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May I ask the right hon. Gentleman-genuinely, because I personally think it was the right thing to do-to think about legislating for a service charter, as we planned to do, in order to enshrine the rights of service personnel in law? When I talk to service people-I am thinking most particularly of those who have been
injured in the service of our country-they are not necessarily worried about the treatment that they are getting now but about what will happen to them in 10 years' time, when the caravan has moved on, they are getting older, and they are still living with their injuries. They want to know that the commitment that we have made in the past couple of years will endure and see them through for the rest of their lives.
I cannot cover all the many fine speeches that have been made-maiden speeches and contributions by existing Members-but I will try to mention one or two in the time available to me. I commiserate with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who described himself as collateral damage. He demolished very well his new-found friends' deterrent policy. Let me combine that with the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who told the House that many people were deceived by the Liberal Democrats' policy, and ask him to reflect on whether the policy really was ridiculous or whether it was deceptive.
I wish to mention, as so many others have, the speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and I ask him to continue to do what he did so well and not to lose that edge over time. He can come into the House and talk to us and the nation, and get us to feel what it is like to serve, suffer and conquer fear as only someone who has had service can. He can bring something to the House in doing that, and I hope that he never loses the ability to do so.
I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is going to be a real champion of the dockyard and our defence industrial base. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) continues to be a rock and make the same speeches as he has for a generation and more. Governments come and Governments go, but the hon. Gentleman is still here, still making the same speech and still hoping that people are listening to him.
I was able to visit the constituency of my new hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) during the election campaign and see what I would describe as the amazing cathedral of engineering skill that we have at Barrow. He is concerned that if we ever lose that skill, it will be extremely difficult to replace and our ability to produce nuclear submarines will be lost, potentially for ever. I hope that we can hang on to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) expressed her concern that the consolidation of amphibious capability, which I believe is very sensible, should go ahead.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) was uncharacteristically partisan in some of his comments. He cannot blame the Government for operations that his own party supported just as much. If his speech was a bid for a particular job, he himself needs to invest in stealth capability.
The new Government will find that as an Opposition, we are sincere in our support for our armed forces and what they are doing on our behalf. I will throw the new Secretary of State's past words back at him in future, as I have today, and we will hold this Tory-led Government to account. However, I give him and the House my assurance and that of my hon. Friends that we will not play politics with the dedicated work of the men and women of our armed forces. They deserve, and they will receive, the support of Members on the Labour side of the House.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): It is with sadness that I must begin by announcing the death of a soldier from 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, serving as part of Combined Force Nahr-e Saraj (South), who was killed in Helmand today. The soldier died from a gunshot wound sustained during a small arms fire engagement with insurgent forces. His family have been informed, and I hope that the House will understand that they should be given time to come to terms with their loss before further details are released. My personal condolences, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with them at this very difficult time.
The House had a rare treat today in the number and quality of maiden speeches that we heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has been mentioned a few times already, was a model of courtesy, modesty and charm whose style will go down very well in the House. If that was his performance when he was nervous, as he said, he will be a force to be reckoned with when he is in full flow. He brought an authenticity that was deeply moving when he spoke about his experience with military casualties. He will be a magnificent champion for our armed forces, and his presence in the House will be hugely valued.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) gave a confident performance with a lot of nice personal touches, which again will be immensely appreciated in the House. It was a performance that offered very much promise and more than just a little competition for those in the new intake. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), in a very fine maiden speech, showed that Stafford now has a fine champion. He talked about the importance of India and the Commonwealth, not least in trade and wider regional co-operation-themes that will be welcomed on the Government Front Bench. His further input would be very welcome.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) was another to give a confident performance. He made a wonderful point about the true nature of heroism. If I may say so, that is the essence of what the armed forces are about. That message is extremely welcome, and I will ensure that his words are widely read by the armed forces, representing as they do the finest of cross-party co-operation.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), whom I am delighted to see in the House of Commons, gave a confident and eloquent speech that showed an excellent grasp of a wide range of subjects. He offered me a number of pieces of advice. I hope he will forgive me if I take a little time to ponder them rather than rush to judgment, but they seem on the surface like excellent advice.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) gave a fine and fitting tribute to his predecessor, John Hutton. Like his predecessor, he showed a sure grasp of the case for Britain's nuclear deterrent. Let me say that there is no lack of clarity in the Government's policy: we believe in a continuous, at-sea, minimum, credible, nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident missile system. I hope that that is explicit enough for him. I look forward to recruiting him to sell the cause in his constituency and beyond.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) made a passionate case on behalf of his constituency and it is clear that his constituents have a strong advocate. Having taken the first step into parliamentary water, we look forward to his subsequent contributions on behalf of the coalition Government.
