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Mr John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con): I am mindful of your instruction that this is a narrow debate about referring the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it might help if I clarified one or two aspects regarding the two examinations of the matter that have been carried out by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
We first looked at the issue in 2007. It is important to distinguish between two different episodes, both of which potentially affect hon. Members. The first episode was the arrest and conviction of Glenn Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, specifically for phone hacking. The second was Operation Motorman, carried out by the police, which identified a private investigator who had been employed by a large number of journalists from many different newspapers, usually to undertake what is called blagging rather than hacking.
While hacking is an offence under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, blagging is a breach of the Data Protection Act 1998. Both are criminal offences, but in the second case, there is a public interest defence. No journalists were ever prosecuted in the Motorman case, so we do not know whether a public interest defence might have been used. However, the sheer number of blags or attempts to seek information in breach of the 1998 Act led us to believe that what was happening was, in large part, fishing by journalists and did not involve the pursuit of specific public interest matters. We revisited the matter in July 2009, after the publication of a story in The Guardian providing new evidence that led us to question the evidence that we had received in the first inquiry that Clive Goodman was the only journalist who had any knowledge of, or involvement in, phone hacking at the News of the World.
As I have suggested, there is evidence from both inquiries that hon. Members were affected. Specifically in relation to the first episode, the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) was named in the indictment of Mr Mulcaire as one of those who had suffered from hacking. When it came to Motorman, there were literally thousands of names. We know, for instance, that Peter Kilfoyle was one of them, although he did not know that until it was subsequently uncovered. In both cases there was concern that the victims were not informed, either by the police in relation to Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire, or by the Information Commissioner in relation to Motorman.
As the House knows, the Select Committee took considerable evidence from a number of journalists-principally from the News of the World in relation to Clive Goodman, but from other newspapers too concerning Operation Motorman. At that time-it is important to remember that we are talking about events from some time ago-we found that there appeared to be a culture across Fleet street in which such practices were routine, and that law breaking was taking place in many news rooms. We were also assured that things had changed. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) was a little unfair to suggest that the Press Complaints
Commission did nothing. I have been critical of the Press Complaints Commission in the past, but it certainly did do something: it made it absolutely plain that such practices were unacceptable and required editors to tighten their rules, and we received assurances that such practices had stopped.
We now know that there is one journalist under investigation by the News of the World potentially for hacking, but it was the News of the World who acted on that and then notified the Press Complaints Commission that it was doing so. I very much hope that the events that we are discussing today relate to some time ago and that such practices have ceased right across Fleet street.
I understand the frustration felt by hon. Members during our inquiry-indeed, I shared it. We did make use of some of the powers that the hon. Member for Rhondda referred to, particularly in obtaining documents that various witnesses were, at first, unwilling to provide. We certainly had some arguments over which witnesses would give evidence. For example, we were unable to get evidence from either Clive Goodman or Glenn Mulcaire-or, indeed from Mr Ross Hall, who was in Peru at the time, although I understand that he has now returned to this country.
I recognise that new evidence might well have emerged. Some of the information that has entered the public domain in the past few days certainly appears to contradict some of the evidence that we received. The Standards and Privileges Committee has slightly more powers available to it than the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and I in no way oppose the motion. I agree with the hon. Member for Rhondda that this is an extremely serious matter, and it is not just about MPs. The illegal obtaining of information about any individual is to be deplored. I therefore strongly welcome the moves that have taken place to ensure that it does not continue.
I have one small concern, although I am not in any way accusing the hon. Member for Rhondda. This issue is mired in politics, and the Standards and Privileges Committee needs to be very careful to ensure that it is not used as a vehicle for political ends. I am sure that that will not be the case under its new Chairman, whom I congratulate on his election.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Anyone can have their phone tapped by the newspapers, and they do. The House does not forget them as we debate the narrow issue of the abuse of MPs' privilege. So that Members can decide on the merits of the motion, I should tell them that, since the urgent question on Monday, one MP has told me that their phone company has confirmed that they have been the victim of blagging. The police have been informed. Another MP was so worried that, on the advice of his lawyers, he sent his mobile PDA device to forensic technicians, who confirmed that it was almost certainly hacked. I know of at least three former senior Ministers who have not yet gone public with their serious concerns that their phones were hacked. The evidence of endemic abuse is growing by the day.
This morning, I talked to the lawyer Charlotte Harris, who informed me that she had been in contact with former News International reporter Sean Hoare, as
part of her inquiries for clients who are the victims of phone hacking. He stands by his statements, and he will help the police. He also knows of others who were involved.
Something very dark lurks in the evidence files of the Mulcaire case, and dark and mysterious forces are keeping it that way. If the Standards and Privileges Committee is to get to the truth, I recommend that it interview the Culture, Media and Sport Committee refuseniks-the people associated with News International who flatly rejected our invitations to give evidence to our inquiry. They include Greg Miskiw, a former assistant news editor, who said that he was too ill to attend, and was not pursued. They also include Glenn Mulcaire. We were told through an intermediary that he would not give evidence, and he was not pursued. Clive Goodman was also asked to give evidence, but he said that he was unavailable. He was not pursued. The chief executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks, was pursued on three separate occasions before we gave up.
Alan Keen (Feltham and Heston) (Lab/Co-op): I think it was before my hon. Friend was a member of the Select Committee that we got a very direct answer from the then Rebekah Wade, who was a senior executive of News International in this country. She was asked whether it paid the police for information, and her answer was yes. Does my hon. Friend think that that issue should be part of this inquiry?
Andy Hayman, as head of the Met police's special operations unit, was in charge of the Mulcaire inquiry. If the Committee wants to get to the bottom of which MPs were on the target list, and of who was told and who was not, News International's Andy Hayman is their man. I strongly recommend that the Committee ask him to appear.
We can delegate power but not responsibility. I doubt that Rupert Murdoch knows about these incidents, but he is responsible for appointing to positions of great power people who should know about them. For that reason, he too should explain his actions to the Committee. It is he who appointed Rebekah Brooks as chief executive of News International. He first appointed her, and he then appointed Andy Coulson as editor of the News of the World.
This morning, we have seen a strong argument for an inquiry made by former reporter Paul McMullan, who has become the seventh named News of the World employee to admit that they either knew about or took part in phone hacking. When Rebekah Brooks was editor, McMullan says:
"They were just doing what was expected of them. People were obsessed with getting celebs' phone numbers...Everyone was surprised that Clive Goodman was the only one who went down."
If Members want justification for supporting the motion, they need look no further than Rupert Murdoch's Rebekah Brooks, who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen) said, admitted to Parliament that she paid police officers in the Met for stories. The Select Committee found that, "As far as we are aware, this practice is illegal for both parties, and
there is no public interest defence that a jury could legitimately take into account." When Rupert Murdoch appointed Rebekah Brooks, he did so with that knowledge.
There is one more tiny little shame that we all share. The truth is that, in this House we are all, in our own way, scared of the Rebekah Brookses of this world. If we fear agreeing this motion, let us think about this: it is almost laughable that we sit here in Parliament, the central institution of our sacred democracy-among us are some of the most powerful people in the land-yet we are scared of the power that Rebekah Brooks wields without a jot of responsibility or accountability. The barons of the media, with their red-topped assassins, are the biggest beasts in the modern jungle. They have no predators; they are untouchable. They laugh at the law; they sneer at Parliament. They have the power to hurt us, and they do, with gusto and precision, with joy and criminality. Prime Ministers quail before them, and that is how they like it. That, indeed, has become how they insist upon it, and we are powerless in the face of them. We are afraid. If we oppose this motion, it is to our shame.
That is the tawdry secret that dare not speak its name. The most powerful people in the land-Prime Ministers, Ministers, and MPs of every party-are guilty in their own way of perpetuating a media culture that allows the character of the decent to be traduced out of casual malice, for money, for spite, for sport or for any reason that the media like. If we reject the motion, we will be guilty of letting that happen. We allow it because we allow narrow party advantage to dominate our thinking, above the long-term health of our democracy.
