Operation Moshtarak is the most important campaign in Afghanistan since the original invasion in 2001. We are not going to win in Afghanistan in military terms alone, so it is very reassuring that NATO allies are
beginning to take this sentiment seriously. It is to be hoped that the battle for hearts and minds will, crucially, turn a corner. With the most likely next phase of the operation being a planned offensive in Kandahar, a key Taliban stronghold, maintaining the coalition's momentum while minimising civilian casualties and maintaining public perception of the offensive is going to be quite a tall order.
Last week, the assistant deputy coroner dealing with the cases of Corporal Sarah Bryant, Corporal Sean Reeve, Lance Corporal Richard Larkin and Private Paul Stout reached a striking verdict of unlawful killing, citing a shortage of more suitable off-road vehicles and the inadequacy of training for detecting improvised explosive devices. We should all take stock of that. Crucial shortages mean that we are still not taking sufficient measures to equip our troops properly to do the job in Afghanistan. It is shocking that the Ebex metal detector became available to those soldiers who died only four months into their deployment, up to which point the soldiers had to scan the ground for IEDs. Everybody is aware that IEDs are the biggest single threat facing our troops and failure to provide them with enough metal detectors is simply unforgivable.
I very much welcome the fact that at the London conference on Afghanistan, President Karzai changed his tune to recognise the need for the political solution alongside the military effort. Announcing his peace jirga, he spoke of inviting to talks those Taliban interested in making peace. I very much hope that that will begin the process of political dialogue, which we all hope will in due course-no one should imagine it will come quickly-lead to some sort of lasting political settlement.
It is quite clear to me that stability will not come to Afghanistan quickly, so our efforts should also look to forming an international strategy that effectively engages the regional players for a wider peace. There will be no long-term or sustainable peace without the co-operation of a contact group of neighbouring forces such as Pakistan, India, Russia, Iran and other stakeholders such as Saudi Arabia. At the London conference, more than 75 nations and international organisations, including representatives from all Afghanistan's neighbours, were in attendance. All those neighbours are engaged in regional co-operation, and most are affected by the crime, drugs, terrorism and migration that spills out over Afghanistan's borders.
Speakers in the debate have already referred to the Falklands. I repeat others' comments to make it clear that there is an all-party view on the issue. Britain's assertion that the Falkland islanders' sovereignty is not up for negotiation must be absolute. Any Argentine offensive would have to be met with force. It would be a spectacular error on the part of Argentina if it were to launch any offensive, but it is vital to prepare for such a contingency.
The strategic defence review is essential, and long overdue. It is 12 years since the last one, and nine years into the so-called war on terror, so it is clear that some fundamental questions need to be asked again. In my view, the review must tussle with three or four key questions, the first of which is what kind of power the UK wants to be, and where on the spectrum of force projection we see ourselves. In the previous strategic defence review, we concluded that Britain wanted to be a force for good around the world, that we were committed
to expeditionary warfare, that we were a willing coalition partner, and that we saw the role of our armed forces as a great deal more than simply defence of the realm. Despite the difficult experiences of the past 10 years, I believe that that was the right conclusion, and that that should remain our strategic position, but it is only right that the question should be addressed afresh in the course of a strategic defence review.
We must also decide what we are committed to do on our own and what we are prepared to do in concert with others, because sustaining quite so comprehensive a range of capability as we have had in the past may no longer be feasible. We must consider what the balance should be between preparing our armed forces for the wars of today and preparing for the engagements that we can anticipate. We must consider what contingency planning we need to do for the possibility of state-on-state warfare re-emerging in years to come, and ensure that we configure our forces in the right way to meet that.
However, if a strategic defence review is to be genuinely strategic, it must be comprehensive. A review would be undermined before it began if there were exceptions and exemptions from its scope. Everything-absolutely everything-including the replacement of Trident on a like-for-like basis, must be included. We must re-evaluate every commitment, including the amount spent on staffing and the remarkable number of top brass retained at the MOD, some of whom are a long way from having any meaningful field operation or duty. A comprehensive strategic defence review is the vehicle for that, but it would be neutered beforehand if a raft of exemptions pre-empted it-that would make it neither comprehensive nor strategic.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I thank the hon. Gentleman for his usual courtesy in giving way. As I understand it, both the Government and the Opposition have said that there will be only one exemption from the strategic defence review: we have said that there will be a strategic nuclear deterrent when the review is over. Do the Liberal Democrats share that view, or do they want that question put into the review?
Nick Harvey: I thought that the Government and Opposition had said rather more than that-I thought that they had said that they were absolutely hellbent on the method of sustaining the nuclear deterrent that was distilled in the White Paper-and, indeed, subsequently voted through the House. If the hon. Gentleman's question was more broadly whether the nuclear deterrent should be included in the review, I must say that it should be. The Liberal Democrats have said nothing to the effect that we believe a decision should be taken at this stage to cancel the deterrent. The position is as stark as the Conservatives' posture suggests only if one subscribes to the belief that the only possible way in which to sustain a nuclear deterrent past the late 2020s or early 2030s is through the mechanism that the Government devised in their White Paper. I do not believe that that is the case. It is therefore only right and proper that the decision taken at that time should be covered by the strategic defence review.
