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15 Mar 2010 : Column 658

The Times carried an article about Mumbai, where the Indian police are said to have prevented an attack that could have jeopardised the Pakistan-India peace talks about Kashmir. There have been times when I have felt that if we could sort out Kashmir, we could sort out Afghanistan. Kashmir has been a training ground and a hideout for the Taliban, Islamist insurgents and al-Qaeda. Billions of dollars have been diverted from education, health, and infrastructure planning in India and Pakistan to fund the fighting in Kashmir. We are talking about two nuclear states with large parts of their armed forces concentrated on their borders, posing a risk to the rest of the world because of that conflict in Kashmir. It has resulted in both India and Pakistan facing the challenge of internal insurgencies. China sits on its border with Kashmir and, indeed, with Afghanistan, but it has taken no part in winning the war or in trying to build peace. How China's role in such conflicts will change is a key question for our future defence planning.

The Times details a successful attack by Pakistan's army on a Taliban school in south Waziristan. It was not a school as we know it-for education, reading, writing, and work skills-but a school teaching 150 to 200 boys how to slaughter, how to behead the enemy, and how to be a suicide bomber. It held out the promise not of a better job or a chance to improve the quality of life of the boys' families, but of a heaven, depicted in murals on the walls as a place of flowing rivers and swimming girls. How we combat such indoctrination-such fatalism-is a key task for our diplomats in engaging in dialogue and alliances, and for our aid workers in offering hope, new aspirations and new potential to young men who see martyrdom as a better future than the life that they face on earth.

Interestingly, the Pakistani forces used lessons learned from the British frontier warfare manual published in 1939 to win that battle in south Waziristan. Whether we have yet devised a successful manual for securing peace and rebuilding communities is a more complex question. For it is the return of civilians and the reconciliation and re-integration of ex-fighters that is the critical task that Pakistan's army now faces. It is no longer simply a case of one army facing another on the battlefield, with the winner taking all; it is about winning not just the war, but the peace.

The press tell us that the public are tired of war-of the relentless toll of deaths, and of seeing no possibility of success-but The Times editorial today talks of the success of a more democratic future for Iraq after recent elections there. There were 38 people killed, and 136 attacks on polling stations; names were missing from the electoral register, and there was some intimidation by security forces. However, there was also the successful engagement of 62 per cent. of the Iraqi people. Sunni candidates stood, and there will be a Government, increasingly held to account by a people growing in confidence of their rights and in their awareness of the responsibility of Governments to their people.

The letters page held a great deal of discussion of the sort that we have had today-discussion about the equipment, training and funding of our armed forces. The Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, is quoted as saying:

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Other letters say that the quality of training, equipment and funding has not been right. The public are, for the first time, unsure who to believe, as our senior military personnel are increasingly seen as politically biased, which is an extremely dangerous position.

There has been talk of the role of the Defence Committee in this Parliament. I have been fortunate enough to serve on it for only slightly over a year, and I am still on a learning curve. I am deeply indebted to the other members of the Committee, whose knowledge is great. For me, the Committee's role in a future Parliament is to hold these senior officers to their statements when they are questioned about funding, training, and equipment. They cannot be allowed to say one thing when in the Ministry of Defence and another to the Committee. Evidence to the Committee must be truthful and straightforward if public trust is to be rebuilt and we are to know what our forces are doing, what they need and whether they are being successful.

We must understand the problems that we face and how we fight an enemy when our technology does not always offer the edge that we have grown to expect. Fighting in an international coalition, often under the overall leadership of the United States, brings difficulties, as it is hard for the public to understand how we can help ISTAR and not solve the problem of IEDs. New challenges, too, are coming our way extremely fast, as climate change gives rise to defence and security issues arising from food and water shortages, migration, the fight for mineral resources, and the growth of international criminality. Interestingly, The Times carried an article saying that 18,000 people had been killed in the Mexican drugs wars in the past three years.

There are new ways of trying to deal with defence. Baroness Ashton, as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, brings a new voice to the defence world. We are moving into complex times, in which there is a demand for greater transparency and openness in relation to defence training, spending and equipment. Each death heightens calls for the withdrawal of troops and prompts questions about why we are fighting. We must address how we meet those demands without providing information, propaganda and intelligence for the enemy.

There is increasing interest in our defence and security, and our military are under observation as never before. This debate is important, and it is one that the next Parliament must continue with even greater vigour.

6.53 pm

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne) (Con): It is a privilege to follow a speech such as the one that we have just heard. I do not necessarily agree with all of it, but a thoughtful and personal speech adds a great deal to any debate.

This is probably the last speech that I will make in the House. Those who like to check such things might find that it is probably my first major speech on defence in the 23 years in which I have been a Member. The reason is straightforward: it is a subject that I have always found very, very difficult to handle. Because it is probably my last speech, I want to speak personally, rather than do what I have normally done over the years, and speak
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as a party politician limbering up for a general election. I want to say a few things that have occurred to me over time.

