CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

DEFENCE IN THE UNITED KINGDOM (FRONT BENCH) – 9 October 2008

Dr Julian Lewis: I join the Minister in paying tribute to the ten Service personnel who lost their lives on operations. I also wish to remember the larger numbers who have been seriously injured on those same operations.

Service welfare in the United Kingdom is always among the issues raised in debates such as this. Previously, the hon. Member for Halton (Derek Twigg) dealt with that topic; he was a humane and assiduous Minister, and we wish him well following his departure from Government. In his place is the hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones), who has put his name to robust Defence Committee reports that have rightly described some single living accommodation as appalling and have rightly deplored operational overstretch and the consequent failure to meet harmony guidelines; it will be interesting to see how he gets on in addressing those issues.

Joining the ministerial team at the Ministry of Defence as an additional member is the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Quentin Davies), in the latest twist of an eventful parliamentary career. He takes over the defence equipment and supply portfolio. In its last two incarnations, that has been held by Lord Drayson and Baroness Taylor, Members of the Upper House – perhaps the hon. Gentleman is hoping that a trend in that direction is being established. The hon. Gentleman has always been intellectually independent, grounding the positions that he takes in considerable historical knowledge.

The hon. Gentleman shares that quality with the new Secretary of State for Defence (John Hutton), as I discovered last year in the National Archives when I looked up from my researches into counter-insurgency and propaganda to see him immersed at an adjacent desk in the records of the Lancashire Pals' battalions, on which he was writing a book. At least we know that the Secretary of State, unlike some other prominent parliamentarians, actually writes the books to which he puts his name. Referring to the Leader of his Party, of whom the Secretary of State is such a well known admirer, they do, however, have one important factor in common – they both have important shipbuilding industries in their constituencies. Barrow is the home of UK submarine construction, and it will be interesting to see how many of the eight attack submarines promised by the Government in 2004 will be ordered and built there.

The outgoing Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), deserves credit for his promotion of the case for the next generation of the nuclear deterrent, which was not an easy thing for him to do in the context of Labour Party politics. Many Conservative Members often challenged him on other issues, but he always responded without rancour. It was his misfortune to fall victim to the Prime Minister's ill-judged decision to lumber him with a second ministerial portfolio at a time when the country is involved in two counter-insurgency campaigns abroad and a significant security issue at home.

Every working minute of the Secretary of State for Defence should have been focused on those threats and the Service welfare and procurement issues that traditionally hamper the conditions and capabilities of our forces in the field. It was not fair to the right hon. Gentleman, and it certainly was not fair to our forces in the field, that he had to spend up to 20 per cent. of his time on Scottish affairs. Never before has a Prime Minister taken such a half-baked, ill-judged and morale-sapping decision on parliamentary job-sharing. Where United Kingdom defence is concerned, it must never happen again.

Listening to everything that the Minister said about Service welfare, I was reminded of the famous American film, "The Best Years of Our Lives", which won seven Oscars in 1946 and had tremendous resonance with the public, both in America and in the United Kingdom. It was about the problems of re-entry into society at the end of four years of war, in the case of the USA, and six years in the case of the United Kingdom. Our Servicemen and women face that problem of disconnection and reintegration into society at the end of every simonth tour. The harmony guidelines are supposed to give them 18 months between operational deployments, but we all know that that does not happen.

Viscount Slim, the victor of Burma and one of the greatest modern strategists the British Army has seen, once did a radio talk in which he compared people drawing on courage with drawing on a bank balance – although I do not think that he had the modern conditions of British banking in mind. He said that they can overdraw from time to time but must replenish their resources. He also said that the bravest men will crack if they are not rested adequately, and yet, conversely, men who are exhausted but are rested adequately can go back and win the highest awards for valour.

