DEFENCE IN THE UK (FRONT BENCH) – 26 April 2007

Dr Julian Lewis: I sympathise with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, in your endeavours to restrict contributions to relevance to defence in the UK, just as I sympathise with hon. Members on both sides of the House who have passionate views about defence issues that perhaps go wider than the debate title. Throughout the debate, various degrees of latitude have been afforded to different speakers. In responding to some of the speeches we have heard, I hope that I shall receive a similar degree of consideration.

For once, I hope to talk about some topics that have not been mentioned much. I intend to divide my remarks into the general categories of plots, leaks, morale and methods. Before getting on to that agenda, I shall refer to some of the contributions made.

On the whole, welfare issues have been predominant, particularly in the speeches of the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell), for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) and of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray). Like the hon. Member for Portsmouth, South (Mike Hancock), my hon. Friend laid great stress on the inadequacy of resources with which Defence Ministers of any party must contend when fighting their lonely battles against the Treasury in order to enable our armed forces to fight their rather more dangerous battles against the enemy. My heart goes out to Ministers, because I know they do their best in that respect. That is probably the nicest thing that I will say about them this evening, so they had better make the most of it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) focused challengingly, as always, on major procurement projects and the assumptions that underlie them. The hon. Member for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry) made an excellent speech featuring a typically robust defence of her local naval base. I think that she is fundamentally right to focus on the strategic implications of reducing our dependence to a single naval base, although we may part company when I point out that the reason it is possible to consider reducing the number of naval bases from three to two is the slashing and burning of front-line units of the Royal Navy. If that reduction takes place, it will become all the harder to reverse cuts that go far beyond what was outlined in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review should circumstances reach such a degree of danger and necessity that even the Treasury sees the need for reversal of those losses.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Robert Syms) stoutly defended the role of the Royal Marines base in his constituency, and also spoke of the need to provide support for people with mental health problems after the experience of combat. I believe that such support is particularly important for reservists who, on returning to their civilian occupations from serious war-fighting on operations, no longer benefit from the support and environment of their regular units and comrades. That must add considerably to the pressure of coming to terms with what they have seen and undergone. My hon. Friend also spoke of the ordeal of families awaiting inquests, and I was reassured by the Minister of State’s reply.

As a seasoned parliamentary operator, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was able to get in his remarks about Iraq before disarming the Chair by saying, “But of course the debate is about defence in the UK”, and devoting the rest of his speech to courts martial. As I have said from the Dispatch Box before, it is worth considering a change in the way in which the subject matter of defence debates is allocated. There is a good deal to be said for debates that focus on individual services, in which it is possible to cover not only the whole ground over the year, but everything from welfare to war fighting in the context of a single debate. That would avoid the difficulties encountered by the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) in trying to raise subjects that are outwith the strict terminology of the Order Paper.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (James Arbuthnot), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, broadened the debate slightly when he said that following his visit to Afghanistan he was concerned about the strategy of the Government – back in the UK, I hasten to add – for the waging of the war there in connection with the poppy crops. He thought there might be a degree of confusion on our side. I agree with that, but there is certainly no degree of confusion on the side of our opponents. In an interview reported in the Daily Telegraph on 9 February, a Taliban commander is quoted as saying

“We are obeying the orders of our leaders who have told us to defend the farmers ... The Taliban will support the local people, because the people's support will make it impossible for the government and foreign forces to defeat us.”

That shows that the Taliban at least understand the basic principle of counter-insurgency – that its aim should be to divide the insurgents from the mass of the people, while the aim of the insurgents should be to remain united with the mass of the people. I think that somebody somewhere in the Ministry of Defence does not understand that – or, more probably, that somebody somewhere in the Government is not prepared to stand up to our American allies and emphasise this point. It is immoral that we should have troops fighting and dying in pursuit of a strategy that drives our opponents’ cause forward by enabling and encouraging people to sign up to their ranks.

However, I must not wander from the topic of defence in the United Kingdom, so let me briefly refer to a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Nicholas Soames), a former MOD Minister, made in his outstanding and riveting speech, and which was also mentioned by the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Bruce George). They referred to the inevitability of unpredictable crises arising and the difficulties involved in persuading Governments that they must find the resources to deal with them and subscribe to the flexible doctrines that will enable our forces to fight effectively in those circumstances. The idea that the Chiefs of Staff and their military advice are being cut out of the policy-making process, as my hon. Friend said, is particularly disturbing.

