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21 Jun 2010 : Column 60

Having said that, let me tell the hon. Gentleman that we are acutely aware of the fact that it is unavoidable that there will be insecurity during the period of the review. He asked about the speed. The last defence review, in 1998, was an 18-month process. We have brought the process forward partly because, to be frank, most of us in the House who take an interest in such issues have a clear idea of the sort of choices that will need to be made, but also partly because we wanted to minimise that period of insecurity for the defence industry and those who work in it.

Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab) rose-

David Wright (Telford) (Lab) rose-

Mr Watson rose-

Dr Fox: I am going to make a little progress, as I know that a large number of Members wish to speak in this debate.

NATO will remain our first instrument of choice for responding to the collective security challenges that we face. In the past decade, NATO has moved outside its traditional geographic area, with European allies such as Germany deploying troops abroad in ways that would have been inconceivable a decade ago. Of course, NATO is not perfect, and we are keen to streamline command structures and decision-making processes. We began that process at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels last week, making more progress than most of us expected. However, we must use every lever at our disposal-including the Commonwealth, the UN, the EU and other regional organisations-to protect our security in an uncertain, unstable and unpredictable world.

We will look to step up cross-Government overseas engagement. Defence co-operation is an important component of that, particularly with nations who share our interests and are prepared both to pay and to fight, such as France. We intend to ensure-and consequently fund-a defence diplomacy programme in the SDSR that can make an important contribution to our global influence. Clearly we need close consultation with our allies on the SDSR. I had a good opportunity to engage in early exchanges at the recent NATO ministerial meeting, and I will follow up with detailed discussions with our closest allies. In particular, I intend to visit Washington in the near future to take forward discussions already begun there.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said about defence diplomacy. Does he agree that, inevitably in an age of restraint, defence diplomacy is an extremely important and effective asset for this Government and something that this country has historically done well? Does he also agree that to pare back our work in defence diplomacy at this time would be to cut off our nose to spite our face?

Dr Fox: I agree 100% with my hon. Friend. Not only is defence diplomacy effective; it is cost-effective. It provides this country with great overseas influence at relatively little cost, compared with other elements of the defence budget. We are very foolish as a country if we ever ignore the fact that joint exercising, training
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and defence exports can achieve a great deal for this country at a relatively low cost. In recent years there has been too much penny-pinching in certain areas, which has had a disproportionately negative effect on this country's influence, and a good deal too much short-termism, when we need to be looking at what we do well and doing it more often.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con) rose-

Dr Fox: I give way to my hon. Friend, and I apologise for keeping him waiting.

Mr Brazier: I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been making the most robust case possible for keeping a full range of military capabilities, despite the fact that we are engaged in an important operation. With his visit to Washington coming up, does he agree that it would be truly extraordinary if we alone continued to have 85% of our defence capability in expensive regular manpower, when the mightiest and richest country on earth has almost half its total defence capability in volunteer reserves?

Dr Fox: My mind-reading abilities seem to know no bounds today-no doubt like those of my colleagues. I pay a full tribute to the reserve forces of the United Kingdom. They make a tremendous contribution to our national security. If we ever fail to value them fully, we are making a profound mistake. I know that my hon. Friend would not expect me to go further, given that the structure of our forces is an unavoidable part of the review itself. Suffice it to say, I think it is very clear just how wedded is most of this House, and not least the Conservative party, to the well-being and existence of our reserves.

Let me sum up the Ministry of Defence's approach to the strategic defence and security review. First, relevance: our posture and capabilities must be relevant to the world we now live in. This is our opportunity to dispense with much of the legacy of the cold war. Secondly, realism: resources are tight for the country as a whole, and defence is no exception. We cannot insure against every imaginable risk, so we will need to decide which risks we are willing to meet and which risks we are willing to take.

Thirdly, responsibility: as a nation, we have a duty to give the brave and capable men and women of our armed forces our full support in return for the selfless service and sacrifice they are prepared to make in our name. We must ensure that they have what they need to do what we ask of them, and that they and their families are looked after properly during and after service. There has never been a formal document setting out precisely what this means, which is why, for the first time, this Government will create a tri-service military covenant. It will be the foundation of the new Government's far-reaching strategy for, and obligations to, our servicemen and women, their families, and veterans.