Last night, I viewed a recording that I had made of a BBC3 programme from two days ago. It was about a lance-corporal in the Grenadier Guards who was described by his company commander as: "Fearless, occasionally to the point of recklessness, but a very brave young man". The Army deserves great credit for allowing the BBC access, in Afghanistan and back home, to what was going on in that company. The BBC likewise deserves credit for its sensitive and objective presentation. The young lance-corporal ended up, on the self-same day, being congratulated on the Mention in Dispatches that he had been awarded for heroism under fire and losing his rank for disciplinary offences that he had committed on his return home. He had done four operational tours in his five years in the Army – so much for the harmony guidelines. When Service personnel return to the United Kingdom, they need understanding, support and conditions of accommodation that reflect the regard in which they are held by society. Great improvements have been made for those damaged in body, but not enough yet for those damaged in mind, particularly those who could become damaged in mind when subjected to inadequate facilities and unnecessary pressures on their return to the UK.

The lance-corporal I referred to has now left the Army, but I know of another who aims to serve his full 22 years. He took part in the initial campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he has since done a third tour lasting seven months – not six – in Afghanistan. Now back in the UK, he has spent time in the Browning Barracks in Aldershot, where the toilet blocks stink even when the lavatory pans are not blocked with sewage, and where the corridors are overheated whilst the rooms are freezing cold. His weekend get-you-home pay is supposed to give him £270 per month. Sometimes it is paid when it should be, but sometimes nothing comes through for three months at a time. That unevenness causes him, often unwittingly, to dip into the red, and thus incur punitive charges on every direct debit and every other transaction on his bank account.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Kevan Jones): I am sad to hear about the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Would he send me the details of it, so that I can take it up?

Dr Lewis: I am delighted that the Under-Secretary is getting off to such a good start. I shall certainly do that, and I will be very pleased to see if he is able to do something to put that situation right. My point is that bank charges of that sort are irrecoverable. The man in question has not complained to me about it, but his partner has. She said:

"It eats away and eats away at you – until you say, why the hell am I bothering?"

The welfare of our Armed Forces personnel is not really at issue between the parties. The Government, as we have heard, produced a study and a Command Paper. I hoped that the Government would acknowledge today that pressure from the Opposition parties encouraged them to take some of the measures that they have. My Party Leader has consistently recommended tax concessions for Service personnel when they are on the front line, and he set up the Forsyth Commission on the Military Covenant, which achieved a considerable measure of publicity for its recommendations. It slightly lowered the tone of the debate for the Minister of State to say some of the things he said about a body on which served people of the calibre of Simon Weston and Stuart Tootal. Those people are not party political. They served on the commission because they wished to do good for their comrades, and I am very disappointed about some of the remarks made about their efforts.

Mr Julian Brazier: Interrupting my hon. Friend's excellent remarks, would he like to put it on the record that several of the recommendations in the commission's interim report have since become Government policy?

Dr Lewis: Of course they have. The Minister says that most of the things in the commission's report were already going into the Government's report. We can argue about that until we are blue in the face, but we ought to be above such a tit-for-tat approach. The fact is that the Government have the responsibility to do things, and the Opposition have the responsibility to try to get them to do things, and when the process works as it has in this case, it ought to reflect credit on the Government and the Opposition for doing their respective jobs.

Linda Gilroy: I know that the hon. Gentleman is in many respects a very fair person, and that he would want to pay tribute to the British Legion for its part in bringing about some of the changes. Pressure has come from all quarters. Does he agree with his fellow shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Liam Fox), who as recently as 14 September said, of the few things identified as extra in the Forsyth report, that as far as the Conservative Party is concerned:

"It's a matter of priority within the budget".

Dr Lewis: Of course, all defence decisions are matters of priority in the budget. The report's recommendations will go to the Shadow Cabinet in due course and I hope that it will consider favourably at the appropriate time those that are possible to advance under prevailing economic circumstances, which the Government have not yet taken up. As I said, the process is the outcome of the interaction between the Government, the Opposition and, as the hon. Lady rightly reminds me, all the important bodies, organisations and confederations that support the Armed Forces. The outcome should be improvements for our Service personnel, and politicians should not argue over the spoils of who gets the credit, as long as the outcome is good.

We welcome it when the Government introduce their ideas and when they include some of ours among them. We will continue to welcome that when the parties' roles are reversed – hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

From time to time, we read about Servicemen in uniform being insulted at petrol stations or Servicemen out of uniform not being allowed to book into hotels. I applaud the former Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Halton, who described it as "deplorable" when an injured paratrooper, who had flown home from Afghanistan to organise a comrade's funeral, had to sleep in his car overnight because he was refused a hotel room. The hotel's behaviour was absolutely despicable, and I am encouraged by the Minister of State's comments about the 79 per cent. support for our Armed Forces among the public at large. Long may that support endure. However, it cannot be reiterated too often.