I shall now turn to my own perspective on this topic. We know only too well the price that has had to be paid for allowing Islamist militants to plot in London throughout the 1990s. It is important that we never again make the mistake of tolerating the activities of the intolerant in our midst in any other context. In that connection, I have no hesitation in saying that it is totally unacceptable for an exiled Russian oligarch such as Boris Berezovsky who has been granted the privilege of residence in this country, to announce that he will abuse that privilege by fomenting revolution by force in his homeland. It is equally unacceptable that somebody such as Alexander Litvinenko can be assassinated, almost certainly by agents of the Russian state, within our borders.

It is worth remembering that in July 2006 the Russian Parliament, the Duma, approved a law permitting the FSB – the Russian state security services – to hunt down and kill terrorists or “enemies of the state” anywhere in the world. That Bill was passed shortly after the abduction and murder of five Russian diplomats in Iraq in 2006, but critics of the Kremlin fear that the Russian security services now enjoy effective immunity should they assassinate Russians who live abroad and who are perceived to be opponents of the state. It is worth remembering that next year the statute of limitations will come into force on the murder in 1978 of Georgi Markov, who was killed in London in similar circumstances, given the technologies of the day, to those of Litvinenko’s murder. Given the huge changes that have taken place and the fact that a suspected assassin has been identified and interviewed, it is not satisfactory that the investigation has progressed at a snail’s pace for so long and that it might soon might run out of time.

On leaks, it is particularly worrying that the deputy assistant commissioner in charge of anti-terrorist measures has felt it necessary to speak out as he did. Two former chairmen of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Sir Paul Lever and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, have both stated their belief that the situation is serious. The finger of suspicion points to what Sir Paul Lever calls

“the army of media advisers and spin doctors”.

They believe that there should be a proper investigation and a proper leak inquiry. I am at a loss to know, although I can suspect, why there were no fewer than two separate leak inquiries into the events surrounding the embarrassing leak of the e-mails that disclosed Jo Moore’s wish to “bury bad news”, and why there is no prospect of a –

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is now going to relate his remarks to the topic under debate.

Dr Lewis: I certainly am, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I think it essential that the defence of the United Kingdom depend on communities’ trust in the police and in the police’s ability to conduct anti-terrorist operations in this country without people being put at risk if they assist the authorities by being exposed in the media. I will move on now, but it is a matter of extreme concern that we are not fighting and winning the battle against terrorism, which, after all, is at the heart of the defence of the United Kingdom.

As part of the Prime Minister’s legacy, the Government recently published a policy review entitled Building on progress: Britain in the World. It does contain one feature relating to the defence of the UK of which I thoroughly approve; I wish only that it had been formulated earlier. We read the following on page 30 of this 32-page document:

“As agreed by the Ad Hoc Group on Terrorism, a new cross-government research, information and communications unit is being created to generate the policy analysis and material needed to ... counter Al Qaeda ideology and the use of other forms of extremist propaganda by hostile regimes.”

I hope that the unit’s work will not be confined to hostile regimes. We hear time and again that we are engaged in a war of ideas, and such a war can be won only by a proper counter-propaganda strategy. We were good at that during the cold war and the Second World War, but it is true to say that we have not even begun to fight that type of war properly, some six years after 11 September. This is a very late development, albeit a welcome one.

In the time that remains, I refer finally to methods of maintaining morale in the armed forces. One method is to show a degree of competence in handling the armed forces when they get into difficulties. I find it absolutely astonishing that when the decision was taken to allow Royal Navy personnel to sell their stories to the media, the effect was not considered on morale – on the morale of people whose children had come home in coffins; on the morale of people who had limbs blown off while serving in theatres of war overseas; or on the morale of servicemen and women who might find themselves in extremely dangerous situations and who might have to weigh up the alternatives of fighting to the last bullet or surrendering and selling their stories when eventually they were repatriated.

In terms of the propaganda war to which I referred, did no-one consider how it would serve the Iranians’ purpose to be able to say that the people who were selling their stories were exaggerating in order to justify the money they were being paid? It is no good having leaks and spin doctors. What is needed is a concerted strategy, properly organised by a counterpart to the Political Warfare Executive or the information research department, if one likes, or the London Controlling Section that managed to carry out deception strategies, if that is what we are trying to do where our enemies are concerned.

Such a strategy has to be organised properly. Splitting the Home Office down the middle makes it hard to see how a cross-Departmental approach will work. What we actually need is departmental co-ordination and we are not getting that yet. I can only hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that in future the defence of the UK against an ideological terrorist threat will be far more systematically organised than it has been in the past.