And yet, I sense that we are at the beginning of the endgame. Things will get better because, in many senses, they cannot get worse. The little guys, the reporters on the ground who joined a newspaper to seek the truth, have ended up working in a living hell. If we want to, we in this House have the power to change that. We can make a start by getting to the bottom of the phone hacking scandal. Whatever lies in those Mulcaire files is key, and the Standards and Privileges Committee can start the process by establishing the facts. This is not the time to rehearse the questions that must be answered, but no one who believes in the law, truth or democracy can doubt that they desperately urgently need to be asked.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to say a few words and grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and to Mr Speaker for providing it. Perhaps not surprisingly, I entirely support the motion. I am on record from 2006 right up to the last election as speaking about the importance of this matter. I want to speak briefly today and to say to the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) that, if the motion is passed, I would be happy to assist him and his Committee on Standards and Privileges further.
I am-I think-the only Member who has been asked to give evidence and has given it, as part of the evidence that secured the conviction of Mr Glenn Mulcaire. I was approached in 2006 and willingly agreed to do that. In reference to the comments of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), I inquired who
else had had their phone hacked and who else had been approached to give evidence. I was told that there were others, but that not everybody was willing to give evidence.
I have absolutely no doubt that some people were not willing to give evidence because they were afraid. They were afraid of going into the public domain to take on people working either directly or indirectly for one of our land's major newspapers. I have been in this place and in public life long enough not to be afraid any more, and I have also been through the mill before, which means that I probably have nothing much more to be afraid about. For me, it was not a problem, but it clearly was for others. I hope that they-colleagues here and in the other place-will now again be invited to give evidence to the Standards and Privileges Committee, if it takes on the job and might now be willing to speak to that Committee, either in public or private, though they were not willing to go public in the courts at the time.
My second point is that we are not talking about an isolated person or people at an isolated time in respect of an isolated newspaper. To the best of my knowledge, I was a subject not just of that particular fishing expedition, but also of a different fishing expedition by a different newspaper owned by different people. Another linked activity-it was very common-was buying phone records illegally from phone companies so that activities could be traced and inquiries made. These are linked issues: there is a whole sea of illegal and undesirable activity going on here.
Another issue, to which the hon. Member for Rhondda rightly referred, goes even wider. We can defend and speak up for ourselves here because we have privilege. It is right that we use the processes of the House, but one reason why I support this matter being referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges is so that the privileges of our families, our friends, our colleagues and our constituents can also be respected. The people living on the estate behind my house do not have the same access to the media as I do. When they leave a message or when a member of my family or a colleague leaves a message, they might not have the opportunity to go public about any difficulties, yet they are potentially equally affected and harmed. For them, it is equally insidious, dangerous and unacceptable. This is an issue for us in our representative capacity on behalf of our constituents as much as it is for us as MPs with parliamentary privileges.
Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): As a new MP, I hope not to have attracted the attention of Mr Mulcaire, but equally, as a new MP with a background in communications, I am very aware that the business of MPs and this House will depend increasingly on electronic means of communication throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman speaks of our representative role, which I strongly agree with, but we should also consider the future-both for the House and the country at large. By investigating what happened in the past, we not only look at the past, but safeguard the future for both.
The hon. Lady is quite right. In common with my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have seen great changes in the use of electronic media for communication during my time in Parliament. I hope
that the hon. Lady's expertise will be made available to the Standards and Privileges Committee if it requests it.
I want briefly to discuss two other issues. First, it is easy to misrepresent and thus tell untruths on the basis of misunderstood messages and information. To lighten the mood for a moment, I had a message on my phone the other day from a woman who sounded as if she was of a certain age and who said, "Darling, I really need to speak to you urgently. If we do not meet today, our marriage might be at an end." I thought that that message was unlikely to be aimed at me! She clearly had not read the press enough! Not knowing who she was, I nevertheless phoned her back and said, "Madam, I do not know who you are and you might not know who I am, but I think that the message you left was not intended for me. You ought to think about who it was intended for before it is too late." The serious point is that messages left were clearly misinterpreted to lead people to conclude that they were about one thing when they were not really about that at all. There is scope for terrible abuse if we do not rein in this activity completely.
Finally, this is without doubt a job for the Standards and Privileges Committee, but I hope that that will not mean that others who have a responsibility do not do their jobs, too. The Metropolitan Police Authority has a job-to hold the Metropolitan police to account.
The Justice Committee might well want to ask Law Officers about whether the Crown Prosecution Service did its job properly. Of course there is a case for only specimen counts to be investigated and put forward in a court case, but I share the view of the hon. Member for Rhondda that people on the list as prospective targets should have been informed, even if their phones had not been hacked at the time.
We also have a wider responsibility, which I hope we can deal with more fully on another occasion. The power of the media-broadcast, televised and written-is an issue for this country. My right hon. and hon. Friends have been brave enough to set up a commission into the banks, but I hope they will also set up a commission into broadcasting and the media, because the Press Complaints Commission has not done a robust job. The public are not adequately protected from the press. I am someone who, like the hon. Member for Rhondda, will defend the freedom of the press to the end, but there is a big difference between the freedom of the press and abuse by the press. This is abuse and illegality. It has to end, and we must be robust about it.
Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the eloquent speech of the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes). On Tuesday this week, the Home Affairs Select Committee took evidence from Assistant Commissioner Yates, and we raised the concerns that had been expressed on Monday by my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We also considered the excellent report fashioned by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport.
Clearly, the speeches delivered here today-some have been most eloquent, especially that of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson)-relate to incidents concerning the News of the World. Assistant Commissioner Yates told us that he has to continue with his investigations, which are operational matters. However, in the exchanges during the giving of his evidence, it was clear that members of the Committee were concerned about the state of the law relating to unauthorised hacking and tapping of mobile communications. That is why on Tuesday the Committee established an inquiry into the law, into the extent to which the police are able to police that law, and into the way in which the police inform people that they have been victims of that crime.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): This may be slightly outside the Home Affairs Committee remit, but will the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee want to look at the ease with which it is possible to hack into phones and ask what the industry is doing about it? Secondly, although this may also be slightly outside the remit, will his Select Committee look at the Press Complaints Commission and perhaps make some recommendations about how to beef up that organisation so that it really does the effective job that it should be doing?
Keith Vaz: The second issue is really a matter for the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to look into; it is well outside the home affairs remit. However, our Committee certainly will contact the mobile phone companies to look at how they are able to deal with the issue of phone tapping and hacking.
To be clear, the Committee's decision was unanimous. I see four members of it in their places on both sides of the House. The inquiry was suggested by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), a Liberal Democrat Member, and it is limited to looking at the issue of mobile communication.
I fully support the motion before the House. I have spoken briefly with the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr Barron) on his appointment to that role. We would not want to duplicate the work of that Committee. We will share with him any information that we have, but we would not want to trample on the rights of the senior Committee of the House to deal with the privileges of Members. I fully support the motion.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to whom I offered my support previously, and I welcome Mr Speaker's decision to allow the motion to be debated.
The issue about the distinction between the Government and Parliament has not been so strong in the past. My view is that the Government are right that the Metropolitan police's operational decisions rest with it. However,
Parliament still has a role, and the purpose of Parliament's privileges is to protect our constituents. If we do not stand up for our constituents by using our bite rather than just our bark, we cannot protect our constituents. Only yesterday, I was contacted by a whistleblower, who explained to me evidence of corrupt practices in family proceedings. Obviously, I will bring that issue to the House in more detail later, when I have more evidence. Had that person been concerned that the communication had been tapped, all sorts of problems would have been caused. Some people have been so worried about their communications being tapped that they have wanted to see me in person in a place where they could not be overheard. If our constituents are to have confidence that they can communicate with us about parliamentary proceedings, we need to protect their rights.
Andrew France is a constituent of mine. He was threatened that his daughter would be taken into care if he spoke to me about his case. Luckily, his case has come to an end, so he can talk to me. However, Parliament should take action to deal with such issues. The law on these matters is interesting: there are many different international examples, of which I have many details if any hon. Member wishes to see them. Under article 47 of the German constitution, there is a protection for members of the Bundestag from having to give details of information that they have received. It is so important that people are able to provide information in private about proceedings in Parliament.
Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): The issue, which I hope the House will refer to the Standards and Privileges Committee, is about not just crimes committed several years ago but about cover-ups that, to all appearances, are still going on today. I was a member of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport that looked into the affair previously. I drafted many of the conclusions of its report. We tried to penetrate the veil of secrecy over the affair, but we generally met with a wall of silence, with evasion and with collective amnesia. In trying to complete a much larger report before the election, we also had limited practical powers of compulsion. That issue relates to the modernisation of the House, which, if the resolution is passed today, I hope that the Standards and Privileges Committee will also consider. The powers of Select Committees need to be strengthened, and we need look no further than the United States Congress for good examples of how to do that.