Dr Fox: I apologise to the hon. Lady. In any case, she made an incredibly informed speech that I thoroughly enjoyed. She made a very important point on how individual Members can make more of a contribution to the strategic defence review. If she will forgive me, I will come to the details of my reply on that later.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who is no longer in the Chamber, gave a charmingly self-effacing speech, in a lovely tone, and was especially nice in paying tribute to her predecessor. Should she ever leave politics, there is certainly a job waiting for her at the Bolton tourist board. I almost got my office to book tickets immediately. We look forward to her breaking her silence on many future occasions.
Finally, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), with a sparky, witty performance that was laced with historical gems, painted a very appealing picture of the city of Cambridge, yet made clear his grasp of the complexities of the social issues that exist there. It is very clear that he is going to be a very strong performer in the Commons, and I wish him well in what already-on day one-looks like a promising parliamentary career.
The first duty of Government is to protect our way of life and provide security for our citizens. The Ministry of Defence is at the centre of that effort, and I am proud and honoured to be asked to serve as Defence Secretary. I am especially proud to work with the exceptional, brave and professional members of our armed forces and the civilians who support them.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). Although we had disagreements on policy and politics, I never doubted-not for one moment-that he always had the best interests of the armed forces at heart. I know that he will agree that when it comes to national security, we are safer at home and stronger abroad when we demonstrate our common purpose in the House. However, I place it on record that, particularly in the run-up to the general election, when politics can be at its most tribal, he went out of his way to ensure that information was available to the Opposition so that should there be a change of Government, the transition would be as smooth as possible. There is no greater tribute to any politician in the House than to say that they always put the national interest before any party interest. He certainly did so, and deserves a great credit for that.
The only thing that was missing from the right hon. Gentleman's speech-it was also missing from the shadow Foreign Secretary's speech earlier-was any sign whatever that they understand the financial mess that they have left behind, including in the armed forces and the MOD.
The new Government are throwing their full weight behind the campaign in Afghanistan, our armed forces and the wider supporting mission. That includes ensuring that our troops have what they need to succeed, and that we look after service personnel on operations and support their families at home. As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson)-who is no longer in his place-correctly said, the men and women of our armed forces are our greatest resource. Today, I had to write my first letter of condolence to the family of someone who had died in Afghanistan. As the former Defence Secretary will know, it is a sobering moment, and it brings home in a completely unexpected and very personal way the sacrifices that are made.
The very first question that I and my colleagues asked, when we took over the reins of Government, was whether we had to be in Afghanistan, when we see the sacrifices being made in life and limb, and the cost to the country in terms of finance. The answer was a resounding yes. We are in Afghanistan out of necessity, not choice, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said. It was in Afghanistan that the attacks of 9/11 were planned. We must not allow Afghanistan to be used again as a safe haven for terrorists or a launch pad for attacks on the UK, our interests or our allies.
Our mission in Afghanistan is vital for our national security, vital for the security of the region as a whole and therefore vital for global stability. That is why the international coalition has a mandate from the United Nations and has the active support of more than 60 countries with 46 providing military forces. Were the international coalition to walk away now it would hand al-Qaeda a strategic victory-a point made clearly by the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns). We would face renewed risks of instability spreading across this volatile region and the increased possibility of terrorist attacks here. Failure would also damage the credibility of NATO, which has been the cornerstone of Britain's defence for at least half a century. It would also threaten the stability of Pakistan, the consequences of which are too terrible to contemplate.
As the Foreign Secretary set out, our national objective in Afghanistan is to help the Afghans reach the point where they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. The renewed vigour with which the Afghan national security forces are being trained, as we saw at first hand at the weekend, will over time enable the transition of lead security responsibility from ISAF to the Government of Afghanistan. We hope to see this start in some parts of the country at the end of 2010 or in early 2011.
I remain committed to bringing our troops home as quickly as possible-as the former Defence Secretary was and as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) urged-but we must do so when the time is right and not to some arbitrary deadline. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, we will not turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining country if we advertise an early departure. May I add that I am extremely sorry that the country is, for the moment, being denied the services of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench? He was a stalwart of the shadow defence team, in which he was a strategic and tactical voice, and he is sorely missed. I hope that we will be able to use his talents constructively and in some way for the benefit of the Government and of the country.
The counter-insurgency strategy developed by General McChrystal last year is rightly focused on the Afghan people. That includes building the capabilities and the confidence of the Afghan Government at national and local level to bring leadership and to provide for their people. Our approach brings together the three pillars of defence, diplomacy and development. The MOD is working closely with colleagues in the FCO and DFID, in co-ordination with our international partners, to help the Afghan people to find a lasting solution to their problems.
