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15 Mar 2010 : Column 646

I was a little confused by the contribution on behalf of the Liberal Democrats by the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), as I always am when he speaks about the strategic nuclear deterrent, because all the issues he raises as questions were addressed in the White Paper. It looked at the alternatives, and dismissed them for very good reasons. What I find of most concern, however, is that a Devon Member seems to display such an absence of understanding of how significant and fragile the skills base is that contributes to the maintenance of the current nuclear deterrent and its future design. In respect of the House's 2006 decision, that is tantamount to a unilateralist position of not going forward with the deterrent.

Nick Harvey: Is the hon. Lady seriously suggesting that we should sustain a nuclear deterrent-or a particular configuration of one-because of its impact on the industrial skills base? That is an extraordinary argument. Surely the one must follow the other. We cannot have a nuclear deterrent in order to sustain jobs.

Linda Gilroy: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the position very substantially. The purpose of the nuclear deterrent is not to keep the work force in place for its own sake. The point is that we probably could not ever bring that work force back into being if we were to let them go. That was the whole point-or at least one of the substantial points-of making the decision in 2006.

The hon. Gentleman also took part in the debate on the equipment stories that-partly thanks to inaccurate attacks by the Tories in the press-have been dominating the news. The Government are committed to ensuring that our troops have the right kit to carry out their responsibilities, although new vehicles and armour are certainly not the whole answer. We have to be among the people to be successful in a counter-insurgency struggle. Military operational commanders have repeatedly stressed the importance of having a range of vehicles from which they can select the most appropriate for a specific task.

In the past three years alone, the Government have approved more than £1.7 billion of work on new vehicles for operations. That has included 280 Mastiffs, which offer world-leading protection against mines and roadside bombs, and the new Ridgback vehicles that will go out later this year. Indeed, the Leader of the Opposition has admitted that the Government have made good progress. On Sky News, on 18 August 2009, he said:

However, there is an election in the air.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Can the hon. Lady explain why the British Army went through operational exercises Saif Sareea 1 and 2-in 2001 and 2002, if my memory serves me correctly-to practice armed action in a desert environment in Oman? Given the time it took to get equipment to Iraq, why did we not start purchasing it earlier? Why did we have to wait all that time for urgent operational requirements to supply our troops once they were in field, in theatre and in battle? Why was the equipment not available before they went there?

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Linda Gilroy: My recollection of Saif Sareea 2 was that it happened immediately before the Iraq invasion. Indeed, one of the lessons learned from it was that, because of the wear and tear not only on the Snatch vehicles but on all types of vehicles, such vehicles needed to be commissioned. Indeed, that is what happened.

The most recent land vehicle issues have related to the evolution of improvised explosive devices. I recall that, when we were on a Defence Committee visit in 2006, we met a couple of young men who had recently been responsible for going into a property in Basra and listing the variety of IEDs, which were only just beginning to be used at that time. The types of vehicles that would need to be deployed changed as a result of that.

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Lady has served on the Defence Committee for a long time, and I know that she will want to be completely accurate in the record that she sets before the House today. The IED threat has emerged in the transition from Iraq to Afghanistan. Is it not the case that, in Afghanistan, Snatch Land Rovers and other lightly armoured vehicles have needed to be up-armoured under urgent operational requirements, even as a response to the threat from RPG-7 rocket launchers, which are not IED threats?

Linda Gilroy: In response to the IED threats that have most recently exercised Members, we have ongoing urgent operational requirements. Deliveries of Mastiff 1 are complete, and deliveries of Mastiff 2 are ongoing.

Mr. MacShane: In trying to respond to the points raised by Opposition Members, my hon. Friend is putting herself into the position of our generals and senior MOD officials. One of the most moving parts of General Mike Jackson's memoir tells of an IED blowing up paratroopers in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. This is not new. The real question-which I am prepared to ask, as I am not part of the defence establishment-is: why have all our generals, air marshals and admirals not taken the responsibility themselves to allocate the budget in a way that best serves their troops? Why is all this the fault of my hon. Friend, or of the Minister for the Armed Forces? Indeed, why is it the fault of Opposition Members?

Linda Gilroy: My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I was going to make that point later. It is remarkable that people can look at what has happened with the wisdom of hindsight, and from a rather jaundiced point of view, when they were not prepared to speak up at the time. We have only to look back at the evidence given to the Defence Committee to find out that no one was particularly forthcoming on these issues, or on expenditure issues. The House needs to address that matter and get to the bottom of it.