I am glad that "welcome home" parades have begun to take root in society generally. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Gerald Howarth) organised one of the first, and parades now take place in the heart of Westminster and returning troops are welcomed in the Palace of Westminster. I am sure that that gives them an experience that they fully appreciate, and that they feel that it shows that all their efforts have been recognised at the centre of our democratic system.

Mike Penning: I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. The all-party Army group organised the parade to which he refers, and it was fantastic to see the band of the Coldstream Guards marching from Wellington barracks. Does my hon. Friend know that, before the troops entered the gates, they were attacked by members of the so-called peace camp across the way? They got into the ranks of the soldiers and swore at and abused them, and there were not enough police to prevent that.

Dr Lewis: First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray), who organised the occasion. I am indeed aware of the matter, which has been raised on the Floor of the House previously. Although Parliament is ready to tolerate the presence of demonstrations in Parliament square, the idea that people should be able to camp there permanently and behave insultingly towards those who put their lives at risk shows a cock-eyed sense of values in our society today.

Mr James Arbuthnot: Most unusually, I want to disagree with my hon. Friend. He said that he hoped that the level of 79 per cent. support would endure, but that figure says something worrying about 21 per cent. of the population. I pay tribute to the new Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Kevan Jones), for his work on support for our Armed Services. However, I will begin to feel satisfied when it reaches 99 per cent.

Dr Lewis: I fully take the reproof from my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right on that point. Of course, we are not sure how many people in that poll did not express an opinion. I hope that a lot fewer than 21 per cent. did not have a positive view of the Armed Forces. Indeed, a considerable proportion might have had no view at all. There will always be some people who have no view about anything whatever, and I suspect that their views about the Armed Forces are no exception, strange though it may seem.

Resources have been mentioned briefly, but I wish to spend a little more time on them. There are some problems, such as erratic allowance payments, to which I have referred, which are not about resources, but all too many are. I return, as I have on a number of other occasions, to the speech that the former Prime Minister Tony Blair made on HMS Albion in early 2007. He was looking back on his decade in power and talking about the extent to which the Labour Government had invested in defence. He said that defence expenditure had remained roughly constant over that decade, at 2.5 per cent. of gross domestic product, before adding these fateful words: if the costs of Afghanistan and Iraq are included.

That means that in that period, in which we embarked on two major counter-insurgency campaigns, we were spending 2.5 per cent. of GDP before we went into Afghanistan and, taking everything together, we were spending 2.5 per cent. afterwards. We were spending 2.5 per cent. of GDP before we went into Iraq and, taking everything together, we were still spending 2.5 per cent. after we went in.

We are told time and again that those conflicts are being funded from the Treasury reserve, but that simply sounds to me like a bookkeeping exercise. If we take one pot of money, add it to another pot of money and still come up with the same percentage of GDP being spent on defence as before we went to war, that effectively means that we are fighting two conflicts on a peacetime defence budget.

That is why the Conservatives have said that when we take power, we will have a Strategic Defence Review, to get our commitments back into line with our expenditure. I do not know what the conditions will be when that time occurs. However, I do know that we will fully fund the commitments that we undertake or we will not undertake them. That has not been happening, which has led to something that is dangerous for the defence of the United Kingdom and British interests more widely. That development has led to the Services beginning to fight among themselves for inadequate resources. Indeed, it is even leading to a situation in which Service chiefs are talking about making unacceptable choices, even within their own Service parameters.

What I mean by that is that one cannot be involved at a high level in any considerations of what the Army's future role will be without hearing people talk about whether we should spend the money that we have on fighting what are called the wars of the 21st century or on preparing for high intensity state-on-state conflict, which may or may not come about in the years ahead. Those are the sorts of choices that the Army should not have to make.

