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Mr. Jenkin: That really cannot stand on the record. Although the United States could not help us with overt military co-operation, it was of great assistance to us. That needs to be put on the record.
Mr. Breed: I am happy to accept that, but at the beginning of the conflict, when perhaps we needed the best support, it was not forthcoming. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that the Americans were working for the opposition.
The roles that I have just described for the United Kingdom are not conflicting roles. We must work within them all, in order that we might best maintain national and global security, and we must stand ready to act within each of them. However, this pivotal, multi-dimensional defence relationship carries with it complex responsibilities, particularly when partners within the alliances differ. There will be occasions when we shall be unable to satisfy all our allies, and we might have to choose. However, it would be dangerous and invidious if such decisions were based on the expediency of relationships rather than the principles that we as a country have long cherished.
Flexibility was the watchword of the MOD during its process of reform, and that should include flexibility in terms of who we fight with, not simply how our forces are deployed. The moves on European defence that were made at the Rome summit are about exactly that flexibility. European defence policy is not, and should not be, about ceding control of UK forces; nor is it in direct competition with NATO or the US. European security and defence policy means that we can conduct operations in yet more frameworks with the US, NATO, the UN or the EU, as the situation demands. The counsel from the Conservative Benches to disengage from EU co-operation certainly runs contrary to the wishes of the US and would offer no advantage whatever to NATO. The Conservatives were certainly not opposed, as I understand it, to the Western European Union, which for many years provided a European pillar within NATO itself.
EU operations such as those recently undertaken in the Congo, along with NATO operations such as those in Afghanistan, show that we can work in many organisations to try to improve security worldwide. NATO and the EU are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the EU will act only when NATO chooses not to do so. Therefore, NATO will continue to have, and must have, its prime role.
Mr. Gray: Before the hon. Gentleman moves from the EU, will he say whether he foresees any circumstance in which our EU partners would increase their defence capability to bridge the gap that exists between the United States and us?
Mr. Breed: I hope so. One of the responsibilities of the countries that are joining the EU is to begin to understand their responsibilities to overall defence policy. At present, it is difficult for them to perform those dutiesthey will be net receivers of EU supportbut, as the Secretary of State pointed out, there will be certain groupings and an understanding. As part of the European Scrutiny Committee, I have visited a number of the acceding countries. They understand that there is a responsibility on them to ensure that they contribute, albeit proportionately, to the defence of Europe.
Regrettably, our forces are deployed in more and more countries all over the world and, as has been clearly demonstrated, they are being stretched further and further, which gives everyone cause for concern, not least the troops themselves.
Some strides have been made in that regard. I welcome the recent announcement that unmarried partners of members of the armed forces killed in action will receive equal pension rights as their married counterparts. The increase in widows' and widower awards is also timely.
It is unfortunate that those achievements have been made at the expense of some officers' pensions. It may have been possible to improve the situation of everyone without penalising others if the MOD had not been wedded to the idea of cost-neutral reform. It would have been perfectly possible to keep the MOD budget cost-neutral while making adjustments within it.
There is a danger of seeing such measures in purely fiscal termsas an extra figure in the MOD budgetbut the effect that such measures can have on members of the armed forces and their loved ones cannot be underestimated. To that end, I would like to raise a subject on which I have exchanged many letters and parliamentary questions with the Minster with responsibility for the armed forces: manning control points.
In principle, a mechanism that prevents soldiers who are struggling from blocking promotion paths is reasonable, but in practice we have seen considerable evidence from former soldiers that the system has been misused, or at worst abused. Such a system should never be used simply to try to move decent, hard-working soldiers on to short-term contracts, under which they enjoy fewer rights and their service can be terminated without the pension entitlement that they richly deserve.
When one is told by former servicemen that they believe that that is what has happened to them, one cannot take such an accusation lightly. Ifthis is another suggestion that has been made to meundeserving soldiers have been bullied out of the Army and have chosen to release themselves from duty rather than face the embarrassment of being manning controlled, that is also a very serious matter.