In theatre, our armed forces work hand in glove with their civilian colleagues in the provincial reconstruction team. As several hon. Members noted, the UK-led PRT is widely viewed internationally as a model to be followed. The impressive staff there, whether military or civilian, coalition or Afghan, have a common understanding of the agenda-security, training and reconstruction-to support the overarching political strategy.
In Nad Ali this weekend, six months since I last visited, I saw for myself the progress that has been made. Security was provided by Afghan and UK forces working closely together. It was partnering in action. Our forces have paid a high price in Afghanistan, but through their courage and bravery we have dealt a severe blow to the Taliban-led insurgents and the terrorist networks supporting them. Over the past two years, the authority of the Afghan Government has been extended from six to 11 of the 13 districts in Helmand. There are no easy answers in Afghanistan, and there will be difficult days ahead and further casualties can be expected. However, the strategy and resources required to deliver success are increasingly being better aligned. I want to be able to keep the British people better informed and to show both sides of the ledger, explaining the challenges and difficulties but also setting out successes and progress. As the Foreign Secretary said, we will keep the House regularly updated.
Not for the first time, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made the key point: our troops want not the sympathy, but the support, of the British public. They want the public to understand the sacrifices that they are making in Afghanistan and why they are making them for what they believe to be a good cause-the safety of their own people. I urge Members on both sides of the House to take every opportunity to support not just our forces, but the mission that they are undertaking.
I shall briefly set out the Government's priorities in defence policy. The Foreign Secretary opened the debate with an explanation of the underpinnings of the new active, hard-headed and practical foreign and security policy that the new Government will implement. This will be a distinctive British foreign policy: active and activist in Europe, building engagement overseas, standing up for human rights and political freedom, upholding free trade and reducing poverty. This is about acting in Britain's national interest to shape the world, not just being shaped by it.
The international outlook that we face is sobering, the environment challenging and the threats growing, and our defence policy must reflect that. There are continuing threats from al-Qaeda, from inside Pakistan and Yemen, from Iran and from inside the Caucasus, and we need to ensure that the UK's armed forces and other defence capabilities are configured to
meet that range of threats. That is why it is a priority that we carry out a strategic defence and security review. Defence cannot be immune from the economic realities that we, as a country, face, and all defence programmes will need to demonstrate their value for money. However, let me be clear: the SDSR cannot, and will not, be a simple exercise in slash and burn. We will use this as an opportunity for long-overdue radical thinking and reform.
The SDSR must, and will, be a strategic, cross-Government and comprehensive exercise, led by the requirements of a distinctive British foreign policy and overseen by the newly formed National Security Council. Again, that should bring comfort to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire. It will provide a coherent approach to security and ensure that we have the right balance of resources to meet our commitments. In short, we will ensure that the brave men and women of our armed forces and other security services have what they need to do what we ask of them.
The House has been asking today how we can begin that process. We will begin not with a statement in the House, but with a full day's debate, so that Members on both sides of the House can have enough time to talk about their concerns and the particular constituency interests that they might have as we enter the SDSR. Mechanisms will be made available so that individual Members can make representations directly in the process itself. We intend it to be as open and widely consulting as possible, and I think that the correct way to start that is with a debate with enough time to air the issues, not simply with a statement, following which there are always far too many questions for the time Ministers have to answer them properly.
It is essential that we maintain a highly dedicated and professional body of servicemen and women. As a nation, we have a responsibility to give them all our support in return for the selfless service and sacrifice that they make in our name. That is why we intend to double the operational allowance for those serving in Afghanistan, and ensure that rest and recuperation leave can be maximised. We will also ensure that personnel are treated in dedicated military wards, provide extra support to those who need it and put mental health at the top of the agenda.
This will be a challenging year for defence. We must see through our operational commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere and make tough decisions on the SDSR, but we do that against the backdrop of the financial legacy inherited by this Government. No one can pretend that it will be smooth sailing. No one should pretend that we can avoid tough decisions. No one should pretend that the House will always agree, but we need to demonstrate political resilience across all Benches in this House to see through the mission in Afghanistan and set our armed forces on a stable and coherent course for the future. That is what is required to protect national security, promote our national interest and honour the commitment shown by the men and women of our armed forces, who sacrifice so much to keep us safe.
That Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business) shall have effect for this Session with the following modifications:
(a) In paragraph (6) the word 'third' shall be substituted for the word 'second' in line 53 and the word 'sixth' shall be substituted for the word 'fifth' in line 58;
(b) in paragraph (7) the word 'sixth' shall be substituted for the word 'fifth' in line 60.- (Norman Lamb.)
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