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Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): This is the first time I have had the privilege of speaking to the House. I am a bit nervous, because I have not had much time to learn how it all happens, but mindful of the fact that I have been wearing military uniform for most of my adult life, I thought that it would be pretty fair for me to speak in the defence debate. I will be brief and-if my nerves do not get the better of me-to the point.
My predecessor was Jacqui Lait. She has been mentoring me for some months now, and she has been a fantastic teacher. She was an outstanding Member of Parliament who cared very much about her constituents and about the House. She first joined the House in 1992, and became the Member of Parliament for Beckenham in 1997. She concentrated very much on planning, but she was also a shadow Minister for Scotland, for London, for planning and for home affairs. Having been with her for several months, I know how much she cared and how much she did for the little people, which the press did not know about. She used to leave me and go off to look after people. I was seriously impressed by that, and if I can be as good as her, I shall not be half bad. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"] Thank you, Mrs Lait, for all you have done. God bless you, and I hope you have a great future.
Beckenham, my new constituency, is a fabulous place, because it is 19 minutes from Victoria, if you are quick. I can go home each night, unlike so many people here. It is in between the town and the country. Many of its inhabitants come to work in London, and some people retire there, so one can see what sort of place it is. Politically, it is a fabulous place. It has been a Tory hotbed for ever. Mr Pitt the elder and Mr Pitt the younger had houses there, in Keston and in Hayes. Indeed, in Mr Pitt's garden, under the tree -the stump of which remains-William Wilberforce declared that he would bring before the House measures to abolish slavery. That is a pretty good political heritage, is it not? I am also pleased that Enid Blyton, the children's author, lived there. As a Member who has had far too many children, I am a big fan of Noddy and Big Ears, and I am absolutely thrilled that my two younger children will be going to the school of which Enid Blyton was head girl in 1913.
There is a rumour that the greatest Englishman of them all, Sir Winston Churchill, used to stop off in my constituency for a tipple on the way to Chartwell. I have
investigated all the public houses in Keston, Bromley Common, West Wickham and Hayes in my attempt to check whether that is correct. So far, I have failed, but I promise that I will keep up the endeavour.
I am obviously new here. It was less than a year ago that I answered the call from the now Prime Minister for people who were not deeply political to stand up and join the Conservative party. I did that. Obviously, I am a product of my environment, and I have already mentioned that I was in the military for most of my adult life, so in my maiden speech I want to end up talking about casualties.
Just after 11 o'clock on 6 December 1982 in a place called Ballykelly, a bomb exploded. I heard it. I was the commanding officer of A Company 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment. I got there in two or three minutes and found 17 people killed-11 soldiers, six civilians-and many more casualties. What was most horrific for me was that six of the dead were from my company, including my clerk and my storeman. I was the incident commander. In one night, of 115 soldiers, I had seen six men killed and more than 30 wounded. That is a 30% casualty rate, and it marks me.
Since this day last year, we have lost 125 soldiers in Afghanistan. If we use the ratio of one person killed to about three to five wounded, which the military often does, we have had casualty losses of something like 625 people since this time last year. That is horrific. It is not all the 9,000-plus military people in Afghanistan whom I am talking about, but more particularly what the Army calls the Bayonets-some 2,000 to 3,000 people who do the business of closing with the enemy, going out of their camps each day to do what they have been trained to do. They know what the casualty rate is, and so do their families, but they nevertheless continue to go out for us each day. Their courage is tremendous, and we all know that courage is not the absence of fear but its mastery. Our soldiers do that for us every day.
Looking into things further, we also need to consider how many more of these people are going to suffer mentally-something we do not yet see. Let us think back to last week, when Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, perhaps the bravest of the brave, admitted that his own demons drove him to consider suicide, which he actually tried. How many more men and some women are going to get the same feeling?