Before the House votes, I want to deal with a couple of matters in the report, as well as two matters that keep being repeated, including in the past few days, on which the House might appreciate some clarity. First, regarding the police, the former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman has repeatedly told the news that as far as the Met was concerned, it left no stone unturned and
interviewed everyone who was relevant at the time. I am afraid that that is simply not true. The police interviewed only Mr Mulcaire and Mr Goodman, despite evidence in their hands that implicated others in the activity, which has clearly affected the confidence with which MPs can go about their business. Mr Mulcaire and Mr Goodman also maintained their right to silence, before entering a guilty plea, so no cross-examination was made. Our report was highly critical of the extent of the police investigation. Frankly, had Mr Hayman been in charge of the Watergate inquiry, President Nixon would have safely served a full term. His line is one that his successor, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain, as new people emerge out of the woodwork, day in, day out, in the press.
Our report was very critical of the evasive display by Mr Yates in giving evidence for the police, and I hope that if the motion is passed, the Standards and Privileges Committee will not allow the police to get away with such evasiveness. As the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) has pointed out, nor is the Crown Prosecution Service blameless in the affair. When we asked it to justify how the investigation and prosecution had been carried out previously, it repeated verbatim, to a great extent, the police statements, which were highly misleading.
Secondly, I want to address the claim that our Committee-this has been repeated in the news in the past few days, often for libel balance-found no evidence that the then editor of the News of the World , Andy Coulson, knew about the hacking. That has been taken to mean that we effectively cleared Mr Coulson of knowing what his staff and Mr Mulcaire were up to. Nothing could be further from the truth-this is not a political point but a matter of fact. Frankly, we were incredulous that such a hands-on editor would not have had the slightest inkling about what his staff and private investigators employed by the paper were up to. That activity has clearly interfered with the activities of Members of Parliament. Faced with Mr Coulson's denial, however, we simply could go no further. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) has said, others simply declined to be interviewed. To the list that he has had, I would add Mr Neville Thurlbeck, the chief reporter of the News of the World, who offered only to give evidence in private, which we considered unsatisfactory. Would compulsion have been productive? No, because it would have delayed the publication of a report. That is also an issue for the Standards and Privileges Committee to consider. Another reporter who was implicated was on a round-the-world trip at the time.
Mr Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): Some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises rather reinforce the view that there might be a justification not just for a Standards and Privileges Committee inquiry but a full judicial inquiry, especially to consider the police's non-use of powers, which is in itself an abuse of power.
Only now are more people coming out of the woodwork to naysay what Mr Coulson told us. Clearly, that is a matter that the Committee on Standards and Privileges will want to look into in order to get to the bottom of it.
Finally, I want to touch on two loose ends from our report, of which the Standards and Privileges Committee might find it useful to be advised. First, the whole affair was reactivated by the case of Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, whose phone was hacked by Mr Mulcaire. The News of the World was in pursuit of sex stories in football. It sent its chief reporter, Mr Thurlbeck, to knock on Mr Taylor's door, on a Saturday afternoon, in the north of England, presumably with the intention of publishing the next day. However, after Mr Taylor's lawyers denied the story that he was having an affair and made legal threats, the story was spiked personally by Mr Coulson, as we established. We followed the trail as far as a conversation he had with his legal manager, Tom Crone, before spiking it. All Mr Coulson told us was that he had not read a story. We were unable to fathom details of the discussions that he had with Mr Crone before spiking it because, he said, he was unable to remember them. We thought it would be highly unusual for an editor to accept a denial at face value. From my experience in journalism, an editor would be expected to ask, "How can we stand this story up?" The answer, we thought, would inevitably involve some discussions of the source of the story. We suspected, although we could not prove it, that the story was spiked in part, at least, because any libel suit would have exposed the phone hacking that was going on.
In case it is of help to the Standards and Privileges Committee, let me say that Mr Crone is also a very interesting character, who is legendary at the News of the World. On two occasions he misled our Select Committee. He denied admitting a pay-off to Mr Clive Goodman after he got out of jail. He also misled our Committee on the identity of the junior reporter who was involved in transcribing phone-hacked messages.
What is happening is unacceptable. It is unacceptable that the police have not fully notified people whose telephone PINs were retrieved during the investigation, and who clearly include many Members of Parliament; it is unacceptable for the police to say that there are just "a "handful of victims", given that the number is growing by the day; and it is unacceptable for the police to say that they conducted a full and rigorous inquiry. They did not, the News of the World did not, and the Press Complaints Commission did not. It is time that the position was rectified, and a referral of the issue to the Committee on Standards and Privileges will go a long way towards doing that.
Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire) (Con):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on enabling us to debate this issue. I also congratulate the hon.
Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) on an excellent speech. I felt that he stepped into the realms of poetic licence when he described journalism as "a living hell", but I thought that almost everything else he said was absolutely accurate.
I support the motion for a number of reasons, not least the fact that it is possibly our fault-the fault of the House-that the media were allowed to reach a point of arrogance whereby, in pursuit of a sensational headline in order to sell newspapers, they believed that they were above the law, could flout the law, and could adopt the unlawful procedures that have been adopted in this instance. I imagine that that does not apply only to the News of the World. The News of the World has been caught out, but how do we know that every newspaper is not acting in the same way? How do we know that our phones are not being hacked into at this moment by other newspapers?
I think that referral to the Committee is important because-I would hope-the Committee would then make a number of recommendations, including the recommendation that the media should no longer be allowed to be self-regulating through the Press Complaints Commission. It is because they have been self-regulating and we have been emasculated as politicians, afraid to say anything that condemns them, that the present situation has been allowed to arise.
Freedom of speech and the ability to hold a private conversation is the right of everyone in the land, and it has been paid for with human life. It is being paid for with human life today. Although it is almost surreal that we are discussing this matter, that is why we must discuss it, that is why the matter must be referred to the Committee, and that is why there must be a serious review followed by recommendations. Only a review and recommendations will prevent this situation from arising again, and, perhaps, curtail the actions of the media and change the way in which they behave.
Given that I must stick to the terms of reference in the motion and confine my remarks to the inquiry if I am not to be told off by you, Mr Deputy Speaker, let me merely repeat that I support the motion and congratulate the hon. Member for Rhondda.
That the matter of hacking of honourable and right honourable Members' mobile phones be referred to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Owing to the huge number of Members who wish to contribute, speaking time will be restricted to eight minutes. I should also inform the House that I have selected amendment (a), in the name of the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis).
That this House supports the continued deployment of UK armed forces in Afghanistan.
It is a great honour to move the motion, which was tabled by the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and me. It was selected by the Backbench Business Committee for its first full-day debate.
The Committee chose Afghanistan as the subject of this historic debate for two reasons. First, when the country is at war, there can be no issue of greater importance. The putting at risk of the lives of our brave service men and women in a foreign land needs to be the concern of Parliament, and that alone would have been reason enough to select the subject of Afghanistan. As I have said, however, there is a second reason. Parliament has not previously had a chance to debate the war in Afghanistan on a substantive motion, and the Committee felt that there should be a debate in which the views of Parliament could be heard and the House could, if it wished, divide. It is encouraging that so many Members wish to speak, and that three amendments have been tabled by Back-Bench Members of four political parties.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My hon. Friend is right to describe this as an important issue, and of course it is right that the House should debate it, but does it not concern him that only once before in the long history of this Parliament has there been a substantive vote on the question of going to war-in 2003, on the question of going to war in Iraq? Is there not a real danger that a vote against the war, or even a vote with a more or less equal result, could have a devastating effect on the morale of our troops on the ground?
At Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, no one in the House could have failed to have been moved as the Deputy Prime Minister read out the names of 12 servicemen who had recently lost their lives because of the war in Afghanistan. I know that the whole House is united in its support for the young men and women of our armed forces. They are talented, professional and courageous; they are, quite simply, a credit to our country.
Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for introducing a motion that is so important to our nation. I assure the House that the armed forces will be watching our debate extremely carefully. Some of what is said will be very important, and, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), some of it may have an effect on morale.
