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15 Mar 2010 : Column 652

The third reason for the money shortage was that fewer modern weapons were needed to achieve the same effect because they are so astonishingly powerful. Last night, I watched David Dimbleby's "Seven Ages of Britain", which explained that when the Maxim gun was invented, six of them could have the same effect as six entire regiments of soldiers. The natural consequence has been that we have been getting rid of soldiers and buying more of the modern equivalent of Maxim guns. However, we are now beginning to discover that although Maxim guns can kill very efficiently, they cannot, unlike soldiers, win the hearts and minds of a country. They cannot hold the night, and they cannot be in more than one place at one time. Neither can they win the battle of ideas back at home. They cannot persuade the people of this country that it is right for the Maxim guns to be out there in a foreign land. When one adds the effect of 24-hour news, the carnage produced by modern weapons becomes unsupportable. We now need a process of transition back to the notion of having more people, however powerful the weapons that they wield.

So, back in 2005 the armed forces were overstretched. They were fighting two wars on a peacetime budget. They did not go under, but it sometimes looked close in both Basra and Helmand. In Basra, the initial deployment showed that our inadequate recent experience of deployment overseas meant that logistics were heavily stretched. There was a serious misreading of the fundamental problems in Basra. We thought that it was more a matter of criminal gangs operating in a city where there was a lot of money, as opposed to a genuine insurgency, and locals were not listened to enough. Perhaps, too, the eyes of the armed forces and the MOD were too focused on the need to deploy more and more troops to Afghanistan, so we nearly failed in Basra, but we did not. Indeed, the general result has, partly because of the quality of our armed forces, been that Iraq has been more successful than not, but we have suffered some reputational damage there.

In Helmand, the problem has been that, in the initial years in which we deployed to the southern part of Afghanistan, we deployed in numbers that were too small. We were there in penny packets, and the concentration of our forces on the ground being thin was partly a result of having too few forces because we had relied on having so many powerful weapons. It was also partly because our European NATO allies did not regard it as their battle. Europe as a whole failed to lift its sights and see the importance of the battle in Afghanistan. Europe is at last beginning to wake up to some of the threats that that region poses. My conclusion is that the armed forces, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq, have been very stretched indeed; they have been surviving, but only just.

During this Parliament, how has the Ministry of Defence done as a whole? During the period, it has produced the defence industrial strategy, which I think is a good one, but according to the defence industry it has become moribund through lack of funding. Perhaps the defence industry would say that, but if it is true that the defence industrial strategy has become moribund, it ought not to have been produced in the first place, or it ought to have had a much greater eye on the need for funding right at the beginning.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned the fact that in 2005, and earlier, the Ministry of Defence was not doing procurement very well. We
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could say that actually it never has. I recognise many of the difficulties pinpointed and highlighted in the Bernard Gray report as having been prevalent while I was in charge of procurement. It is a long-term weakness of the Ministry of Defence that would take Hercules to clean up. Luckily, in the right hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton) there was such a Hercules, who appointed another-Bernard Gray-whose report on procurement is one of the most valuable documents ever to come out of Government.

The response of the Ministry of Defence has been-frankly-muddled. I was in entire agreement with what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton said about the need to firm up the 10-year budget for defence procurement, because the difference between a 10-year rolling budget and a 10-year indicative planning horizon is one that gives rise to some mirth.

The Minister for defence equipment and support made it plain to the Defence Committee that he does not really agree with very much of the Bernard Gray report, whereas the Minister for strategic defence acquisition reform has told my Committee that he does accept the report. To coin a phrase, "We can't go on like this." Only with a united team at the top of the Ministry of Defence will there be any hope of achieving progress in what may be the most difficult problem the MOD faces. It needs to be approached with drive, unity and a vigour that does not exist at the moment, because of that division.

Linda Gilroy: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a great prize to be achieved? Bernard Gray said that

We should not beat ourselves up too much, and if we can go even further with defence reform, we could lead the world in it.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I entirely agree. The hon. Lady correctly pinpoints some praise that Bernard Gray rightly expressed about the Ministry of Defence and the operations at Abbey Wood, which needs to be highlighted. One can go further. One could say that the greater the problems we have discovered in the MOD and its procurement process, the greater the opportunities to provide further money for the defence of this country by putting those problems right. I am not a total pessimist about everything-unlike my usual stance on such things. I believe that we have a great opportunity to make things better.

Ann Winterton: Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the past many mistakes have been made in defence procurement that have cost this country dear? If better judgments could be made, money would not be wasted but would go directly into the right kind of procurement, to ensure that our troops are better supported.

Mr. Arbuthnot: I agree with my hon. Friend. I would go further. Many of those mistakes are ones that she, through her diligent research, has brought to light. The country and the armed forces should be grateful to her.