We currently have a fabulous casualty evacuation system in place between the point of wounding and all the way through to the time people leave the armed forces. I am very happy with that and I am particularly pleased that we sometimes have a consultant flown in by a helicopter for casualty evacuation. I am nevertheless concerned about veterans once they leave the Colours, as I have been involved with them. I am reminded of Ballykelly and two people badly hurt under my watch who continue to suffer from their wounds; they have not had much of a life. I am delighted that the coalition programme refers to better mental health facilities for veterans. We must get this as good as we can; we owe our veterans through-life care until the end of their time.
I end by returning to the subject of Beckenham, which has been wonderful in welcoming me with open arms. I feel terribly at home there. The Beckenham constituency also includes Keston, Hayes, West Wickham,
the whole area of Shortlands and Kelsey and Eden Park. I am delighted and humbled to be a Member of this House; it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
Mr Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP): It is an honour to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and it is also appropriate for me, representing as I do a constituency in Northern Ireland, to pay tribute to him and to the thousands of service personnel who served so valiantly in Northern Ireland throughout the troubles. I want to say to him that his colleagues and comrades who died that night in the Droppin' Well public house in Ballykelly did not die in vain. There are many people walking the streets of Northern Ireland today who are alive because of the men and women who served so well and protected the community, holding the ring until politics worked and delivered a relative degree of peace in this part of the United Kingdom, which I have the privilege of representing. I wish him well in his time in the House of Commons. I am sure that his constituents will be well represented in this place.
I also want to pay tribute to one of the casualties that the hon. Gentleman referred to-Corporal Stephen Walker of A company, 40 Commando Royal Marines, who died at the weekend in Sangin in Afghanistan. Corporal Walker was born and brought up in Lisburn in my constituency, where his family still reside to this day. We think of his wife Leona, his daughter Greer and his son Samuel, who mourn the loss of a husband and father. We think of the family, his mother and siblings at Lisburn. We remember the sacrifice of those brave men and women who are in Afghanistan continuing on active service to try to bring peace and political stability to that country. Let me quote the words of Major Sean Brady, Corporal Walker's commanding officer:
"The Royal Marines have lost a great leader; however, if he were here now to give us some advice, the consummate professional... would tell us to 'crack on' and get the job done."
I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on his appointment. In the context of the strategic defence review, which I welcome as it is very necessary to examine the security and defence of our country, it is important that we put the men and women who are our service personnel first and above all else. Of course there will be discussions about the kind of equipment and the resources we need for our current deployment, which is a light-end capability, right through to potentially more conventional warfare in the future, which is a more heavy-end capability. We have to discuss all those issues, but the men and women who serve this country so well must be at the heart of the review.
I welcome the new Government's commitment in its programme to "rebuild the Military Covenant". Before the election, I had the privilege of accompanying Brenda Hale, whose husband Captain Mark Hale resided at Dromara in my constituency, to meet the former Secretary of State for Defence. Brenda shared with him her concerns about how widows are treated after they lose their husbands on active service. One area she touched on was the future education of her children, so I welcome the references in the programme for government to
examining the subject of the education of children whose parents died in action and seeing how greater priority can be given to it.
I look forward to the Secretary of State's response to the issues of concern raised by Brenda Hale in her meeting with his predecessor. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women is huge, and we must ensure that they are properly looked after, as well as their families. In the context of the strategic defence review, I recognise that there will be much discussion about how to improve the welfare support for our service personnel and their families.
There is talk about an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and I have noted the comments made thus far in the debate. Yes, of course we need to consider an exit strategy, but we must also learn the lessons from our drawdown in Iraq, for example, particularly our withdrawal from Basra, where just as we were withdrawing, our American allies were simultaneously engaging in a joint operation with Iraqi forces known as Charge of the Knights. We need to adopt a more co-ordinated approach to our exit strategy there. We need to get it right this time, and the timing of any withdrawal must be right.