I shall pass on the issue of the nuclear deterrent tonight, on whether our troops have enough equipment--although that is important--and on whether we should spend more, the same or less on defence. I leave that to others who are fighting the general election. My focus will be a personal one, in the hope that an insight into what goes on in this MP's mind when it comes to defence matters might be of use to those who come after us.

During my 23 years in the House, I have always found decisions on whether to take military action, even in self-defence, the hardest of any that I have ever had to make as an MP. The reason is straightforward: I find those decisions difficult because I am being asked to decide whether I should be party to a decision to send someone else's children to war, knowing that they may well be killed. I find that deeply agonising because I know what it is like to lose a child. I have a shrewd idea that knowing that the life of your child is being given for their friends and their country may be of some help-indeed, it may be a great help-but it will never eliminate the pain, and that is what concerns me.

When considering whether it is right to send other people's children to war, my starting point has always been to be against it unless there is absolutely no alternative. I have always believed passionately that such decisions should be made in Parliament, rather than by the Government of the day. Leaving them to a handful of Ministers-I do not mean to besmirch their reputation, and I do not have anyone in particular in mind-is not what I consider democracy should be about. This is the sort of parliamentary reform on which we should focus, rather than on whether the next generation of MPs should travel first-class or economy. Real matters of life and death should be at the top of our list of issues.

Despite my reservations, let me put it on the record that I have always accepted that I have a duty to the 70,000 people I have represented over the years to help protect and defend them. Although my starting point is to say no, the approach that I have always taken is to think through whether a given situation threatens my constituents personally. If it does, whatever my reservations, the use of military force is probably inevitable and totally justified. I used that analysis when confronted by the war in Iraq and the military intervention in Afghanistan. On both occasions, I concluded that the answer on the threat to my constituents personally was no, which is why I am one of the very few on this side of the House who did not vote for the invasion of Iraq. It is why I am probably one of the very few people on either side of the House who is worried about, and did not even support, the decision to intervene in Afghanistan. So that I am not misunderstood, may I make it absolutely clear that now that the House and the Government have taken those decisions, we are duty-bound to give total and absolute support to the troops we sent there? We must play a full part in helping to solve the problems that I still believe we helped to create in the first place.

I am very aware that such an approach may not be what my constituents want of their MP. I have always been aware that it is not what my Whips want of me, but that is a separate issue. To make sure that I was not
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taking leave of my senses when thinking like that, I made it my business over the years to distribute thousands and thousands of questionnaires, including some on such subjects. Clearly, if I were coming back, I would be one of those who regretted the disappearance of the communication allowance, but I will not go there for the moment.

The interesting thing about that exercise of checking what my constituents thought and think is that a majority of them have always agreed with me. The majority of my constituents have told me over the years that they, too, did not support the invasion of Iraq, and a majority of my constituents up till now keep telling me that they are deeply uneasy about our involvement in Afghanistan. Perversely-it is a sad reflection on all this-invading Iraq made my constituents less safe, rather than safer. That was the very criterion that I used as my test, and it was turned on its head.

Invading Iraq was not a good decision for my constituents, and for a straightforward reason. The invasion of Iraq and other factors have fuelled terrorism. Terrorists use as one of their favourite tactics attacks on aviation. My 70,000 constituents live next to the boundary fence of Heathrow. What might happen if there were a terrorist attack there could well have serious implications for them. Large numbers of those who sent me here work for airlines, and clearly they are more at risk now than before. Looking back, I am afraid that I have to say to some people that I have no regrets about the decisions that I took on such defence matters. That is, perhaps, why I did not speak as often as others.

There is one other matter on which I want to say a few words. I shall touch on the work that I have been doing, in the belief-I hope it is the correct belief-that I might have been helping to make the world a safer place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said in his opening speech, and as I see it, conflict prevention is as important for peace as conflict resolution. Probably one of the things that I will miss most when I am no longer an MP is the conflict prevention work that I have been able to do on behalf of this Parliament in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

To put that into context, I shall take the Russia-Georgia war as an example. I was one of those who was quickly brought into its aftermath. Within a few days of the end of the fighting in South Ossetia, I found myself in a war zone for the first time in my life. I found myself in villages where the only people left were the elderly. I saw their traumatised state, the destruction and the hastily dug graves in the gardens of some of the people who lived in the village, and it dawned on me that the innocent people in any conflict that is allowed to start do not care whether it was a Russian bomb or a Georgian bomb that destroyed their house or killed their friends. They just did not want it.