The Minister will no doubt be aware that soldiers who feel that they have been unfairly dismissed are assembling a court case. I hope that he can assure those soldiers that the Government will take their case seriously and look closely at their own practices. A repeat of the Gulf war syndrome case, in which the MOD refused to accept any responsibility, would not help the morale of those serving or those who are considering service. An early recognition of responsibility, if need be, is surely preferable to a hefty legal bill later.
Mr. Breed: It is right to say that it has been open. I have been involved, as the hon. Gentleman has, in a number of debates in Westminster Hall and here and I think that we have rehearsed all the arguments on one side, but I still believe that there is a clear lack of genuine responsibility for the welfare of those soldiers. I am talking not about blame and the scientific evidence but about some recognition that those soldiers who are affected should have at least some support from the MOD, which they served.
The importance of sufficient soldiers on the ground has been reinforced by recent experience in Iraq. Clearly, peacekeeping requires rather more soldiers for longer than combat operations. At a time when UK forces are deployed in so many places around the world, the Defence Analytical Services Agency figures for September show that the establishment strength of the armed forces, even including deployed reservists, is falling. I hope that the Minister may be able to confirm in his winding-up speech that infantry numbers will remain at least at current levels. To cut troop numbers when they are overstretched and when reservist numbers are falling could, at the very least, be foolhardy.
I know that we shall discuss procurement next week, but it is right to put something on the record today as a precursor. The two aircraft carriers are essential to the SDR's expeditionary strategy. Industry sources have told me that the MOD's original plans were always over-optimistic and that the MOD quoted the best estimate for the lowest cost. Perhaps that is what we all try to do when we want to squeeze the proverbial quart into the pint pot but did the MOD play it straight? Was it looking at the broad estimates that were involved, or did it seek to find the figures that most closely fitted its case?
Two smaller carriers may be better than no carriers at all, but we do not know that that is the case, or whether we have one instead of two. Clearly, there needs to be a cost-benefit analysis so that we know precisely that value for money is being achieved. What impact might the shrinking of the carriers have on the joint strike fighter? That is just one issue that will have to be taken into accountthere are many otherswhen we decide to reduce the size or the number of such vessels.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): As the hon. Gentleman has said, we will debate procurement next week. I wonder whether he can tell us in advance, to inform our debate more fully next week, whether the Liberal party is in favour of the two aircraft carriers at the proposed size of 60,000 tonnes?
Mr. Breed: We hope to be able to support that proposal, but, as the hon. Gentleman may well argue next week, we need a precise costing. Signing up to two large carriers now, on the basis of figures that may be wholly optimistic in terms of the final total cost, might not necessarily provide the value for money that he and other Members would want. Part of the problem is that because of our recent experience of cost and time overruns, decisions that were properly taken in a
Rumours persist that the MOD will cut the number of Typhoons it plans to order. That may well be advisable, but, if we are to cut them, I hope that the Government will say so soon, perhaps today or next week.
Procurement of major projects is not the only logistical problem that the Government face. One major lesson that the MOD faced in its "First Reflections" report was the supply chain management problems associated with getting equipment to theatre. It seems that even now some units in Iraq do not have desert kit. On 3 July, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) asked the MOD whether all troops were now equipped with desert clothing. The Minister said that he would answer the question shortly, but it is still outstanding. I can conclude only that the lack of an answer means that the answer is no, but perhaps the Minister can offer another clarification when he sums up.
We all acknowledge that we have the best armed forces in the worlda point that they have certainly proved this yearbut as we ask them to perform more and more tasks we must surely ensure that we do not stretch them too far; we must ensure that their needs are put first at all times. They need to be certain about pensions, and about accommodation and kit. Praise alone, however welcome, is rather hollow if the important material essentials are missing. When they put their lives on the line for us, it is our duty to seek the best for them.