We have experienced a change at the political level following the election, and in the context of the strategic defence review and the planning of an exit strategy for our involvement in Afghanistan, it is timely for us to consider whether we need a change in the military leadership as well. This is not a criticism of the Chief of the Defence Staff or indeed anyone else in the military leadership, but perhaps, as we review our strategic requirements and consider a possible exit strategy from Afghanistan, we need a fresh set of eyes, and in particular the ability to draw on recent combat experience.
Given the current financial constraints, it is important that, in seeking to resource our current campaign, we do not discard much of our heavy-end capability, because we shall need it in the event of more conventional warfare in the future. Action that may be expedient at present must not take place at the cost of our future capability and future deployments. Whatever they may be, they must not be sacrificed.
I began by referring to our service personnel. Let me now reiterate that the men and women who serve our country so well must be at the heart of the review. Support for them must never be compromised-whether it involves pay or allowances, accommodation or welfare-and the same applies to their families. If we are to maintain effective armed forces, it is essential for us to look after those men and women.
I want to raise a couple of issues relating to foreign affairs. I believe that the Government would do well to draw on our experience in Northern Ireland in considering how we might make a positive contribution to what is happening in the middle east. Senator Mitchell, former Prime Minister Blair and Secretary of State Clinton are all involved in the middle east, and all of them had a key role to play in the Northern Ireland peace process. While I do not suggest that there are exact parallels between Northern Ireland and the middle east, I think that the Government have an opportunity to draw lessons from our Northern Ireland experience, to apply them, and to share them with the various factions and parties involved in the middle east conflict.
My views on Gaza differ from those of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Having
visited the Israeli town of Sderot on the border with Gaza, I think that the hon. Gentleman should take time to meet the people there, who every day face rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza. He should also bear in mind that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. The notion that it wants to occupy Gaza should be dismissed immediately. The security of the people of Israel is important to their Government, and we need to recognise that.
Sandra Osborne: I too have visited that Israeli town, and I agree that its community is under great pressure, but does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the Israeli response was totally disproportionate, and actually broke international law?
Mr Donaldson: Of course there is a debate about that. It saddens me that innocent people on both sides die in the conflict as a consequence of the failure to reach agreement, and I think we must now concentrate on the need to build such agreement. I simply say this: it is not good enough for the House to point the finger in one direction without recognising that there is wrongdoing in the other direction as well.
Finally, let me briefly raise an issue that other hon. Members have mentioned today, namely the ongoing denial of human rights and persecution of religious minorities in various countries across the world. I am thinking particularly of the Christian minority in Assyria and Iraq, and of Christians in Pakistan who face a continuous campaign of persecution. I am also thinking of members of the Christian Church in parts of Nigeria who face persecution and murder, the burning of churches, and attacks on their villages.
I hope that the new Government will give priority to raising the plight of Christians who face persecution throughout the world, and, indeed, that of other religious minorities in various countries. It is important for us to stand up for the human and faith-based rights of those minorities, wherever they may be, because we believe in religious freedom and ought to ensure that it is provided for everyone, especially Christian minorities who face a high level of persecution. We are good at standing up for religious minorities in this country, but we need to be more vocal and more active in standing up for Christians in countries where they are a minority and face persecution and violence.
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on making such an excellent opening speech. We have waited for a long time to see him do that as Foreign Secretary, and he lived up to our expectations. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who made an excellent opening intervention-if I may put it like that-on the Chinook issue. We look forward to hearing his closing speech, but I believe that if he can continue as he has begun, he will be quite outstanding.
It is extremely difficult to speak shortly after such an outstanding maiden speech as that made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). We already know of his service to the country, but he has continued that service by coming to the House and reconnecting the people of the country with
the issue of defence in a way that is truly valuable, given the experience of which he talked and of which we know. He spoke with no notes, he spoke movingly, and he spoke with great authority. The points that he made about mental health issues are points with which we shall have to deal for many years to come, and we are very lucky to have him in the House.
We are just about to begin a crucial nine months in the history of this country. We are about to embark on a strategic defence and security review that will shape this country's status in the world for decades. The decisions that we take now will affect how other countries view us. There are urgent decisions on equipment that cannot wait until the end of the review, because under the previous Government they were postponed until immediately after the election-without any money to pay for them, as we know.