The National Security Council and the SDSR will consider defence interests in the round, along with other security risks and interests, including terrorism, cyber-security and civil emergencies. I have stressed the need for the review to follow a logical sequence. We must begin with our foreign policy priorities, reflecting our interests. The establishment of the National Security Council has allowed us to have a full debate and to
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ensure that departmental priorities will be aligned with our conclusions. The first stage is the development of the new Government's national security strategy, which will be wide-ranging and draw on the work of all Departments concerned, including the Ministry of Defence.

We must understand the environment in which we will protect and promote those interests, in particular the threats and risks. Under the auspices of the NSC, the MOD is playing a full role in work to establish a prioritised register of those risks that will be a key element to the national security strategy. Decisions on the capabilities required will be based on this overarching strategy, but these decisions will need careful preparation.

I am determined to understand fully the operational and resource implications of the options. I have therefore directed the Department to initiate a range of detailed studies on specific capabilities and force structures. We will begin to move to conclusions as our strategic posture becomes clearer, and we can test our work against the agreed policy baseline to produce a synthesised force structure and risk assessment. I would expect to see the emerging conclusions in August, and the House will understand why I will not speculate on them today. They will then be discussed in detail by the NSC. We expect that the defence section of the SDSR will report in the autumn, which will coincide with the outcome of the comprehensive spending review.

I am also determined that we fully understand-and, where possible, mitigate-the risks we are taking and the assumptions we are making about future operations, from the partners we will work alongside to the tactics and adversaries we will confront. I have therefore directed the vice-chief of the defence staff to lead a detailed process of force testing, which will look at the effectiveness of possible future forces against a range of scenarios. I will receive updates in July and August to ensure that emerging findings can be reflected in our strategic choices; and a final report in September to ensure that I and the NSC can validate the decisions we are taking.

There will undoubtedly be difficult decisions ahead. We will have to confront some long-held assumptions. There will be competing priorities to assess, risks on which we will have to make judgments, and budgets to balance. It is inevitable that there will be the perception of winners and losers as we go through this process. I am determined, however, that defence as a whole will come out in a stronger position. The prize is a safer Britain, with secure interests and a sustainable defence programme able to address the needs of today and prepared for tomorrow. As I said earlier, providing security for our citizens is the primary and overriding duty of Government. The SDSR must become a national, not a party political, endeavour, and all in this House must have the political resilience, strength, will and resolve to see us through.

5.25 pm

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I join the Secretary of State in offering my commiserations, thoughts and sympathies on the loss of the 300th member of our armed forces in Afghanistan. We must remember that each loss, whether or not it is one of the milestones that attracts the media so much, is a tragedy for the family and friends of the individual concerned. It
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ought also to serve as a reminder to Members of the unique commitment made by our armed forces on our behalf.

As others will obviously and understandably do the opposite, we ought also to restate our support not only for the members of our armed forces but for the mission that they are undertaking. When we visit our armed forces in Afghanistan, they expect, require and repeatedly tell us that they want support not only for them as individuals but for the work they are doing. They believe in the mission in Afghanistan and that it is achievable, and they expect support, from both sides of the House, while they are in theatre carrying out such dangerous work. I hope they will continue to receive such support.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): Now that the right hon. Gentleman is in opposition, does he agree, on quiet reflection, that it is a pity that at times in the past few years the previous Government were less than clear on the mission statement in Afghanistan? They allowed themselves to be diverted so that, in the minds of many, it seemed that the purpose of being in Afghanistan was international development. However, the prime mission always has been, and must be, the national interest of the United Kingdom.