Last week I had the sad duty and honour of attending the funeral of Lieutenant John Sanderson, a young officer in the battalion that I had the privilege to command. Twelve members of my old battalion have died on the tour that it is currently undertaking, and there is approximately a month to go. Seventy more have been injured.
Roughly 300 people in a battalion go out and seek to engage the enemy. Members can imagine the percentage of casualties that is expected in my old battalion-the 1st Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, once known as The Cheshire Regiment-and how awful that is for their families. There have been 334 deaths in Afghanistan, and probably six times as many people have been injured.
After John's funeral I spoke to many officers, not only officers from my regiment but, for example, six Royal Marines. When I asked them what they really felt about the war, the first thing that they said to me was, "Make our sacrifice worth it. Do not let us suffer as we have, and then walk away and leave it"-rather, in a way, as we left Basra.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): I, like every other Member of the House, pay tribute both to the British soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and those who have been seriously injured, to whom we wish the very best. However, turning to a point the hon. Gentleman made a few moments ago, will he recognise that in debates in the House it is the duty and obligation of every Member to speak their mind, and that therefore in this debate it should not be felt that if we are critical, which some of us may well be-I certainly will be, if I am called to speak-that is in any way a betrayal of our British troops? We must speak frankly in this House.
The officers and soldiers to whom I talked were firm that they do not want us not to support them; I shall return to that point. They also do not like the idea of a timeline; they are not very happy about that. Also, of course, they want to be given the resources to be able to do the job we have set them.
Interestingly, the troops also questioned some of the strategic and tactical decisions that their superiors had passed on to them. I wondered what they meant, and I looked back into that. When we went in in 2002, we went in "light", as we call it: we went in with air power and special forces. We then thought we had done the job and left it to President Karzai. In 2003, we realised that things had gone wrong and we started going back in, and by 2006 John Reid was making hopeful statements in the House. He was acting on military advice in saying that he hoped that the 4,000-odd people being put into Helmand would not have to fire a shot in anger.
Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Following on from the previous intervention, does my hon. Friend agree that although our troops do not want Members of Parliament to doubt ultimate victory or how to control the Taliban, we should question whether the tactics are always right, because there might be other ways of doing things? President Reagan bombed Libya, for instance, which shows that we do not necessarily have to have troops on the ground. Do the troops accept that point?
Bob Stewart: Most certainly they do, and I accept that it is our job to question everything. The problem is that we have made some fundamental mistakes. I am not blaming anyone, but we made mistakes in 2006 when we dissipated our forces so they were in platoon houses and were not within the envelope. That meant that they could not have protection from artillery, and we had to use air power instead. The air power protecting them knocked out houses around them and killed local people, turning the people against our forces. In 2007 and 2008 we had gone back to counter-insurgency tactics-taking, holding, building-and our gallant troops went in to take, but they could not hold. They had to withdraw. Perhaps Members remember those pictures of helicopters flying with men strapped aboard to try to bring troops back. We could not hold the ground. Also, of course, our enemy came in and put devices on the ground that caused real problems, and they continue to do so to this day.
We now have a situation in which there is an increase in the number of soldiers on the ground, principally from the United States, and the principles of counter-insurgency are, in fact, beginning to work. They are protecting the people, and the key is whether the Afghan people feel protected and safe and can live a decent life.
We all know that we have a real problem in Afghanistan. We have a military aim, which is probably relatively simple: to make sure that Afghanistan never threatens us again. We also have a political aim, which is, fundamentally, that we want Afghanistan to have a decent lifestyle and to take its part in the international community, and also that we do not want to allow groups such as the Taliban to return to the country, and thereby threaten us. The job our troops are doing is very difficult; I am clear about that.
I want to conclude by talking briefly about what we can do. The fact of the matter is our soldiers require our support. I accept the point that they have a problem with understanding the nuances of people saying, "We support our troops, but we don't support the war." When we talk to them, they say, "Come off it, we're out here doing a mission; support us! Don't just say, 'We support you.' We don't quite get that." One of them said to me, "Are you smoking dope?" [Interruption.] I was not, actually; I never have smoked dope, and if I had, I would have been chucked out of the Army. Another one said to me about the strategic situation and the tactical decisions made, "Isn't it strange, Bob, that in this country we penalise our soldiers for
losing a rifle more than we penalise our generals for losing a war?" We have not made some decisions very well thus far.
There is now great optimism that we will be able to reach the endgame, and get to a situation where our troops can come home and feel that John Sanderson and 333 other young men-and one woman, I think-have given their lives for something worth while. That is terribly important. I pay great tribute to what our armed forces are doing, of course, and I want them all to come home soon-as soon as possible, and before 2014 if that is achievable-but the only way they can come home quickly is if we get it right, give them what they require and understand that we are fighting a war. Let us imagine what would have happened if there had been reductions in the defence budget when we were at war in 1940. I know that our country has a big economic problem, but we have to make sure that those people who are running huge risks on our behalf are given everything they require and our support. I therefore ask the House to support the motion.
Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Can we make something clear? The last speaker seemed to equate al-Qaeda with the Taliban. The Taliban have never threatened us, but al-Qaeda certainly has. If we want to understand Taliban thinking, we should note what was expressed recently by a commander. He said that war is dreadful and horrid:
"It creates nothing but widows and disruption. But jihad is different. It is our moral obligation to resist you foreigners. One year, a hundred years, a million years, ten million years-it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgement Day, Allah will not ask, 'What did you do for your country?' He will ask, 'Did you fight for your religion?'"
Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The hon. Gentleman should reflect on the Taliban's relationship with the events of 9/11. While they did not directly threaten us, they provided the wherewithal and the facilities for al-Qaeda to threaten us, and they did not do anything to try to rectify the situation when they had the opportunity to do so.
Paul Flynn: The situation now is that the Taliban are not in power because of al-Qaeda, as the Taliban well know. The Taliban already control at least half the country, and al-Qaeda has not been allowed in. There is no problem here; this is a false argument. We have created this myth that, somehow, if we pull out, al-Qaeda will have an area in which to operate. It already has Pakistan in which to operate, and Somalia and Yemen.
I take the point about how our soldiers will perceive what is said in the House, however. I, like most Members, have had the torment of trying to say to constituents who have lost loved ones that they died in a cause that was just and honourable. It is no reflection on the quality and bravery of our troops to say that this war has been, certainly since 2006, a grave error. There were people in this House and in the military-one military person resigned over this-who said in 2006 that our
going into Helmand then was stirring up a hornet's nest. At that point only two British soldiers had died in combat, but now the figure is 334 and the rate is accelerating; the 200th soldier to die, who came from Gwent, died last August. The bloodiest year so far for British troops in Afghanistan was 2009, but if things continue as they are, 2010 will be far worse. The rate at which British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan is now four times that of our United States counterparts.
The whole operation is continuing and there is no possible outcome that will be just and honourable. Both Governments have been in denial. We have heard optimism, and nothing but, year after year and in debate after debate, when they have told us that we have turned the corner. The Deputy Prime Minister used the same expression the other day, saying that things are going well now and we just have to hang on. We have turned so many corners that we have been around the block half a dozen times in Afghanistan, but we are still in hell and the situation is still getting worse. We believe in the possibility that the Afghan national army can take over, but it is mainly drug addicted and it routinely oppresses its own people. In one incident, 300 members of the Afghan army were guarding a convoy when they were attacked by seven members of the Taliban and they fled, with their commander saying, "Why should they sacrifice their lives and kill fellow Afghans in order to defend a corrupt leader from a different clan and to promote the policies of a foreign country?" Indeed, one is entitled to ask that.
The Afghan police service routinely extorts money from its own citizens. When the police went into the village of Penkala, the local elders came forward and said, "Last time they came here, they practised bacha bazi on our young boys." That refers to the routine ritual sexual exploitation of young boys. They also said, "The Taliban were here before. They were wicked people, but they were people of principle." The Afghan police are a criminal police service. Many of them are not paid, so they are expected to get their money in this way.
Angus Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in addition to all those problems, massive challenges are affecting the Afghan Government and Afghan authorities at a national level? Those organisations are the ones that we are supposed to be supporting. A financial scandal is currently engulfing Afghanistan, and it involves the elites around President Karzai. Is the hon. Gentleman content that our brave young servicemen and women are dying in support of those elites?