The decisions that the House will have to take will be taken against the background of an already over-ambitious defence equipment programme. Having been a defence procurement Minister, I am aware that the Ministry of Defence has a history of having eyes bigger than its stomach with regard to its desire for equipment. Moreover, the fact that huge proportions of the defence budget are being devoted to programmes such as the renewal of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers will make it even more difficult to deal with the amount of money that is left.
Will this be a foreign affairs-led defence review? I very much hope so, but I fear that the Treasury will get its fingers into the review by trying to influence the questions that are asked in it. I fear that it will say, "We must not conduct a complete examination of the threats against us, because we might not be able to afford to know the truth." That would be utterly wrong. I think that the Treasury should be involved only at the end of the process as we try to work out what we should do about the threats that we face.
We are trying to match our commitments to our resources, which is very difficult to do given how low our resources are and how difficult it is to reduce commitments without triggering a withdrawal from Afghanistan by other, perhaps less committed, nations among our European allies. Matching commitments to resources will also be very difficult because of the importance of this struggle. We need a strategy for Afghanistan in our country, and it must be a strategy that the people of our country actually believe in. At present we do not have such a strategy. We must somehow manage to do what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was doing: reconnect the people of this country with the defence of this country. It is not enough for the people of this country to feel sympathy with their armed forces, as they do; they must also believe in what we are doing there.
We are not just working in our own country, however; we are also working with our allies in Europe. We cannot carry the whole of this burden on our own. We recognise that we are working on a much lesser scale than the United States, but we are working on a greater scale than our European allies; that has been a theme throughout this Queen's Speech debate. We are all in this together, and it would be helpful to be able to believe that a greater proportion of our European allies
shared that view and were able to commit more to the struggle in Afghanistan, which is so essential to our future.
I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say there was going to be no strategic shrinkage. It is difficult to achieve that, given the size of our fleet. The fleet is one of the things that maintains our presence around the world, but it is getting smaller and smaller. Perhaps that is because our ships are so incredibly highly specified that they are very expensive to produce-and that also makes them impossible to export to any other country.
We need to look again at the whole of our equipment programme. Fortunately, during the past year we have had the Bernard Gray review, which gave some excellent pointers as to where problems are arising. This is going to be a very difficult issue for the new Ministry of Defence team to deal with, and it gives me great pleasure to welcome to his place on the Front Bench my friend and next-door neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), who will be busy coping with this issue.
In connection with these very difficult issues, there is a role for the departmental Select Committee-the Defence Committee-which I had the enormous honour, and huge pleasure, to chair in the last Parliament. The great thing about Select Committees is that they force Ministers to do their best. The Committee has them in front of it, and they really have to learn about their brief before they appear. I remember that when I answered questions in the House of Commons it was possible to flip away any difficult questions with a joke, but when Ministers appear before a Select Committee, its members come back and back again until they either get an answer or establish that the Minister does not have an answer. That is what makes Select Committee scrutiny so successful and so important.
The Select Committee also has a role in informing the House about important issues. In the last Parliament, my Committee did three reports on the replacement of the Trident submarines, and although a wide range of views were represented among the membership of the Committee, from former-possibly current-members of CND to quite right-wing members of the Conservative party, all three reports on the nuclear deterrent were unanimous. I would like Select Committees to have informal meetings to which Members could come and learn about what they are doing and comment on what they should be doing. That would enable the Defence Committee, for instance, to inform itself on defence issues generally. I hope that that might be introduced.
The Ministry of Defence needs to play its part, however. During the last Parliament, I and other Select Committee members had the feeling that the MOD did not give us full and informed evidence. Sometimes it treated the Select Committee as the enemy, and that is not a good thing to do, as better scrutiny helps the MOD. We as a Parliament therefore need to see that Select Committees are given completely open evidence, which allows the Committee to do its job properly.
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