Mr Ainsworth: I am glad the hon. Gentleman has said that, as it gives me an opportunity to say that I do not agree. However, there were times when members of the media, as well as some Members on his side of the House, made it difficult for us to get our message across. The current Government will find that we as the Opposition will genuinely support the mission in Afghanistan, and will not play fast and loose with that support. We will not state in the House that we support it wholeheartedly, and then say things, without first checking them properly, that effectively undermine the confidence of the British public in the British Government's ability to support their troops. If there have been mixed messages about Afghanistan, they have the potential to continue, and we ought to join together to ensure that they are not effective.

I say to the Secretary of State for Defence that his Government need to make sure that the messaging is correct. We do not need the Secretary of State for International Development saying that development opportunities are central to our ability to succeed in Afghanistan, while the Secretary of State for Defence appears to say something different. It is important that we all say clearly what we are trying to achieve and how we are trying to achieve it. The mission in Afghanistan and, overwhelmingly, the way in which we have joined up the mission in Helmand province, is the envy of many nations operating in that theatre, and that ought to be recognised.

I can understand the temptation for a new Government, but they should not try to suggest that a new strategy is being pursued in Afghanistan. What our troops expect-and what I believe is the fact-is continuity between what the new Government are doing and what the Labour Government were doing a month or so ago. We were pursuing a coalition strategy laid out by General McChrystal last year, and the new Government are doing that. There is no year zero; there is continuity in what we are trying to do, and in the methods we are using in order do it.

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Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): I find it slightly puzzling to hear my right hon. Friend tell the Secretary of State for Defence to stay on message. Does he not think that what is going on is in fact more interesting than he suggests? There seems to be some ambivalence on the Conservative side about what we are doing in Afghanistan. It is the Opposition, from my perspective at least, who seem to be more determined to pursue the strategy we had before, and that might mean we are more closed-minded than they are.

Mr Ainsworth: I am not certain of that. I would not go as far as my hon. Friend. I have, however, seen unfortunate headlines when, as a result of things that were being said, the press were able to suggest that the Government were propagating some kind of exit strategy. I do not believe that that is so. I believe that the Government are pursuing the same strategy that we pursued. I believe that they accept that we must stay in Afghanistan until such time as the Afghan forces themselves are able to defend their own country, and that they will not take any precipitate decision to reduce our force levels in that country before that happens. I certainly hope that that is the case.

Dr Julian Lewis: I thank the shadow Secretary of State for being so generous in giving way, but he must accept that it is not just a question of mixed messages in one part of the alliance, given that President Obama himself has suggested the possibility of a run-down of troops in Afghanistan as early as 18 months from now. If we are to come out with our strategic interests intact, we must have new thinking about how best to protect them, and sending people out on uniformed patrols day after day to be shot at and blown up may not be the most intelligent way of doing that.

Mr Ainsworth: I know the hon. Gentleman's views. I have heard him describe, both privately and publicly, his position on Afghanistan and how we can pursue it. I have to tell him, however, that we are pursuing a counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan-that is agreed across the coalition-and while that is so, while there are people in theatre and while they are doing the very difficult work that we have asked them to do, we must give them support.

During Labour's years, big changes were made to the structure of our armed forces' capability. A great deal of modernisation took place. There were big moves away from cold war capability towards the modernised expeditionary capability that our armed forces have shown in recent years. I accept what the Secretary of State has said-that he wants to continue that move-and I also accept that the threats have changed. We need to examine the emerging threats, and consider what role we need to play in the world. I hope and believe that I made a start on that during the Green Paper process, about which the Secretary of State has used very kind words. I hope he will be as open and engaging in the methods he will use in relation to the strategic defence review as I tried to be with the Green Paper.

What the Secretary of State has effectively said to us, it seems, is that a process is under way and that he will invite everyone to participate, but the way in which we will participate is by having an opportunity to make submissions to him. I suggest to him that anyone and
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everyone has always had that ability. If this means we cannot continue to write to him expressing our views, I think he will miss a real opportunity. He knows that there are considerable financial pressures on both the MOD budget and the public finances overall. I do not believe that, when he is faced with all those difficulties, it is in his interests or those of a proper debate to do anything other than continue to be open and give people an opportunity to share- [Interruption.] Well, if the Secretary of State did say that, I am wasting my breath, but I am worried that what he said was, "We have a decision-making process, and if you want to make a submission, you are free to do so."