I do not want to stretch the terms of the debate too much, but it is dangerous to be in a situation where we are engaged in campaigns that are making Army chiefs think that they might have to abandon the traditional role of the Army, which is to be able to defend the United Kingdom if ever the international scene darkens closer to home. With recent events involving Russia, that is not nearly as fanciful a prospect now as it might have seemed only a year or two ago.

Mr Brazier: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving away. He is making some powerful remarks. Does he agree that the Falklands war, the first Gulf war and 9/11, which led directly to the Afghanistan conflict, were all completely unanticipated, in most cases even days before they happened and certainly months before?

Dr. Lewis: Absolutely. Now is not the time for me to go back to one of my favourite themes, the folly of the 10-year rule, which was in place from 1919 to 1933, when defence planning was carried out on the basis that there would not be a war in the next 10 years. We all know what that led to. It is in fact an exception for a state-on-state war to have been predicted a significant amount of time before it breaks out.

Linda Gilroy: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr Lewis: I would rather not at the moment, because I am conscious that we have only a limited time for the debate, and I do not want to speak for too long. Also, the hon. Lady has had one go.

Moving on to the defence industry base, I should like to point out that Lord Drayson's welcome return to government would perhaps have been a little more welcome if he had returned to the defence procurement field in which he was doing rather well when he felt it necessary to leave government. One can only speculate as to whether he was not invited back to that position, or whether he decided that he did not want to return to it for the same reasons that he decided to leave in the first place. I do not think that that decision was entirely to do with motor racing.

The defence industrial base is of great value to the economy. Of course, there are traditional problems relating to procurement, which I do not have time to go into in any detail today. However, I would like – in a constructive way, I hope – to take one case study as an example of the sort of thing that Ministers should be thinking about in relation to our shipbuilding industry.

We know that the Government started out with a commitment to build 12 new destroyers. The number then went down to eight, and it has finally been settled at six. We know that the 1998 Strategic Defence Review lowered the number of frigates and destroyers from 35 to 32. The number then went down to 31, then to 25. It is now down to 22. We also know that Admiral Lord West, when he was chief of the Navy, said over and over again – rather courageously, I thought, as he was still in office – that the Royal Navy needed about 30 frigates and destroyers to discharge its tasks. If we are going to have only six Type 45 destroyers, we are going to need something of the order of 24 new frigates. It will be very hard to persuade the Treasury to finance that.

Believe it or not, I think that Defence Ministers – even in a Labour Government – actually want to get the best possible deal for the Armed Forces, just as defence spokesmen in the Opposition believe in the very same thing. I urge the Ministers to urge the naval designers, the admirals and the Ministry of Defence, when they are designing the Future Surface Combatant, to make the vessels as basic and economical as possible, and to get as many hulls as possible into the water. They should not make the mistake, which has so often been made in the past, of upgrading the specification over and over again, with the result that we end up with half the number of ships that we originally intended to have.

It is much more possible to achieve these aims in this day and age than it was in the past. Our naval shipbuilders – and, to some extent, aircraft designers – have now developed techniques that enable them to put a vessel into the water, or an aircraft into service, with spare capacity. Everyone knows that there is a rather large gymnasium on the Type 45 destroyers. Everyone also knows that, as and when the Government can afford it, they will acquire tactical Tomahawk missiles that can be inserted into that spare space in the destroyers.

There is another reason why the new frigates should be designed to be as basic and economical as possible, and that as many as possible should be built. It is not only to keep the shipbuilding industry alive, or to maintain the necessary number of hulls that everyone knows the Navy needs for escort vessels, but to give us a chance to export the vessels in their simpler form to other countries. When we build vessels at the top of the range from the outset, they are unsaleable to anyone else.

I wish to conclude my remarks as this is a truncated debate. I am well aware that the two conflicts abroad not only place pressure on our domestic situation, but do not exist in isolation. I alluded to the security threat at home, and the fact is that Government machinery has not kept pace with these matters. Last year's debate on defence in the UK took place on 26 April and I welcomed the creation of the Research, Information and Communications Unit, which will be taking steps to try to get the message right about the threats to the UK that arise domestically, but which are interconnected with the campaigns we are waging abroad.