Improvised explosive devices remain the greatest threat in Afghanistan, but that issue must be addressed not only by armoured vehicles but, for the reasons I was outlining, by the tactics, techniques and procedures used by our troops on operations to enable them to avoid and detect mines and IEDs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) is right to refer to Northern Ireland, because a great deal of our experience there has been used in developing counter-insurgency techniques for Afghanistan. Comprehensive
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pre-deployment training is provided for all troops deployed to Afghanistan, and when personnel arrive in theatre, they are provided with further reception training, a large part of which concentrates on IED recognition and avoidance.

Urgent operational requirements have been approved for more hand-held mine detectors, in addition to new explosive disposal robots, 30 of which are already in operation. Further investment has also been approved in that area. There is also a 200-strong counter-IED taskforce, which has new equipment to find and defuse mines and IEDs, and to identify and target the networks that are laying them.

In addition to the current focus on Afghanistan and on war-fighting operations, the Green Paper and the strategic defence review must take into account the importance of defence diplomacy and the long-term strategic role of our armed forces in representing British interests on the world stage, supporting the work of the Foreign Office and forging links with other countries, as well as looking at the way in which aid can support all that work. My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has referred to that issue.

The Green Paper sets out the key questions on our role in defence in the world that the strategic defence review will need to address. Where should we set the balance between focusing on our territory and region, and engaging threats at a distance? If we are working at a distance, what are the lessons to be learned and their implications? What contribution should the armed forces make in ensuring security and contributing to resilience in the UK? How can we better use the armed forces in support of wider efforts to prevent conflict and strengthen international stability? Do our international defence and security relationships need rebalancing in the long term? We have already heard some views on that. Should we adapt the current relationships, or do we need additional ones? Of course, the main effort remains-and no doubt will remain when the strategic defence review comes before the House-the situation in Afghanistan. That main effort is being deployed, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, with consequences that we will have to cope with in the rest of our defence policy and posture.

"Adaptability and Partnership" is the title of the Green Paper and nothing contributes to our forces' adaptability more than the Royal Navy. A lot of the statements that have been flying around in the context of Afghanistan, the run-up to the election and the strategic defence review have suggested that the lessons of the last strategic defence review have not been fully understood by some, especially how our capabilities have been modernised through "jointery", which enables the Navy to adapt to every level of landlocked conflict while maintaining all its standing roles.

In some of the previous debates in this place and outside it, there has been a danger of people being somewhat Army-centric because of Afghanistan.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that approach is somewhat misguided-I am sure that is the point she is about to make-given that at one point 40 per cent. of the forces on the ground in Afghanistan were Royal Navy forces?

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Linda Gilroy: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's point, which relates to the whole issue of the future role of the Royal Navy. The aircraft carriers are central to the Navy's current adaptable role, and I cannot see in any form of future threat analysis that such adaptability would be surplus to requirements. On the future surface combatant-the Type 26, as it has now been designated, was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) in an earlier intervention-I hope we are coming closer to deciding what the design will be, and therefore closer to knowing whether one of the variants could be based at Devonport, where we have an important skills base not just for the nuclear deterrent but for ship repair and maintenance. Of course, we will want to put forward the argument that there is no sense in putting all our eggs in one basket as far as base-porting is concerned-and especially not in a basket such as the congested port a little further along the coastline.

Recent issues associated with the availability of ships for Haiti and the Falklands demonstrate the need, over technical capability, for the numbers that the simple variant of the Type 26 could provide. It is perhaps not surprising, given that the Navy's natural habitat is the oceans that make up 70 per cent. of our globe, that the Navy should take an interest in climate change not only in terms of preparing its armed forces to work in changing climate conditions, but of anticipating the impact that climate change will have on the nature of conflict and the context in which it might occur.

The Defence Committee, on which I serve, had a recent interesting briefing from Rear Admiral Morisetti, who has been appointed for a period to consider and prepare for these issues. I hope that some of the work he is doing will surface and become part of the work that feeds into the strategic defence review.

Many Departments of State are signing up to the 10:10 campaign. I understand that, for instance, the Foreign Office, the Home Office, the Department for International Development and many other Departments have done so. The Secretary of State for Defence has pledged his support for the initiative and encouraged individual sites to sign up, but so far only the Royal School of Signals has done so-and well done to it, but a more genuine, extended commitment from the MOD would be welcome and is, indeed, absolutely necessary. If my hon. Friend the Minister cannot deal with the issue when he responds, I hope that somebody will write to me about how 10:10 is being pursued in the MOD. I do not underestimate the scale of the task, because 1 per cent. of our land mass-as well as a huge number of properties-is the responsibility of the MOD.

The Navy is also pivotal in dealing with piracy. Many Devonport warships have been involved in recent times in operations in Somalia, Yemen and so on. That underlines the importance of international co-operation. A ship that falls prey to piracy could be sailing from a port in one country to a port on the other side of the world; it could be owned by a third country and crewed by people from all over the world, sailing through international waters. That is precisely why there is a role for Europe in defence.