We could go through many individual procurement projects-some have been good, some have been bad. The Prime Minister has said that the armed forces have
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never had such good personal equipment. He is absolutely right. When the Committee visits the armed forces in Afghanistan, Iraq or wherever, they are full of praise about their personal equipment. But let us distinguish properly between their personal equipment and other equipment, such as vehicles, about which they do not always say the same thing.

The urgent operational requirement process has sometimes worked well and sometimes less well, but it does work quickly. However, it works at considerable cost. In the face of urgent requirements, we should not begrudge that cost, but we should wonder whether the process could be better dealt with by better anticipation and foresight, so that the suggestion in the Bernard Gray report that some things should have been discovered long in advance bears some fruit-we have been in Afghanistan for a very long time.

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman will know of the observations the Defence Committee made about the FRES-future rapid effect system-programme. We now have what I call the dogs of war, such as the Jackals and the Bulldogs-the names of various dogs. We have acquired a suite of vehicles to do that work, but we have done it in an ad hoc, disjointed, pragmatic way, rather than through the strategic process we were promised FRES would be.

Mr. Arbuthnot: Indeed. The hon. Gentleman is another whose assiduity on the Defence Committee brings great enlightenment both to us and the defence world, and also great enjoyment.

Some projects have, such as FRES, been a disaster. After the Secretary of State spoke this afternoon, I was still not sure whether the FRES project is dead. The Minister for defence equipment and support told us unequivocally that it was dead. The chief of defence matériel told us a fortnight before that it was not dead; it was alive and kicking. It was alive, then it was dead and now, after the Secretary of State's comments this afternoon, it is alive again. My word for the FRES project was not "disaster"; that was the Minister's word. My word, or rather the Select Committee's word, was "fiasco", and a fiasco it was. A great deal of improvement must take place in procurement, but it is an opportunity that we must make the most of.

During this Parliament, the Committee has done its best to hold the Ministry of Defence to account. We have done so across the full range of the MOD's responsibilities. In doing so, we have been ably and energetically supported by a team of Clerks who have given us great dedication and impartial help. We have also received specialist advice from military and other advisers. On behalf of the Committee, I give them all our grateful thanks. I thank all members of the Committee. They have worked in a deeply constructive way to achieve the truth, and to praise or condemn without fear or favour. In my view, the Defence Committee has been the House of Commons working at its very best, and I give them my thanks for what they have achieved.

What has the Committee achieved during this Parliament? We have produced a number of reports and I shall run through a few of them. We did a report on the future carrier, several reports on Afghanistan, and three on the nuclear deterrent in time for the debate in
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the House on replacing the submarines. The report on educating service children was considered one of the best reports that the Defence Committee has produced, even though it was not on an overtly military matter.

We have mentioned FRES already. We have also done several reports on Iraq. We did an interesting report-a quick report-on the UK-US arms trade treaty, which has not yet borne fruit, although we hope that, at some stage, the United States might actually ratify that treaty. A report on medical care for the armed forces pinpointed many of the important issues that the armed forces face, and we wanted to stress how well we felt that the armed forces were treated in medical matters.

The report on the future of NATO has already been mentioned. The issue of Russia and whether it is a threat to this country was considered in a report in July last year. We did a report on helicopter capability last year. We also produced one on readiness and recuperation earlier this year. Perhaps the culmination of our work on reports was the report on defence equipment, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and came out this month.

I am quite certain that we have made mistakes. We can sometimes mistake the enthusiasm and professional optimism of military officers for the whole truth, but sometimes we also rely rather too heavily on the Ministry of Defence, which is the only Department we can get some information from, although it is also the very Department that we are meant to be scrutinising. In reaction to that, we have to go to the defence industry to get a more balanced view. Then we run the risk of falling into its pocket.

I want to end where I began-with our armed forces. The armed forces remain perhaps the only institution of this country that retains the respect and the admiration of this country. That is based on a degree of sympathy, because the country feels-rightly or wrongly, although I suspect more wrongly than rightly-that they are not being well treated. That is a shame, because it would be so much better if the country's admiration of our armed forces were based not on sympathy, but on an understanding of what they do, and why and how they do it. I believe that it will be one of the main tasks of the strategic defence review, under whatever Government and whoever takes it through, to increase that understanding and, in so doing, to reinvigorate the link between the armed forces of this country and the people they so bravely serve.

6.33 pm

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): I spent this weekend preparing for today's debate. On the way up on the train, I read through the speech, had a quick read of The Times and moved on to the ISTAR--intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance-report, which we are to look at tomorrow in the Defence Committee. Having read the ISTAR report and The Times, I rewrote the speech in my head. When I arrived at the Library, I looked at the speech again.

One thing that has been referred to a few times today is the disconnect from the public on the issue of defence and an understanding of the nature of defence and its broad and wide implications. Looking at today's edition
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of The Times, I felt that there was a lot there that addressed many of the issues of Britain and defence in the world.