I would have thought that it was in the Secretary of State's interests, and those of the Government and the nation, that he share his emerging thinking with us. It seems that he has even cancelled the interim assessment or interim announcements that he was going to give. When are we going to hear what his emerging thinking is, because he has said very little about that today? We are only six weeks away from the recess and the Government have set themselves a very tight time scale. Do they genuinely want to engage the nation, the Opposition, academia, industry and everyone else who needs to be involved; or are they simply going to invite us to make written submissions?

Mark Lancaster: Last year when the right hon. Gentleman was Secretary of State for Defence, he effectively made policy on the hoof by announcing he was going to scrap the Territorial Army budget and thereby stop people like me training for six months. Given the mistakes he made last year and the appalling way he carried out that review, does he not think this current process is much better?

Mr Ainsworth: With the greatest of respect to the hon. Gentleman, let me point out that we were dealing with in-year budgetary measures-yes, they proved very controversial, and significant changes were made that people subsequently came to welcome, even if they could not find the ability to do so on the day-but that is very different from dealing with a strategic defence review, which is about the shape and framework of our armed forces for the years to come. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it therefore ought to be tackled in a different, more open way. There is lots of expertise and interest on both sides of the House and outside this place. The people who possess it want genuinely to engage with this process, and I would have thought that, if the Secretary of State wants to fend off the purely financial pressures, it would be in his own interests to welcome that.

Mr Watson: I feel the empathy between the two Front Benches on the financial pressures at the MOD, and I, too, am familiar with that. Does my right hon. Friend agree that emerging thinking should come early, at least in respect of the military covenant issues? I am thinking in particular of the announced review of armed forces pensions. Can we have a reassurance that existing members of the scheme will not be affected? Does my right hon. Friend think the Government Front-Bench team should reassure us of that, at least, today?

On a slightly more controversial note, does my right hon. Friend think we should hear from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for South
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Leicestershire (Mr Robathan), about the mental health of serving personnel? He was completely hopeless on "File on 4" yesterday, and seemed to contradict himself three times on whether we would have screening of military personnel. He eventually had to endure the humiliation of being interrupted by the MOD chief press officer because he was going off-script.

Mr Ainsworth: I missed that programme-sadly, by the sound of it. My hon. Friend raises an important point when he says a review of armed forces pensions has been announced. As I was in the Chamber at the time, I know that he tried to get an answer on that from the Prime Minister earlier today, and answer came there none. These are very important issues. Is the armed forces pension scheme part of the general review? Are we going to have any wider discussion of welfare issues?

Mental health is a very important issue, but it seems that Government Front Benchers have views that contradict each other greatly. Some of them say we need to do much more than the last Government did, and to introduce general screening for mental health; yet the Minister with responsibility for veterans, the hon. Member for South Leicestershire, appears to be totally and utterly opposed to screening for mental health-or did appear to be, unless he said something else in the programme to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) referred.

Mr Brazier: Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that before he arrived at the MOD, Labour carried out a substantial review of armed forces pensions that did not affect any of the civilian part of the public sector, but as a result of which people in the scheme for subsequent years lost very significant sums in potential pension rights?

Mr Ainsworth: I know the hon. Gentleman is very interested in the welfare of the armed forces. All we are trying to do is solicit an answer. Everyone needs to know whether the armed forces pension scheme is part of the review or not, but we cannot get an answer. We need an answer and we certainly cannot wait until the summer recess for one.

While I am talking about welfare issues, let me address what the Secretary of State said about the non-existence of a tri-service Government document. May I recommend to him the preamble in the Command Paper and suggest that he should consider seriously whether he can improve on it? Will he continue with the commitments in that paper and will he, as part of the strategic defence review, look seriously at something that was in the Labour party manifesto-the introduction of a service charter? Many members of our armed forces whom I have met-I am sure that he will have had the same-recognise some of the improvements that have been made to many aspects of their service and support in the past few years, but want them to be entrenched in law. Is he prepared to make such a commitment?

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