Paul Flynn: No, I am certainly not, and the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says. Minister after Minister has said, "We are going to tackle corruption; the corruption is impossible and we must do something about it." When we ask them what we must do, nobody has the slightest idea. What we are doing, and what we are trying to do, is fight corruption with our sort of ethical corruption; we have taken corruption and bribery and put it on an industrial scale. The Americans are moving in with pallets piled high with bubble-wrapped stacks of $100 bills; our way of working in Afghanistan is based on our own variety of corruption.
Afghanistan is a country where there is not going to be a happy ending. We are never going to get the tribal groups to work together and we are not going to get the
warlords to behave reasonably. These warlords have committed atrocities and they now have their members sitting in the Afghan Parliament. We went in with this idea that there was a simple solution, possibly a military one, but we know that that is not possible.
On the question raised by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), may I say that although we praise the bravery of the troops and weep for their sacrifices, especially in respect of those who receive little attention-those who have been maimed in battle and will suffer the wounds for the rest of their lives-that is no excuse for saying that as so many have been killed, more should be killed to justify those deaths? Those deaths were avoidable and the fact that this House did not oppose the expedition into Helmand province in 2006 is responsible for them; this is not down to anybody else. We should have said at that time that it was not plausible to suggest that we can go into Helmand-that is so for the very reasons that the Afghans say. They are fighting us because we are the ferengi: we are foreigners. Every generation of Afghans has fought against foreigners.
In 2001, a member of the Russian Duma slapped me on the back and said, "Oh, you Brits have succeeded in capturing Afghanistan, very clever. We did it in six days and we were there for 10 years. We spent billions and billions of roubles, we killed 1 million Afghans and we lost 16,000 of our soldiers. When we ran out, there were 300,000 mujaheddin in the hills ready to take over, just waiting their turn. It will happen to you." It has happened throughout history; no army has gone into Afghanistan, conquered it and occupied it. The task is impossible.
If we want evidence that the Government are in denial, we should recall the attempt to stop the reading of the names at Prime Minister's Question Time, when the House is well attended and the media attention is on us. This was shifted and the names were read twice, once on a Monday and once on a Thursday. When the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary visited Afghanistan to demonstrate our strength, they proved our weakness. When they came back to the Dispatch Box and gave their reports to the House, they did not mention the only important thing that happened on their mission, which was that they were unable to fulfil their engagements. They were supposed to visit three sites, but they were unable to visit the principal one because of the strength of the Taliban. However, to admit that, and thus to tell the truth at the Dispatch Box about the fact that their trip exposed our vulnerability and our inability to guarantee the safety of our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, would have been to admit that the situation is getting worse by the day. This has been going on for a long time, and to pretend otherwise is nonsense.
There is a welcome sense within this House-I am not making any point about a date on which to withdraw-that we know that we are going to withdraw. An exit strategy is in place and that changes the mindset. Nobody will talk any longer about continuing for 30 years, or about conquering the Taliban or the people of Afghanistan. The people of Afghanistan know that we are getting out. The Parliaments in Holland and Canada debated
this issue-they had the opportunity to do so and to vote on it before we did-and they decided to bring their troops out. The opinion of our nation is the same: 70% of the country wants to see the troops home by Christmas. That cannot happen, but we need to get them home in a way that is going to guarantee as much peace as possible for the Afghans in the future. We have to choose whether we have a Dien Bien Phu exit or a Saigon exit-that was an exit prompted by the disgust of the population at the body bags coming home. Such an exit would be carried out in panic and would leave the Afghans at the greatest possible peril. We may be able to reach some agreement with these various groups. They are not saints and it will be very difficult to get any stable set-up, but that must happen and we know that we are going to do it in the near future-
Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): I start by declaring my interest as a member of the reserve forces. I commend the Government for their attempts to clarify the mission in Afghanistan. It is very important to articulate the geopolitical significance of this conflict if it is to command the support of the general public. I genuinely regret that the previous Administration signally failed to do that. Had they done so, the acceptance of what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan now would be far more general. I support the motion, and I believe that the men and women of our armed forces will expect us to do so in this House today.
It is worth bearing in mind that the price of our involvement in Helmand and Kandahar is paid by the men and women of our armed forces. I am pleased to note that their welfare is mentioned in the three amendments tabled to the motion today. I want to talk a little about the duty that we owe them-a duty summed up at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom as the military covenant. The military covenant is a somewhat elegant turn of phrase written into British Army doctrine by a now retired senior officer who was no doubt sweating away in the Ministry of Defence in 2001-that is, the old Ministry of Defence, before the previous Administration turned it into a princely palace for mandarins at great public expense.
We must go back a bit to understand the provenance of the covenant. The first expression of the duty that the state owed to those who fought on its behalf is the Act for the Necessary Relief of Soldiers and Mariners. It was drawn up in 1601, following what were described as
"Her Majesty's just and honourable defensive wars",
The 1601 reference to "defensive wars" is important. Most of the conflicts in which this country has been engaged have been defensive, involving society at large and not just an expeditionary military. Although we can debate the mission in Iraq and Afghanistan-I supported the latter, incidentally, but opposed the former-the conflicts of the 21st century have been discretionary as opposed to the total war of the sort marked this week in the 70th anniversary of the blitz and the battle of Britain, which involved defensive warfare writ large.
What implication does participation in discretionary warfare have for our duty under the military covenant? The public are quite clear. Citizens have shown themselves perfectly capable of separating their strong support for the men and women of our armed forces, as has already been mentioned, from their ambivalence, at best, about the mission in Afghanistan. That support must be reflected formally by Government, in my opinion. I would argue that the Government owe a special duty to those who have served in discretionary warfare, because such conflicts cut to the quick of what it is to serve in the military. It is a commitment without limitation and, in the absence of an existential threat of the sort marked this week in the capital and by the RAF, it may be emulated but not matched by any other group in society.
I argued two years ago, at the time that we set up the military covenant commission under Frederick Forsyth, that there are three identifiable parties to the military covenant: the men and women of our armed forces, the Government and the people. However, there might be a fourth: the chain of command. Its attitudes are informed by, but distinct from, the political leadership. The command has been crucial in tackling ingrained attitudes towards, for example, mental health. It has driven TRiM-trauma risk management-pioneered in Iraq and Afghanistan by the Royal Marines, but at other times in our history, the contribution of the top brass, like that of the Government and the people, to the well-being of the rank and file has been less obvious.
It is also necessary to consider within any fourth pillar the attitudes of officials. One wonders about the mindset of a senior civil servant who is prepared to commit to paper his observation that injured soldiers with "a significant media profile" would "require careful handling" in the context of a perfectly proper attempt by the MOD to ensure that our armed forces are fit for purpose.
My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary is quite right to insist that our need to optimise the fighting fitness of our units does not compromise our duty to those who have sacrificed much in the service of their country.
Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I very much agree that we need to appreciate the contribution of our armed forces. In view of what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he now regret some of the comments that were made in the early years of the decade commencing in 2000 about the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine in Birmingham? Members who are now sitting on the Government Benches made political capital out of the exceptionally good medical services provided to our armed forces. Will he pay tribute to the Birmingham hospital now?
Dr Murrison: I will certainly pay tribute to the men and women of our Defence Medical Services, that is for sure. One thing I would say about the previous Government is that they promised a great deal to the Defence Medical Services, but in Selly Oak they failed to deliver what was necessary in a timely fashion. I am pleased that now, belatedly, we have seen the opening of the new hospital in Birmingham-precisely what the DMS was led to expect to believe that it was getting from the outset.
On a perhaps more light-hearted note, I am bound to observe that our greatest naval hero managed to command the fleet decisively on 21 October 1805 without the benefit of an arm and a leg-I am doing the man a disservice, I mean an arm and an eye; I am supposed to be speaking at a Trafalgar night dinner next month, and I had better get that right. The man was chronically sick for most of his career. I point that out simply as a cautionary note and to say in all candour that it is perfectly possible to be disabled and yet to participate in active service.
Equally, well-meaning commanding officers who offer reassurances at the bedsides of casualties with appalling injuries that will always be with them need to be very careful about promising them that they will always have a place in the battalion-to use the usual turn of phrase-when it is clearly not necessarily in the interests of that person, who might otherwise be retrained, I hope with a quality package, for life in civilian street, which might ultimately be more fulfilling and rewarding. Our language is very important.
We owe it to the injured to ensure that through the evolving Army recovery capability and personnel recovery centres and through a revamped medical boarding procedure that we balance our paramount need for fighting forces that are fit with the obligation to do what is right by those who have paid a heavy price for their service.
