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Mr. Gerald Howarth: The Liberal Democrats asked the right hon. Gentleman, the Chairman of the Committee, how much extra should be spent and he has just suggested that resuming cold war expenditure is not appropriate. Given the phenomenal risk not just to our country, but to western society, exposed by events in New York, surely we should consider a serious increase if we are to give our people the protection that they seek and deserve.

Mr. George: Absolutely, but a 0.5 per cent. increase would take us substantially above the level projected by the Conservative Government. If the threat is so severe, one must argue that we should spend the amount commensurate with it. Even 3 per cent. in the short term may be inadequate. I was asked a question and I do not want to duck it. A not insubstantial increase is desirable, but it must be—

Mr. Laws rose

Mr. George: I am sorry, but Mr. Deputy Speaker will shortly cast his eye on me and the clock, so I dare not continue for much longer.

The figure that I gave is worthy of consideration, but, following 11 September, the House, the Secretary of State for Defence and other Secretaries of State must seriously analyse their responsibilities. No doubt the Government and the Defence Committee will recommend that the Department and this country's armed forces—Army, Navy and Air Force; regulars, the Territorial Army and reservists—play an enhanced role, but chronic departmentalism is a curse on the fight against the threat of terrorism and the emergencies of recent years. The matter is not only for the MOD.

It remains to be determined whether the structure is ideal, but the Cabinet unit that has been established must consider matters across the board, not as hitherto in terms of lead Departments with others not particularly interested or possibly subversive. These issues must be dealt with on a cross-departmental basis that involves all the structures of international, national, regional and local bodies.

In one, two or five years, the threat may have vanished, but I doubt it. The day after the bomb attacks in Washington, New York and Pennsylvania, I was about to go through security in my car when somebody 15 vehicles behind tooted their horn. I was told that one of our

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colleagues was irritated by how long it was taking him or her to get through. The disaster of 11 September is not the only one that will occur. Nothing remotely similar has happened since, but that is due to luck, the action taken by the United States and others, good policing and good intelligence.

The House can be certain that organisations and individuals currently lying low are preparing for a repeat performance. Other organisations may consider what happened to be the baseline for their activities, because one that kills 1,000 or 2,000 people will be unfavourably compared to al-Qaeda, which killed 3,000. I am sure that private individuals and groups have nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, so, although I do not want to be alarmist, we should consider the possibility of a threat to 30,000 people or more. Reacting to that does not mean merely tinkering with existing structures.

Although people may be irritated by airport delays, higher air ticket prices or tax increases caused by enhanced security measures, the Government must keep a sense of balance, as the Secretary of State said. However, "keeping a balance" must not suggest that we will not go too far or that some people are upgrading the threat for their own political purposes. We are in a dangerous world, and there is a threat to the United States and to this country and many others. We can only minimise the risk—it can never be eliminated—by mobilising the Government, the public and the private sector in any way we can to reduce the possibility of an attack such as that on Washington.

The MOD will play a pivotal role in that, as will our armed forces. Although we are focusing on that this afternoon, let us be certain that the MOD is but one cog in a much larger wheel. I hope that the Home Secretary and other Secretaries of State will also initiate a discussion on the role of their Departments and what they need to do, because the reaction must be more than departmental. We must synthesise departmental efforts. Unless we create a governmental approach, I am afraid that the additional resources that I hope will be made available will be badly distributed and badly spent.

3.17 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Select Committee, who always speaks with great passion, determination and sense. The debate is interesting and I enjoyed the contribution of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne). Later, I shall refer to a point that he raised.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State's tribute to our armed forces, which are a force for good. We see them on visits in this country and abroad. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who cannot be present, was recently in Sierra Leone, and she wants to express to the Government the admiration of people there for the work being done. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is with the Foreign Secretary in Kabul today, will also see our armed forces at work. They are highly trained for intensive combat, dispensing aid, peacekeeping and peace enforcing. They are a credit to us all.

The talk of specialisation for some of our forces is slightly worrying. It is right that they should be able to perform the tasks specific to them, but the loss of their

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astonishing all-round training may represent an enormous risk. Our defence forces' primary concern is protecting our nation, but, beyond that, their posture should be clearly foreign policy-led. The document produced for the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference in Manchester makes that clear.

We have also said:

in which we are involved.

Our posture should be led by foreign policy, but more difficult to predict and plan for are the shock events that change the international environment and require the remodelling of international security structures. Such events might include the sudden unravelling of the Soviet empire and the end of the cold war, which transformed Europe and, consequently, the context for British security. Another example would be the terrorist attacks of September 2001, which required the reassessment of international capability. Events such as those mean that we must be capable of flexibility.

Rather than simply withdrawing our troops from the vital work that they do, we must reassess the structure of our armed forces for a new era. Before 11 September, the SDR provided a blueprint for a modern force with which almost all hon. Members agreed. However, I believe that the principles that underlay the SDR remain compelling, even after 11 September.

I pay tribute to the international security assistance force that has gone into Afghanistan. Liberal Democrat Members supported the Ministry's decision to send troops to Afghanistan, and we support the British lead in that force. However, the initial three-month period of British lead may be extended and the Turkish commitment has not yet been guaranteed. That is a matter for concern.

