognise that.

Mention has been made of improvised explosive devices. I hope that the Chinese Government will do far more to intervene with arms manufacturers that use the Chinese parts that form some IEDs, and to ensure that the border between Afghanistan and China is secure. It is a small border by comparison with those with other
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countries, but it nevertheless needs to be secure. We would not expect any help from Iran, of course, but we know that there is a direct link between Iranian parts and manufacturing and some of the IEDs that are being used. The use of such devices is cowardly, and it is another sign of the conventional victories of our armed forces over the past months and years.

I mentioned rest and recuperation earlier and stressed the need for the Government to work harder to ensure that air transport and air bridge movements are far more easily available to our armed forces. I know that weather plays a key part in some delays, but as I said, constituents have contacted me to say that many of them are caused by the age of the airframes. It is important that people on R and R can go back to their homes in the UK as quickly as possible rather than be stuck in Cyprus or elsewhere. The Secretary of State, who is not in his place at the moment, mentioned the deployment of the new C-17. I am sure that he got a bit confused earlier and knows that that is a cargo configuration rather than a troop transport configuration.

I wish briefly to mention Northern Ireland. The peace dividend for the whole UK and the whole island of Ireland has been huge, and we all want peace to continue and democracy and inward investment to thrive in Northern Ireland. I hope that neither the Government nor Her Majesty's Opposition, who are hopefully the future Government, will forget in the strategic defence review the importance of maintaining troops in Northern Ireland to support the excellent work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): My hon. Friend is ranging far and wide, and I commend what he is saying and find no reason to disagree with any of it. Will he perhaps mention a subject that has not been fully mentioned in the debate-the defence of the Falkland Islands? There is increased tension in the south Atlantic, and it is important that the sovereignty of those islands and the principle of self-determination are maintained.

Mark Pritchard: As always, my hon. Friend makes an excellent intervention. I commend his work over many years as chairman of the all-party group on the Falkland Islands. He is absolutely right, and it is disappointing that despite pressure at business questions last week, the Government have still not agreed to a debate on the Falkland Islands in Government time, which would send a clear signal to the struggling and failing Government of President Kirchner in Argentina. There also needs to be clarity about what new military commitment there may be to the Falkland Islands, again to send a strong signal to the Government of Argentina.

I will be disappointed if it is true that the White House and President Obama's Administration have taken a position of neutrality on the Falkland Islands-so much for the special relationship. It is a good job that the UK and the great people of this fine country have not taken a neutral position on issues on which America has called upon the UK to help. I hope that America will review its position. I also find it disappointing that some of our Caribbean partners and allies, and indeed Commonwealth cousins, have joined Latin American countries in suggesting that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and, most importantly, the self-determination of its people, are in question.

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I am greatly honoured and privileged to have one of the Combat Stress units at Audley Court in my constituency, and I pay tribute to all the staff who do such a great job there. I am concerned, though, that there is potentially a mental health ticking time bomb in the armed forces unless the Government do more. I have been there many times and met people from conflicts going back to the Falklands war, and from Iraq I, Iraq II, Afghanistan and other conflicts. There is no doubt that unless there is early intervention, post-traumatic stress readily turns into post-traumatic stress disorder. The Government need to consider that, and they need to ensure that when they include the national health service in the future treatment of armed forces personnel and veterans, they do not somehow pass the buck. Yes, there needs to be partnership, but it needs to be partnership that works.

I have heard absolutely nothing from Defence Ministers about the Korean war, which is disappointing. They will know that this year is the 60th anniversary of its start, and that UK armed forces personnel fell in it. I had the great privilege of going to the 38th parallel two years ago, and I understand that there may well be a new memorial to commemorate the war. I hope that Ministers might be able to confirm that and underscore what this nation will do to recognise the Korean war veterans who did so much.

On that point, I hope that the Government will set out their view of how the nation's war memorials are to be cared for and looked after. I pay tribute to Shropshire council and Telford and Wrekin council, which have set out on their own to ensure that war memorials are looked after, but the Government-perhaps through the Department for Culture, Media and Sport-need to do far more, such as considering how national lottery and other funds can be used to ensure that our war memorials are keep in decent order to honour those who have fallen in the past.

The Government got it wrong on the Army Base Repair Organisation. Ministers wanted to lay off 900 people in my constituency. I intervened and said that the attrition of vehicles in Afghanistan and Iraq made it completely inappropriate to shut the organisation. It has remained open, and I am glad about that, but I am concerned that the operational efficiency programme set out in the pre-Budget report may raise question marks about not only ABRO but the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is also in my constituency. Both organisations have excellent personnel who are committed and loyal, and I hope that the Government will not betray that loyalty and commitment.

Similarly, there is much concern among civilian and military personnel at RAF Cosford, in my constituency, that whoever wins the election, the deal has already been done with regard to the defence training review. It is a privatisation too far, but there is concern that it cannot be unravelled or reversed, and that armed forces personnel will suffer as a result.

I wish briefly to mention to Japan, which is a fine and wealthy nation, and we are grateful for its latest contribution of £5 billion to Afghanistan. However, we talk about emerging global threats, and it would be wonderful if there were a new debate in Japan about changing its constitution and perhaps playing a greater role in the security of the Asia-Pacific region. The case is similar with Australia. Australia's forces do a great job, and I pay tribute to Australian special forces and the country's
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fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in an ideal world, Australia would do more than it does, and might even have its own aircraft carrier, despite its small population and relatively small armed forces. However, we pay tribute to our Australian allies.

On cybersecurity, which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) mentioned, I invite him to join the new all-party cybersecurity group, of which I have the honour to be chairman.

Finally, when our armed forces are fighting on the front line and showing courage, commitment and bravery in Afghanistan, and doing so much to ensure that democracy in that country continues, I hope they will not be denied their democratic right to vote in this year's general election.

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