Mr Brazier: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and he is making a truly excellent speech. As a footnote to it, may I ask him to agree that it is very unfortunate that as a result of changes 10 years ago, which were made with good intent but were, in my view, wholly mistaken, this is the first time ever in our country's history that the costs of dealing with the aftermath of war are borne by the defence budget?
Dr Murrison: That is a point that my hon. Friend has made before and he makes his views known in a very powerful way. I am sure that there is much truth in what he has to say and of course the blame must lie with the previous Administration and how they managed the defence budget in this country.
The charity Combat Stress received 1,257 new referrals in 2009, an increase in two thirds since 2004. It is important to put that in the context of the generally positive mental and physical legacy left by service in the armed forces. I would strongly avoid the hysterical language used by some elements of the media, and I suggest that saying that we face a "mental health time-bomb" is unfair and not supported by the evidence. However, we have a significant problem and since it has been caused directly by military service we have an obligation under any interpretation of the military covenant to go the extra mile in sorting it out.
The Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, and my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary hosted a mental health summit in the Commons in June last year and have ordered a review that I lead into how we can do more to promote the health of the service community. It is clear that we must do far more to be proactive in discovering in servicemen and women the mental health problems that they might be suffering-not just post traumatic stress disorder, I hasten to add. We must offer the means for casualties to accept help in a way that is amenable to them.
Four hundred years after Elizabeth I signed off the first expression of the state's duty to its fighting men after her defensive wars, this Government, mindful of the sacrifices made in a very different theatre, intend to give it statutory definition. I support them in that aim and believe that it should command the approbation of all quarters of the House.
Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome this debate, which is both timely and necessary. I agree with other hon. Members who believe that it is time in this century for Parliament to have a more explicit and direct vote on important military matters. Apart from anything else, in terms of public support, it is important that we have a clear expression of the will of the House of Commons on these matters so that there can be no ambiguity once today's motion is, I hope, carried.
Mr Gray: I absolutely agree. It is terribly important that this House should send a strong message of support for our troops. However, does the hon. Gentleman not see a real danger that if we were to have such a vote on every occasion there is at least the possibility that the vote would be evenly split or that even a no vote would be the result, which would have terrible consequences for the war?
Mike Gapes: I do not argue that we should have a vote every week or month, but from time to time it is important that Parliament makes it clear that the Executive, when they deploy our force, have the continuing support of the nation. It is our job to speak for the nation and it is very important in a democracy that Parliament is the voice of the nation and that we do not just leave things to the Executive.
Last year, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs published a major report on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It concluded that there could be no question of the international community abandoning Afghanistan and that there was a need to convey publicly that the international community intends to outlast the insurgency and to remain in Afghanistan until the Afghan authorities are able to take control of their own security. That must be a primary objective. Yesterday, the current Committee decided to mount a new inquiry into Afghanistan and Pakistan over the coming months.
I am concerned that, since the previous Committee's recommendations of last year, there has been a significant change in the positions of both the United States Administration under President Obama and the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government who were elected in May. We now have an arbitrary deadline, set by the Obama Administration, to begin withdrawal of military forces from July 2011, and an even more firm statement about a complete withdrawal of British forces from 2014-15, which was confirmed by the Foreign Secretary when he answered questions at yesterday's Select Committee sitting.
I think it is extremely unwise to have arbitrary target deadlines. Many commentators have pointed out that the process should be conditions-based and should not involve just setting artificial deadlines. One reason why that approach is so difficult and dangerous is in the signals it sends to the Afghan people. In a recent opinion poll, only 6% of Afghans said that they would
support the return of the Taliban, whereas 90% said that they would prefer the present, dysfunctional, corrupt and in many ways useless Government to the thought of the Taliban returning. The ability of Afghans publicly to associate themselves with the international forces or even the Karzai Government at this time is greatly undermined by the thought that within a year, 18 months or perhaps four years, that international community support will go and they will be faced with the potential return of the Taliban. We face a real crisis here. There is a conflict between the military objectives of nation building and counter-insurgency, which require many years-perhaps a generation-to be successful, and a political agenda driven by the body bags and casualties and the simplistic solutions that are touted by various people.
What we are dealing with in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It is also about Pakistan-a country of 170 million people which has nuclear weapons, unresolved border disputes and potential conflict with India. Pashtun people who live on both sides of the Durand line can move backwards and forwards, and the border is impossible to police. If there is a collapse of any form of central Government and we return to an overt civil war, as opposed to the incipient civil war that still goes on in Afghanistan, without international support for the Afghan Government we could be faced with a situation not simply of the Taliban's return but of a complete failed state-not just Afghanistan but Pakistan.
Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): How exactly would the collapse of Afghanistan affect Pakistan? Why is the hon. Gentleman so confident that a failed state in Afghanistan would have calamitous effects for Pakistan?
Mike Gapes: When the Foreign Affairs Committee visited Pakistan last year, we were in Islamabad when the Pakistani Taliban got to within 80 miles of Islamabad. At that point, the Pakistani Government got out of denial and started a very difficult process of taking on the insurgents from the FATA, or federally administered tribal areas, and other areas. They pushed up the Pakistani Taliban towards the Afghan border. There is an area on that border, on both sides, where the insurgents can regroup, hide and get training. If the Pakistani state is faced with a failure by us or the Afghan forces to press on the other side, there will be an easy way for the insurgents to work on both sides of that border without having sustained pressure from both sides. That is a fundamental dilemma for the Pakistani Government and I do not think that we appreciate quite how many Pakistanis have died in recent years and the great sacrifice that Pakistani people have made because of terrorism, because of outrages within their society such as those in Islamabad, Karachi and other parts of Pakistan, and because of the potential threat to the state imposed by Islamist radicalism and extremism.
I am conscious that we are dealing with a very difficult issue. There is a global struggle within Islam between a whole spectrum of points of view. There is conflict between Sunnis and Shias and there is conflict
within Sunni Islam. That conflict is being fought out within Pakistan and Afghanistan at the moment. It is sometimes attractive for people to think that we can somehow step back, be neutral and avoid being involved in all this because it is nothing to do with us. Some people have a tendency to think that, but more than 1 million British citizens have family connections with that region-with Pakistan. Islam is part of our European culture and our modern world. Given the globalisation of economics and politics, we cannot be neutral in this struggle. We all have to try to assist the moderates and internationalists in this process, and to combat jihadism wherever it is. That does not mean that we must always fight it militarily: we must also fight it intelligently and politically.
It might well be that because of the deadlines set by our Government and the US Administration, because of the lack of wider international support and because of the growing public fear that we have been in this for so long that we have to get out quickly, we will have to accept a very difficult and messy compromise in Afghanistan that will involve some kind of return of Taliban influence or Taliban groups in at least part of the country. However, let us not forget that the wider struggle will still require us to be involved in supporting the democrats, the internationalists and the anti-jihadists in Pakistani society as well as those in Afghanistan. For that reason, I support the motion.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): It has been fashionable in some quarters to say that the House of Commons is increasingly irrelevant in our national life, and that the Executive have become too powerful. Indeed, in recent times the Executive have become too powerful, reaching a zenith in parts of the Blair Administration when the House of Commons was reduced to Downing street in Parliament.
Today marks a very welcome departure. I congratulate all those involved in this wise enterprise. It is high time that Members of the House of Commons, not just the Government and not just the Opposition, have the ability to determine what we discuss in the Chamber.
No subject could be more important than Afghanistan. The hardest thing that a Defence Secretary, or indeed a Prime Minister, has to do is to write to the bereaved families of those killed in action, yet sad though that task is, none of us can fully understand the pain of loss endured by the families themselves. I therefore add my condolences to those of Members on both sides of the House who have paid tribute to the heroic members of our armed forces who have sacrificed themselves for our national security. I pay tribute to Dr Karen Woo, whose courage and dedication mirror that of many civilians who are doing what they can to help in one of the most dangerous parts of the world. We should remember at all times the contribution that they make to trying to create a better world.
What is said in this House matters, particularly in relation to Afghanistan. When we debate that subject here we need to be aware of who is listening: first, the British public; secondly, our armed forces; thirdly, our allies and partners; and fourthly, our opponents and
enemies, the disparate insurgency in Afghanistan-the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Each of those audiences is important in different ways. That means not that we are restricted in any way as to what we can say in the House of Commons, but that we should carefully weigh up how we may be interpreted.