The trouble is that the machinery is still not properly co-ordinated in the sense that individual Departments are trying to defend the UK in individual stovepipe arrangements. The nearest thing we have to a security Minister is someone at Under-Secretary of State level, with primary emphasis being laid on the Home Office and local government departments. We face integrated and interconnected threats in the UK and abroad, and we need a national security strategy and appropriate machinery to implement it. That is why Baroness Neville-Jones has a seat in the Shadow Cabinet as National Security Adviser. Under an incoming Conservative Prime Minister, she would hold that post and be at the head of an organisation – a National Security Council – that was truly cross-departmental.

I want to say a last word about communications. This is not a debate on defence in the world, but when we read headlines at home that Army chiefs are saying such things as: "The war cannot be won in Afghanistan", it is easy to say that the Army chiefs ought to be more careful about what sort of words they use when they are discussing concepts that are nothing new at all. In reality, however, there is also a responsibility on journalists not to sensationalise things that are simply common sense.

Let me give a brief quote from the internal report produced at the conclusion of the 38-year Operation Banner – effectively the counter-insurgency campaign, if I may use that phrase, in Northern Ireland:

"Security forces do not 'win' insurgency campaigns militarily; at best they can contain or suppress the level of violence and achieve a successful end-state. They can thus reduce a situation to an 'acceptable level of violence' What is required is a level which the population can live with, and with which local police forces can cope."

I have put it another way when talking about these problems: in counter-insurgency, the enemy has to be identified, isolated and, so far as is possible, neutralised; but at the end of a counter-insurgency operation there always has to be negotiation with part of the enemy – the part that has been forced to recognise that it is not going to win and that is pragmatic enough to reach a settlement. I do not believe that anything that has been said about this by the Army differs in any way from that traditional approach.

I also believe that it is important that the media realise their responsibility; when our military chiefs are making perfectly sensible comments, they should not be turned into headlines saying: "Our efforts are doomed". On the contrary, our efforts are not doomed. The purpose of our efforts is to make the enemy see that they cannot win so that, eventually, the more sensible elements of that enemy can be brought into the political process.

Mr Tobias Ellwood: My hon. Friend is making a powerful statement as to one reason why we are spending so long in Afghanistan. Does he agree that the other aspect is the fact that our military is being asked to do far more than it was sent in to do? I now learn that it is working on counter-narcotics, which is far distant from what it set out to do. Most importantly, not enough reconstruction and development are happening under the security umbrella that it creates.

The situation is dangerous. The Department for International Development and the non-governmental organisations that are supposed to be operating are absent, and the international security assistance force is taking on all those tasks which are used to win over hearts and minds. That will, I hope, allow the locals to strengthen themselves and eventually allow us to go home.

Dr Lewis: I endorse entirely my hon. Friend's comments, and I pay tribute to him for the interest that he has taken, at no risk to himself, to ensure that he was closely acquainted with that campaign. In particular, if the environment is too dangerous for DFID to operate in, as it is, and if we are asking the Armed Forces to do more reconstruction, as we are, ought not the Government to consider taking some of the resources currently allocated to DFID and giving them to the Armed Forces to do the job?

Mark Pritchard: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government of Pakistan need to do all that they can to ensure that al-Qaeda does not link in with the Taliban, so that those parts of the Taliban that are prepared to negotiate, to which he perhaps alludes, are fit and able to do so at the earliest opportunity?

Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is exactly right. As has been seen to happen as a result of the successful American grasp of counter-insurgency principles in Iraq, we will end up with a situation in which people who were formerly fighting against us accept that they will eventually get their country back, providing that they break with and eliminate the unacceptable elements. We have seen that at the end of all sorts of counter-insurgency campaigns, both those that have been fought to a draw and those that have been fought to the advantage of the Government side. Ultimately, we isolate the militants and recruit those who are perhaps of a more nationalistic than militant persuasion. We end up with a compromise, which is at the heart of most democratic, and certainly all counter-insurgency, solutions.

Defence in the UK certainly involves support for the Armed Forces and for the defence industry, but it also involves support for the cause for which our Service personnel are fighting. While civilians talk, debate and write reports, soldiers take their lives in their hands day in and day out. We owe it to them to articulate the cause for which we ask them to fight, and to give them the backing here in the UK when they come home from their dangerous operations.