I also took note of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham about the importance of alliances and the bigger role that might perhaps be played by the Parliamentary Assemblies of NATO and
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the Western European Union. I would add the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to that list. There has been much debate over the question of burden sharing in this Parliament, and I sometimes wonder whether, with more organisation, we parliamentarians might not play a more focused role in trying to shine the spotlight on that.

In reforming the House, we have voted to give greater independence to Select Committees, allowing them to vote for their Chairs in future. If our party does not get the handsome majority to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham referred in future Parliaments -perhaps that might not happen immediately, but at some future point-we would need to consider as a House how we scrutinise defence and how the Government carry out such scrutiny, as well as the role that a Defence Committee could play. I want to draw hon. Members' attention towards our report, produced in a previous Session, on the future of NATO and European security and defence policy. We looked at how things were done in other countries and, with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), I went to Copenhagen. It was interesting to see how, with a hung Parliament, they were able to carry out defence scrutiny in a way that had some consistency over the period of a Parliament. With all parties having committed to a strategic defence review in each Parliament, we might also need to consider, as a House and as a Defence Committee, how we perform our scrutiny role in evolving a defence policy that can have the support of the whole House over a period of time.

There will be huge challenges to be faced in that future Parliament. Budget constraints are unlikely to ease. I say unlikely, but I cannot see any circumstances in which they will ease, even if we argued for defence to be better recognised-a case that all those present for defence debates would advance. Defence is a core activity of any Government and the nature of procuring equipment and services is, quantitatively and qualitatively, very different from other departmental expenditures and procurements.

One proposal advanced in the Bernard Gray report was that we should attempt to obtain a 10-year commitment to defence spending. That is a big ask, but it could reap huge benefits. There is a unique case to be made as far as defence is concerned. The Government have gone some way towards that in talking about having a 10-year planning horizon, but as that evolves we should keep it well under scrutiny.

In concluding, I want to mention the huge public support that exists for our armed forces, which has never been more evident-whether at Wootton Bassett or during armed forces week-and is spreading to more and more communities. I also want to mention last year's Command Paper, the external reference group that has been set up to make sure that its findings are carried forward and developed, the recognition study from which that was built, and the work of the Royal British Legion and myriad charities that have responded in a way that recognises the increased tempo and sustained deployment of our armed forces.

Just last week, the Big Lottery Fund committed the substantial sum of £35 million to a programme called Forces in Mind, undertaking to work closely with existing forces' charities to help people who come out of the armed forces, or back from deployment, with that period
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of adjusting to civilian life, which can sometimes be very difficult. That recognition needs to be matched in the quality of the work that lies ahead on the strategic defence review, which I hope will benefit from the work of the Defence Committee, not only in this Parliament given the many reports that we have recently worked on that will flow into the work of the strategic defence review, but in the next Parliament as well.

6.11 pm

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I should like to use the opportunity presented by the final defence debate of this Parliament to look back over the Parliament and see how we-the Ministry of Defence, the armed forces and the Select Committee on Defence, which I shall come to at the end-have all done. First, however, I should like to jump the gun by saying what a pleasure it is to follow the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). The knowledge and amount of research that she has brought to the Select Committee, and the commitment and dedication that she has always shown, have been second to none. I should like to thank her very much for that on the Committee's behalf.

The courage that the armed forces have shown over the course of this Parliament in the face of extraordinary danger has been the sort of which Kipling and Henty would have been absolutely proud. They have also had to learn new skills of governance and logistics, new languages, and how to collect and disseminate intelligence. We ask a great deal of them and we are very lucky indeed to have them.

Let me look back at the beginning of this Parliament. In the summer of 2005, we were at sort-of war in Iraq. We were in Afghanistan and were about to deploy the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps to Kabul. We were planning for the deployment, in June 2006, of 16 Air Assault Brigade to Helmand province. As the Committee said in its April 2006 report:

We were then, as now, masters of understatement. Nobody believed at that time that not a shot would be fired, but in defence of the then Secretary of State for Defence, that was not what he actually said. However, I did believe, and said, then that Iraq was going to be a much easier proposition than Afghanistan, and I think that has proven to be true.

At that time, the armed forces were overstretched and the Ministry of Defence was short of money for many reasons that people have tried to explain from different perspectives. First, NATO had been a success and the cold war was over. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said that we had won the cold war, and in a sense we had. NATO's very success had led people in Europe to believe that defence was not a priority for spending. That went for the whole of Europe, including this country; it certainly went for the Labour party and, frankly, for the Conservative party as well. Secondly, as a result of all that, Government public spending had risen significantly on things such as health and education, but comparatively little on defence. The Government are right to say that defence spending has steadily risen, but wrong to say that that was all that mattered.

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