Our military resilience is, in part, dependent on the support of our people-it always has been. The British public need to know that there are clear reasons for being in Afghanistan and that we have clear aims and the right strategy. They need to know why we cannot bring our troops home immediately, as many people want, what we are achieving, and what success will look like. Let me tackle those points first.
Saturday marks the ninth anniversary of the al-Qaeda atrocities that killed almost 3,000 innocent people, including 66 British citizens, in Manhattan. The horror of watching those scenes replayed on television does not diminish with time. The carnage did not discriminate nationality, colour or creed. It changed the lives of thousands of families and it changed the way political leaders saw the world. If we want our people, civilian and military, to be willing to pay the price of success, they need to understand the cost of failure-9/11 is what failure looks like. It is what trans-national terrorism looks like, and what it will look like again if we fail to confront it.
Our clear aim in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghan territory from again being used by al-Qaeda as a base from which to plan attacks on the United Kingdom and our allies. Our engagement in Afghanistan is first and foremost about national security. It is not the only place where we are confronting violent extremists, but it is crucial in that battle. The presence of ISAF-the international security assistance force-prevents al-Qaeda and the Taliban regime from returning while we train Afghan security forces to take over the task for themselves.
We do not seek a perfect Afghanistan, but one able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of al-Qaeda. That aim also requires working with Pakistan to enhance the Pakistanis' ability to tackle the threat from their side of the border. In Afghanistan, success means, first, continuing to reverse the momentum of the Taliban-led insurgency. Our second aim is to contain and reduce the threat from the insurgency to a level that allows the Afghan Government to manage it themselves. Our third aim is creating a system of national security and governance that is stable and capable enough for the Afghan Government to provide internal security on an enduring basis. That is why we are supporting more effective Afghan governance at every level, and building up the capability of the Afghan national security forces as rapidly as is feasible.
Bob Russell: This debate is taking place as troops from 16 Air Assault Brigade, Colchester garrison, prepare for their fourth deployment to Afghanistan. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is not just a military operation? Although we clearly support the military operation, there are two other sides of the triangle-politics and economics.
John Woodcock: Members on both sides of the House will support the Secretary of State in what he has just said. Does he accept that his Government must be more focused in communicating the mission? [ Interruption. ] That is not to say that the previous Administration got it right either-I am not suggesting that for a moment-but the ability of the Government and all Members of the House to communicate what the mission is about is paramount in our responsibility to our armed forces in Afghanistan.
Dr Fox: I completely agree. In fact, that issue is discussed even more widely-not just in the United Kingdom but throughout the coalition. One of the issues we discussed at the recent defence ministerial summit was how to improve strategic communication and how to maintain the resilience of our operation by maintaining the support of our publics, recognising that one of the problems is that the Taliban do not have to maintain the democratic support of anybody at all. Communication is a strength but also a potential weakness and it is correct that the right strategic narrative is essential in maintaining support and resilience.
We need to be clear about where successes are occurring, and part of that communication is telling people about successes. Less than six months ago, Afghan national army strength stood at about 107,000 trained soldiers, with a target of reaching 134,000 by October 2010. The Afghan Government met that target two months early. The Afghan national police force has grown to more than 115,000. I am the first to admit that challenges remain with its capability, but notable successes have been achieved, even over the past few weeks, such as the interdiction of bombers in Logar province just last week. Good things are happening, and we must not allow ourselves to believe that there is a non-stop tale of failure, as some would like to portray the situation.
In Helmand, the Afghan national army and police, working side by side, with minimal ISAF support, led on the planning and conduct of Operation Omid Do, which has extended security into former insurgent safe havens in northern Nahr-e Saraj. Increasingly, ISAF patrols operate jointly with the ANA as partnering is rolled out. Of course, there are risks associated with partnering and we are trying to reduce them to a minimum, but partnering is the quickest, most effective, and so the safest, way to build a capable Afghan national security force-the key to bringing our forces home.
Failure would not only risk the return of civil war in Afghanistan, which would create a security vacuum; we would also risk the destabilisation of Pakistan with
significant regional consequences, as the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) correctly pointed out. The second reason why we must not fail is that it would be a shot in the arm to jihadists everywhere, re-energising violent, radical and extreme Islamism. It would send the signal that we did not have the moral resolve and political fortitude to see through what we ourselves have described as a national security imperative. Premature withdrawal of the international coalition would also damage the credibility of NATO-the cornerstone of the defence of the west for more than half a century. Our resolve would be called into question, our cohesion weakened, and the alliance undermined. Our influence over the region and our contribution to wider stability would be severely diminished.
Angus Robertson: Will the Secretary of State confirm that the central policy for the intervention in Afghanistan is still based on support for Afghan institutions and their ability to govern in Afghanistan? If so, why has he not mentioned what is happening at present, which is the wholesale collapse of that country's financial system around a coterie associated with the President of Afghanistan we are supposed to be supporting? Why has he not mentioned that so far?
Dr Fox: I shall come to a number of issues about the wider political element, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it, I will say that the prime reason for being in Afghanistan is our national security: to ensure that the territory is not used again as a base for training and attacks by terrorists, the likes of which we saw on 9/11. It is to ensure that we degrade the threat, so that the Afghan security forces are able to deal with it themselves, without having to refer to the international community.
The second audience listening today is our armed forces and the wider defence community. They need to know that they have our support, not just for who they are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, but for what they are doing and for the sacrifices that they are making. They need to know also that the ISAF coalition is providing all that they need to succeed in their mission. Our armed forces know that there is no such thing as a risk-free war, a casualty-free war or a fatality-free war. They accept that. They are professional people and volunteers every one. That is what makes them truly special. They want our support, not our sympathy. They want to be victors not victims.
In July, the Government agreed to a request from ISAF to deploy temporarily about 300 additional troops from the theatre reserve battalion in order to supplement the UK force of more than 9,500 troops and ensure that the progress being made in Operation Moshtarak was consolidated and exploited. The TRB will enable the redeployment of US forces in Sangin and of UK forces to central Helmand.
On 2 August, two additional RAF Tornado GR4s arrived in Kandahar, again in response to a request from the commander of ISAF for an increase in air support. Those aircraft joined the eight Tornados that have already been provided in order to support the multinational pool, not just our forces, and they have boosted the available flying hours by 25%, or an extra 130 flying hours per month. We announced extra funding for base protection and close-combat equipment and
more counter-IED funding. All that will enable UK forces to consolidate the hold in central Helmand as the force there thickens, and to partner the Afghan security forces more effectively. It demonstrates our commitment to the coalition and to the ISAF strategy for Afghanistan.
The third audience who will be listening today are our allies and partners. They should be assured of Britain's commitment to the shared strategy, and of our determination to play our part in protecting not only our national security but that of our international partners. There are now more international forces in Afghanistan than ever, and that is allowing real progress on governance and development. However, just as a more secure Afghanistan will not come about without military means, it will not come about by military means alone, as my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) said.
At the Kabul conference in July, the international community supported the Afghan Government's vision of progress on security, governance, economic growth, the rule of law, human rights, countering corruption and reconciliation. There is a very long way to go on many of those fronts, and the Afghan Government themselves must understand that they need to make progress on many of them in order to take advantage of the improved security situation that the international coalition is bringing.
That political track, which runs alongside training the Afghan army and the military surge, is vital. In order to progress it, an Afghan high peace council will oversee a process towards a political settlement for all the Afghan people, underpinned by the $150 million peace and reintegration trust fund.
On 18( )September, just a couple of weeks away, Afghanistan will hold its first parliamentary elections since the 1960s to be run entirely by Afghans themselves. The elections will not be perfect, and none of us should expect them to be, but they represent progress. Progress is being made on security and governance. It is hard and it is slow and it is very variable, but it is real, and as Afghan sovereignty grows, so the nature of ISAF's operations and the role of our forces will evolve.
What is clear to me, what was clear to the previous Government and what must be clear to our allies in ISAF is that, as responsibility for security is transferred to the Afghans, any draw-down in force levels must be done coherently by the alliance. It must be done by an international coalition, not by individual nations. The issue is about phasing out, not walking out.