Let me make the Conservatives' position crystal clear. Our position is that outwith the terms of reference of the review, there will be a strategic nuclear
deterrent, and it will be submarine based. As far as I know, there are only two possibilities for a submarine-based strategic nuclear deterrent: ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. I do not mind looking at cruise missiles again, but I would be amazed if they were found to be viable. What is the hon. Gentleman's position? Is he saying that, in the unlikely event of the Liberal Democrats' leader becoming Prime Minister, there will be a strategic nuclear deterrent?
Nick Harvey: We have a nuclear deterrent. It is there, it is paid for, and it has another 20 years of life in it. The point is that the hon. Gentleman already seems hellbent-now, here, in 2010-on deciding that there should continue to be a nuclear deterrent during the 30 years between 2030 and 2060. He view appears to believe that that should happen irrespective of any other development in any part of the globe. He has already made that decision, and in so doing has held in contempt the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which calls on the nuclear states to use their best offices and sincere endeavours to negotiate away nuclear deterrents over a period of time.
I cannot say now what the strategic environment will be in 2030 with any more certainty than the hon. Gentleman can. What I can make clear is this: while it is certainly not the Liberal Democrats' view that we should do away with our nuclear deterrent in the aftermath of the election, it is ludicrous to conduct a review of our defences that we portray as strategic, long-term and tackling fundamental questions, if a precondition of the debate that is to take place is an absolute certainty that, irrespective of anything that happens in the world, we are hellbent on being a nuclear power for the 30 years between 2030 and 2060. I am not saying that the Government have said that; I am saying that that is what the hon. Gentleman said last time he rose to speak at the Dispatch Box.
Dr. Lewis: As I rise to speak at the Dispatch Box again, let me say this to the hon. Gentleman. The nuclear deterrent that we shall require to replace the existing nuclear deterrent will take a long time to construct. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that he can wait 10 or 15 years before deciding whether or not to start building the next generation of nuclear deterrent, he is taking us, and the electorate, for fools. As for the commitment in the non-proliferation treaty, nothing in the treaty requires us to get rid of our nuclear weapons as long as other countries have nuclear weapons too, and that is something that my party will never do.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Before the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) replies, may I remind all Members that interventions must be brief? Many Members are still waiting to make their contributions to the debate.
No one is saying that we should close off the option for future Governments now, but it makes nonsense of a strategic review to take the position adopted by the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), and to say that, come what may, we will remain a nuclear power for all those decades.
What we do know is that the context of the strategic defence review will be driven largely by finance. We know that whoever wins the election, the Treasury will make life difficult for the Ministry of Defence, especially in the light of the public deficit. All of us in the defence community within the political sphere will have to kick up rough to help to keep the Treasury at bay.
One of the critical elements with which the strategic defence review will have to grapple is undoubtedly procurement. Bernard Gray's devastating report last October highlighted how far off the mark we are when it comes to ensuring that projects proceed on budget or on time.
We had some exchanges earlier about the impact of certain procurement decisions involving jobs. Of course the state of the British defence industry and jobs is important, but three priorities are involved in the making of procurement decisions: we must have absolutely the best equipment for our armed forces, there must be value for money for the taxpayer, and we must sustain and support the British defence industry and jobs. The three priorities come in that order. The first is military, the second financial, and the third industrial. It is perfectly possible for armed forces the size of ours to sustain a meaningful defence industry, but we should not allow the tail to wag the dog.
Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman's speech has been very interesting so far, but will he now remind me of the Liberal Democrat position in relation to the aircraft carriers, which he explained so movingly to the trade unionists who came down to visit him a couple of weeks ago?
Nick Harvey: The position on the aircraft carriers is the same as it has always been. We believe that absolutely everything should be covered by the strategic defence review; of course, that includes the carriers. We supported the Government when they took the decision to commission the carriers and we continue to support the work that is going on in building them. We believe that the strategic posture of being committed to expeditionary warfare is the right one, so the flexible use of aircraft carriers has a large part to play in that. We would have thought it unlikely that a strategic defence review that will commence its work this summer and then carry it out over a year or so would think it a remotely practical or sensible option to cancel carriers upon which so much has already been invested and so much work done. Nevertheless, I repeat that everything is to be considered by a strategic defence review if it is to be meaningful.
Mr. Davidson: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he does not intend to examine the break clauses in contracts on day one of a Liberal Government, or a Liberal-somebody else coalition, with a view to either cancellation or pressing the pause button, so that no work is continued until the defence review is completed, which seems to be the view of the Conservatives?