That taught me something. There will be those, I suspect, who say, "What has that got to do with us? It is but a minor matter some long way away from us. Why should it exercise our minds?" My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring put his finger on it when he spoke about the importance of NATO. I give NATO total support. It is part of what I believe in, but I worry about NATO enlargement. We could so quickly go one or two steps too far. Let us not forget that there was a moment when there was considerable pressure to allow
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Georgia to join NATO. If that had happened, article 5 would have applied to that attack upon a member state of NATO, and what was then a little skirmish over in eastern Europe and the Caucasus would suddenly be our problem. These issues, however remote, however small, can have dreadful implications for us.

In case people think, "Ah, well, it's only happened once," may I say that it might happen again? Those who study the newspapers carefully will have seen the reports over the past couple of days about a fake message on the internet and on television in Georgia that the Russians had again sent tanks down the Roki tunnel and that the President of Georgia was dead. We should thank our lucky stars that nobody in the Georgian military pressed a button or pulled a trigger, but they could have done. Conflict prevention goes on and on.

One lesson that I learned from that example--I could use plenty of others--is that in the case of Russia and Georgia, fighting did not suddenly start out of the blue on 7 August 2008. It had been coming for a long time, escalating bit by bit. It does not matter who started it, who followed or who was to blame. It was developing. The rest of us saw the warning signs, and we either ignored them or decided that it was nothing much to do with us, but it is something to do with us, and it could have been catastrophic. That is why I argue that conflict prevention is as important as conflict resolution.

When we consider those subjects, we would do well to remember that the two world wars in the 20th century started in Europe. We could usefully reflect on the possibility of more problems of the sort that I have been talking about. The list is long and, I fear, getting longer-Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus north and south, the Balkans, and Transnistria. The list goes on, and they all remain potential threats to the peace of Europe. It is up to us to pay attention and take action at the earliest possible moment, or such episodes will show once again what can happen when a country gets its defence policy wrong. As I said, with Russia and Georgia that did not happen overnight, and we need to learn from that.

The lesson that I have learned more than any other during my work in the Council of Europe is that defence is not just about having enough military personnel and equipment to do the job. Defending one's constituents properly requires permanent vigilance and engagement with those who might start or be caught up in conflict elsewhere. One way that this Parliament can do that is to enhance the importance and the interest that it shows in the work done on its behalf by those MPs who represent it in the various international assemblies of parliamentarians around Europe.

I worry about the incessant attacks by the media on Members who go abroad, who are not here as often as others, and who are mocked and denigrated in the newspapers. We must stand up to that and enhance the work of those bodies. If we know parliamentarians in another country, it is much harder to treat them as unknown people against whom we can send troops. Those assemblies offer us an opportunity to meet other parliamentarians and understand their problems. Only then can we play a real part in conflict prevention. It is essential work; it is crucial work; and I hope that it will carry on.

I suspect that I might be out of order for a second, but I hope that you will bear with me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I want to end with a personal comment.
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My 23 years here have been a wonderful experience. There have been good times and, dare I say it, in the past 12 months some bloody times, but overall it has been great. Overall, it has been enjoyable most of the time, boring some of the time.

The last thing that I want to say in a speech in this House is the most enormous thank you to my constituents, because without them I would never have had the privilege-the honour-of being able to serve them and my country in this House.

7.10 pm

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): Before I dare launch into my speech, may I pay tribute to the contribution of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire)? Like him and, I think, most Members, I take very seriously decisions on sending anyone into armed conflict, and I agree entirely with his remark that prevention is better than such action. I also agree absolutely that there must be time for parliamentarians to meet other parliamentarians. One thing that we on the Defence Committee value when we visit other countries associated with conflicts is the ability to speak directly with their elected representatives, because we learn so much from them. Equally, it is important that they have the opportunity to see how we work and to learn from us. There is nothing better than that personal contact and I agree entirely that, when we reform the House, whatever we do, we cannot lose that work and leave people bogged down here, not being a part of the world or engaged in the very things that he outlined.

As it is the end of this Parliament, I want to discuss what has happened in that time, but first I turn to current matters. Afghanistan is at the forefront of everyone's mind, and I had the privilege of having the Welsh Guards march through Merthyr Tydfil last week, not for the first time. They are just one example of a group of young men-young men in their case, but supported by many young men and women in the other services-who saw a very difficult summer in Afghanistan last year, and one wonders not only at their courage, but at the forbearance of their families, which is important in all that they do. The troops had a tremendous reception in the valleys, as one would expect, as many of them were from Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding area.

The Defence Committee's most recent visit to Afghanistan showed us that there is a change, partly because the US, with the election of a new President, has dramatically changed its view of what it is trying to do in that area. He may have taken a long time to decide some things, but from my discussions with some of those young men last week it was clear to me-indeed, it has become clear to me as I have visited Afghanistan over the past seven years-that we were going to have this opportunity now. The shaping and conditioning that those young men previously did is now paying off, and all they wanted from me was to know that what they had borne, and what they had done, had been important and valuable.

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