We believe that sending in a force such as ISAF requires us to be prepared to get the job done. Opposition Members should not complain about mission creep. British troops should be able to get home and spend time with their families, but that does not preclude them from fulfilling the peacekeeping duties that they perform so well. If we must maintain the British lead and involvement in ISAF beyond three months, Liberal Democrat Members will understand that, and support it.

It would be unwise to throw away or prejudice the success that we are achieving in Kabul by walking away. We must remember that ISAF operates under a UN mandate. It is for the Security Council, in consultation with the Interim Administration in Afghanistan, to consider stretching the mandate beyond six months, or undertaking a wider deployment beyond Kabul. However, such matters must be considered completely separately from the UK's involvement in ISAF. I repeat that ISAF must be made to work.

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If we are to perform that role around the world, we must do so in conjunction with the UN, NATO, and Europe. There are flaws in the mechanism of pan-European defence, but that does not mean that we should discontinue the entire process. There is a vast European force, and it would be foolish and stubborn not to tap into it. If our allies can assist in deployment from Europe and help with international peacekeeping, it would be foolish for us to withdraw from that principle.

In the same way, I am committed to the principle that we can buy in bulk from the European Community, and that in so doing we can save money and create jobs. The system of pan-European procurement is complex and flawed, but we must not run away from the prospect. We must work to iron out the flaws and to develop closer co-operation to see how we can work more effectively together. If we can do that, we can save money, procure more smartly, create more jobs and begin to ease overstretch. To shun those possibilities would be foolish.

The Secretary of State has conceded that the British armed forces are stretched and operating at the limit of their capabilities. What is certain is that an ever-changing world is placing ever-increasing demands on our armed forces. It is a world in which our forces must be able to move at lightning speed, both in and out of conflicts.

We now have a modern expeditionary Army but, as the Secretary of State has conceded, our armed forces are stretched to their limits. The hon. Member for New Forest, West made some interesting points about the Army that we now have. When I talk to units lower down the order of battle, so to speak, I encounter concern that we are developing what amounts to a two-tier Army.

The forces that we use in conflict—the Paras, the Marines and the special forces—are the ones that undertake what might be called the sexy missions. There is no doubt that they are overstretched, but other units do not get their fair share of the sexy missions. Some of those units are beginning to be underused, and to feel undervalued.

Some 27 per cent. of the Army was committed to operations in January 2002. That is a vast improvement on the 44 per cent. committed at the height of the Kosovo campaign. However, the shortfall in trained strength means that some units more than others are bearing the brunt.

The SDR concluded that, for the Army, the optimum interval between tours should be at least 24 months, for operational effectiveness and retention. For the Parachute Regiment in 2000-01, however, the interval was only 18 months. For some units, such as field hospitals, the interval is down to just 12 months.

Ministers claim that, across the armed forces, the interval between tours is 30 months. However, for our special and elite forces and for other specialist units, the interval is far too short. There is therefore a danger that our armed forces will exist in two tiers—one overstretched, and one with morale problems because its personnel feel that they are not being used enough. For the members of some of those units, twiddling their thumbs can be just as demoralising as having to go from one operation to another.

The first way in which we must address the problem of overstretch is to look at its root cause, which we believe to be recruitment and, more especially, retention. We need

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the right number and type of forces, and we must eliminate the shortfalls that exist in several areas. All hon. Members know about the shortage of pilots, which has been mentioned in the debate already. However, other shortfalls exist in mechanics, the defence medical services and elsewhere. We must have a coherent recruitment strategy.

The Government claim that their recruitment strategy is working. If so, they should be congratulated. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell)—who, sadly, cannot be present today—claimed earlier this week at Defence questions that the strategy was not working. If that is so, new policies must be introduced.

The pay increase proposed by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body of 3.7 per cent. was welcome. Ministers have claimed that the costs involved can be met within the current budget, but I fear that they cannot. We should also ensure that our forces have access to retraining, and that military qualifications are recognised in civilian life. In addition, we must provide our forces with higher-quality unaccompanied and family quarters.

Our armed forces personnel staff our most precious public service, and they are also the most important bit of kit that we have. The hon. Member for New Forest, West referred to statistics uncovered by Liberal Democrat Members showing that the pressure exerted on married life by service in the armed forces has caused a dramatic fall of 22 per cent. in the number of married armed forces personnel since Labour came to power. That compares with a fall of only 8 per cent. in overall strength. Given the severe recruitment problems that the forces are suffering, we cannot afford to lose those highly trained, experienced, mature and stable married members of our armed forces.

Why is a marriage in the Navy or the RAF twice as likely to break down as an Army marriage? In 2000–01, the proportional change from married to other status in the Army was 1.8 per cent. That compares with 3.4 per cent. in the RAF, and 3.5 per cent. in the Navy. The disparity between the forces must be investigated. If best practice exists in the Army, it should be spread to the other forces.

I do not suggest that there should be marriage guidance counsellors on every base, but sensitivity to the concerns of families and partners is imperative for recruitment and retention.

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