Nick Harvey: Certainly not. We have no intention of doing some quick and dirty defence review on the back of a fag packet before the real one takes place. All aspects of the procurement programme will be looked at in a measured way during a strategic defence review, which is only right and proper.
Mark Pritchard: To give the hon. Gentleman credit, the one policy that has been thought about in detail over a long period is the Liberal Democrat policy of signing up to a Euro army-a policy that I think is gravely mistaken. Does he accept that unless the Liberal Democrats recant of this heresy, it would mean that the British Army would be reduced even further?
Nick Harvey: I know nothing of any such policy as the one that the hon. Gentleman describes as admirably consistent. Let me make it perfectly clear: the Liberal Democrats remain completely committed to NATO and believe that NATO and the United States are our critical military allies. But we can see that the countries of Europe cannot possibly expect the United States to make as much provision for our security in the next 50 years as they have in the last 50. The United States has every right to expect Europeans to do more on our own behalf and to shoulder more of the responsibility for our collective defences, and it is incumbent on us to do so.
Therefore it will remain the case that people joining the British armed forces will join just that-the British armed forces. However, on different occasions they might find themselves deployed under the flag of the United Nations or of NATO, or, in other circumstances, as part of a European force, as they already have been in Bosnia and are being deployed in other parts of the world. I do not think that anybody should have any hang-ups about that. It is an entirely healthy thing, and I hope that the Europeans, in years and decades to come, will shoulder more responsibility in looking after our own defences. We in Europe have a larger population, and a larger GDP, than America and it is wrong for us to expect the Americans to do so much on our behalf. In the years to come, we must do more on our own behalf.
There is a problem. We know that the black hole in the defence budget is variously estimated at between £21 billion and £35 billion. The British taxpayer deserves to know how much debt he or she is expected to carry and the attitude of denial-we have heard about MOD witnesses being unwilling to give candid answers to questions-is simply unacceptable. We will not get the procurement budget under national control until we open procurement up to much more detailed parliamentary scrutiny, such as many other western democracies take for granted. Things are far too secretive and opaque, and letting the sunlight in will help to bring the budget under control. The strategic defence review must determine the future of procurement; it must also be considered in the context of wider questions, such as what we want the armed forces overall to do.
We have touched on the nuclear issue. We are approaching the eighth non-proliferation treaty conference in New York this May. It needs to be made clear what the Government are hoping to see as an outcome from that, and also what we are prepared to offer during the conference to try to achieve that outcome.
While Russia and the US continue to discuss possible cuts of up to a quarter in their nuclear arsenals, the UK Government are unwilling even to review their nuclear policy during the course of the strategic defence review. Of course the UK must look towards a multilateral process for our eventual disarmament, but at present that goal seems ever more distant. Similarly, despite the supposed urgency of the replacement decision back in 2006, the Government seem happy to push back the initial gate decision, which was originally scheduled for last December, and there are now concerns that these delays will leave less time to debate the subsequent main gate decision, which, according to the National Audit Office, threatens the overall programme timetable by increasing the technical and commercial risk. Overall, we need to be asking serious questions about the role of our nuclear deterrent, and whether we are going about delivering it in the most effective way.
The Government's record on defence leaves a great deal to be desired. We keep hearing from them that no specific requests from the military have been turned down. That may be literally true, but it is a misleading assertion, because any specific requests from the armed forces are made only in the context of the financial straitjacket within which they know they are operating. We also hear about the additional moneys that the Treasury contributes to the conflict in Afghanistan, and previously the conflict in Iraq, but the problem with is that it is only really contributing to the marginal and additional costs of those conflicts, not to the total cost.
To use an analogy, if I ask a very good friend to drive me up to Scotland on a matter of life and death and offer to pay for the petrol for the journey, they may consider that that has covered the cost of the excursion, but if I do that time and again, that will eventually take a toll on their car, which will also have to be addressed. I believe that that is exactly the analogy we should draw in respect of what the Government have done. The Treasury has given additional moneys to cover the marginal costs, but no stock has been taken of the depleted capital of the Ministry of Defence, or the effect on its equipment and its manpower. There will be a lasting painful legacy from our undertaking two operations during the course of this decade without adequate resource underpinning them, and we will feel it for many years to come.
I am delighted that there will finally be a strategic defence review, but there must also be a defence procurement programme in place to support our troops-our servicemen and women-and ensure that they are properly equipped to do the job. We have to make sure that that is the case, and that they are properly equipped to do the job we send them out to do.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): First, may I pay tribute to the service personnel who have lost their lives over the past year? This time last year, many of them were from Plymouth, Devon and Cornwall, serving in 29 Commando and the Royal Marines. This year, the Rifles-including Devon and Dorset-have lost a number of personnel. Although we do not forget about those who are injured, of course; we must ensure that we take them into account, too, as well as their families and close friends who support them.