The defence and security of our country is, for me, the primary role of Government. From defence and security comes the capacity to generate our economic wealth and the ability of citizens to engage with services such as health and education, which improve their mental and physical health, and in turn fuel our economic wealth. Hon. Members might say that that is a simplistic assessment of the role of Government, but behind that simplicity lie complex questions, which we face in the coming election and the next Parliament as we undertake the strategic defence review. Many of the questions that must be addressed were there in the articles in The Times.

What is the nature of the relationship between the state, the public and the military? What is the responsibility of the state to the military? What expectations do the public have of the military, and what is their relationship to, and understanding of, the role of our defence forces in the world? What are the rights of our military, and what are the implications of those questions for defence, defence policy and planning for future conflicts?

There is a story in The Times about the DNA testing of soldiers killed in 1916 and found in a mass grave in Fromelles. It made me think of my grandfather and the diary he wrote after being called up as a Territorial reservist in 1914. He sailed from Ireland about two days after war was declared. His diary details the excitement at the start of war, and the boredom punctuated by lots of football matches and exercises. Then there is a strange gap. The first battle of the Somme and the march south took place. Among the first things to be discarded were documents-the books used by the military for procurement. That was quickly followed, as people dashed for their lives, by the discarding of weapons.

When it was realised that the Germans were not pursuing, the troops stopped, turned and prepared to fight. They then discovered that they could not get new equipment, because they had to fill in a form in triplicate and hand back the faulty equipment. If they had thrown away the books and thrown away the guns, they had no way of getting new armaments. The Army has moved on and its procurement process is not as arcane, but clearly we have quite a torrid history of failing to address the needs of our troops at the front line and how we keep them appropriately armed to carry out their tasks.

In 1916, my grandfather records in his diary the fact that he finally received his first blanket, having slept without a blanket for the first year of the war. He was killed in 1917, and my father never knew him.

That war brought together a nation in looking at the issue of remembrance. Seeing the monuments at Thiepval and Ypres brings home the horror of war-the sacrifice and loss-most powerfully. We are struggling to address the issue of remembrance, and our failure to lead in that manner is leading to inappropriate demonstrations by the public, seeking to find a way to honour and remember. It is leading to the events at Wootton Bassett, which some find distressing, as I know from speaking to members of the armed forces while in Afghanistan. Some find that the events give a degree of succour to the enemy, who use the demonstrations to show how much we feel our loss and how, if the losses keep
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happening, there will be an opportunity for the Taliban and al-Qaeda to succeed. We have to find a new way of articulating remembrance that allows dignity and recognises sacrifice, but does not wallow, in a sense, in the loss of people who have sought to take on a role that most of us would back away from. It is important that we take a lead on that.

The generation that came back in 1918 did not talk about war. Indeed, my father did not talk about his experiences in the second world war-some experiences were too horrific for words-but we learned a great deal about mental health in both the first and second world wars. Today's military are encouraged to talk and share, but we still have not got it right. We know that more people took their lives following the Falkland war than died there, so setting matters right following Iraq and Afghanistan is critical. That is an area where we still have work to do, although I have been impressed by much that has been done to allow decompression, and by the use of a buddying system to allow people returning from the front to relive, reconsider and re-examine some of their experiences.

Page 3 of The Times has an article about human rights for soldiers; there were comments about the fear of extending the protection of the Human Rights Act 1998 to soldiers fighting overseas, and about how that move would hamper battlefield commanders. Interestingly, the issue of the human rights of civilians was addressed in an article on the story of a family killed in a night raid in eastern Afghanistan. The family had rejected blood money and had vowed to carry out suicide attacks until the perpetrators were brought to justice. That raised many questions in my mind, including whether they would have threatened suicide attacks on the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and what effect such threats would have had.

The article also brings us to critical issues: the higher expectation on western forces to uphold human rights in war zones; the newly understood essential nature of engagement with civilians in war zones; their role in combating insurgence; and their vital role in providing intelligence and rebuilding the peace. The comprehensive approach-a new joined-up defence strategy, engaging foreign policy, international development aid and our armed forces in a multinational force for good-is a new concept. It brings new challenges and new ways of operating.

The eastern Afghanistan night raid also brings us an old problem in a new format. US officials have refused to identify the forces involved, breeding suspicion in Afghanistan and among our own public. Our public do not like it when they think that we have broken the law. They do not like it when we will not be honest and straightforward about what we have done in their name. The UN has been critical of the use of paramilitary groups to carry out night raids, highlighting the need for regulation and accountability when it comes to such forces.

The use of paramilitary groups in the past helped bring us to our current conflict in Afghanistan. The arming of Taliban insurgents and mujaheddin to fight the Russians in Afghanistan has brought years of war, generations of families avenging deaths, and tribal conflicts. There is an urgent need for the licensing and regulation of private security forces in conflict zones. I understand the vital role that they play, but I feel that they need to be clearly accountable, and clearly regulated.

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