We also need to strengthen the training mission even further. Some countries might have political or constitutional problems with sending combat troops. We are not happy about that, and we never have been, but we understand it. However, there is absolutely no reason why any NATO country cannot do more to help train the Afghan national security force; it is a measure of our commitment and resolve as an alliance.
The fourth audience listening to our debate today will be our opponents and enemies: insurgent groups, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the violent extremists who support them. Some have claimed that, by talking of our determination to succeed within the time scale set
out in the counter-insurgency strategy, we give succour to our opponents. That is not the case, and let me explain why.
Over the past few years the strategic position of the insurgency has begun to crumble. Pakistan is taking the threat seriously, and the safe haven that used to exist in that country is gradually being squeezed by the Pakistani security forces. Pakistan, too, is making substantial and significant sacrifices, among its civilian population and its military, as they hunt down al-Qaeda and violent extremists in their own country. We would do well to recognise that sacrifice.
Yasmin Qureshi: The right hon. Gentleman touched on Pakistan and the sacrifices that Pakistanis have made, but in these debates about Afghanistan nobody ever mentions the role that India plays and nobody deals with the issue of border controls. The Secretary of State will know that Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir are linked. People in Pakistan-even in parts of Rajasthan such as Quetta, which has substantial links with Afghanistan-believe that the Indian forces play a considerable part in causing problems. I was in Pakistan at the weekend-in Quetta on Saturday, the day after the explosion there. I asked one of the drivers, "What do you think is happening here?" He said that the Indian intelligence agencies are involved, so I ask that, in the debate about Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the troubles that have been occurring, the role of India and its intelligence services also be considered.
Dr Fox: The hon. Lady makes an important point. I do not agree with her detailed analysis, but it is important to recognise that Afghanistan must be regarded in a regional context. All the nations involved in Afghanistan must bring to bear as positive an influence as possible on the regional questions that will help to determine a better dynamic than perhaps has been brought in the past. That will involve a large number of regional players, but in this case it is quite wrong to point the finger at India, as the hon. Lady has.
Mr Ainsworth: The Secretary of State knows that I agree with many things that he is saying, but I have one concern-well, more than one, but this is a particular concern-about one issue that he raises. He just said that he does not accept that, by talking about our determination to achieve certain conditions, we give succour to our enemies. But that is not what has been said. What has been said, in terms, by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister is that, irrespective of conditions, combat will end in 2015.
General Petraeus has tried to say that all those decisions must be conditions-based, and I went to a meeting the other day with the Secretary of State's Parliamentary Private Secretary, at which he tried to say that we should think of those things in the way that General Petraeus has portrayed them. But that is not what the Defence Secretary's own Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have said. They have been absolutely
clear-and that is what concerns our armed forces, as the Secretary of State's hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) said. Will the Secretary of State clarify the position? Is it as black and white as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister have said it is?
Dr Fox: The Prime Minister made it very clear that, although we might have an extended role in Afghanistan, in training and further involvement in improving the quality of the Afghan national forces, the United Kingdom does not see that it should have a combat role beyond 2015. That is not entirely new. General McChrystal, before General Petraeus, made it very clear that it was part of the counter-insurgency strategy to ensure that the Afghan national security forces were able to maintain their own security by 2014; that was always part of our wider aim. Of course there will be continuing capability elements inside the Afghan national security forces which need to be dealt with, and we will have to be there in a mentoring and a training role for some considerable time. On top of that, the wider elements of reconstruction and governance in Afghanistan will require the non-governmental organisations and the wider international community to be there for a long time.
We are talking about one of the most difficult countries in the world in which to operate and in which to bring these things forward. However, it is quite clear that we cannot have an indefinite combat role, and that is what the Prime Minister has made clear.
Paul Flynn: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a new procedure. It is a special privilege to have Back-Bench business today, and we are rightly confined to speeches of eight minutes. What is the limit on Front-Bench speeches?
Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Front-Bench speakers have been notified of how many people wish to take part in this debate, and it is clearly up to them if they want to take interventions. The Secretary of State has pointed out that he has taken a number, some of which were rather lengthy.
The Taliban have lost significant ground in their southern heartland. They failed to prevent the presidential elections which took place last year, and they will fail to prevent the coming parliamentary elections too. They are incapable of stopping the expansion of the Afghan national security forces. We have been targeting their bomb-making networks, and their leadership and command structure. Their senior leadership is isolated, their training is deficient and supplies are limited. Their individual instances of tactical success have not reversed this deteriorating strategic position. It is clear that the insurgency cannot defeat ISAF; nor can the Taliban achieve their goal of once again wresting control of the country-neither we nor the Afghans will let them.
Sir Menzies Campbell: I think that there are many in the House who want to hear the Secretary of State and welcome the opportunity to do so. Indeed, I think we should be grateful to him for his generosity in giving way.
I want to take the Secretary of State back to the terms of withdrawal. The shadow Defence Secretary rightly referred to what General Petraeus has been saying recently, but there is another dimension-the decision of President Barack Obama, who is on record as saying that he intends to start withdrawing troops by June or July of next year. That decision, of course, is not unrelated to President Obama's prospects for re-election: it is directly related to the electoral cycle. If President Obama fulfils his pledge, how does the Secretary of State think that that will be consistent with the outline of the British Government's position which he has just given the House?
Dr Fox: The American Administration have made it very clear that they are talking about the beginning of draw-down from its very highest level some time next year. That will coincide with the period when the Afghan national army is greater in number than the ISAF forces, so there is an element of logic to that position. However, President Obama has also made it clear that it was important to send a signal to the Afghan Government that they needed to have an idea of a time scale within which they would begin to develop the skills that they will need to be able to take over control and governance of their own country. Indeed, many believe that since the President embarked on that approach there has been a renewed sense of urgency in Kabul about exactly how the security forces were to be trained and the rate at which that occurred.
I believe that the Taliban's only realistic hope is that international resolve to continue the war will collapse before the Afghan Government themselves are effective enough to stand on their own. The message that we need to send from the House today is that that hope of the Taliban is an empty one. The steady development of the Afghan national security forces underpins the strategic collapse of the insurgent position. It is said by some that the Taliban have time on their side-that they just have to wait us out. To an extent, the opposite is true. Their window of opportunity to defeat ISAF before the establishment of increasingly credible and effective Afghan security forces has shrunk, is shrinking further, and will shrink further.
Our message to the Afghan people is a clear one, and it needs to be communicated by our deeds as well as our words. We are neither colonisers nor occupiers. We are there under a UN mandate. We are there as a coalition of 47 countries from across the globe. We are not in Afghanistan to create a carbon copy of a western democracy, and we are not there to convert the people to western ways. We seek the government of Afghanistan by the Afghans, for the Afghans. We insist only that it does not pose a threat to our security, our interests or our allies.
When it comes to the defence and security of our country, we are at our strongest when we speak with one voice-when we are clear about what we are seeking to achieve and have the support of this House, and the public, for that endeavour. I hope that today's enterprise takes us one step closer to that.
Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I want to begin by joining the Defence Secretary in paying tribute to those soldiers who have lost their lives in Afghanistan since the House last met. Every day our troops in Afghanistan put their lives on the line to protect our national security, and we must never forget that. I also join him in the comments that he made about Dr Karen Woo.
As we have heard in the debate so far, many Members have different views on our presence in Afghanistan, but I hope that one thing we all agree on is the excellence of our armed forces and our duty to support them and to recognise their courage. We are in Afghanistan as part of a NATO mission under a UN mandate to protect our security because that country, under Taliban rule, became the safe haven for al-Qaeda terrorism. The Government can count on our continued support for a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan that brings together military, political and development efforts. That is the only way to achieve success and enable the Afghans to take control of their own security.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) said, before he left the Chamber, "Why don't we just do what we did in Libya?" Well, as I understand it, they sent a bomber in to try to kill the leader in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi. What tent or cave do we bomb in Afghanistan? It is ridiculous to suggest that that kind of strategy would bring success in Afghanistan. The only way forward, in my view, in the view of the coalition, in the view of the commander and in the view of all the troops to whom I have spoken, is a patient counter-insurgency operation to protect the people and deny the ability of the insurgency to take control of the country.
I congratulate our forces on having reorganised the Helmand operations, assisted with the inflow of the US marine corps, and reconfigured the operational areas in Helmand to get the maximum benefit from the new force densities now available. As part of that force rebalancing we have given over areas such as Musa Qala, and as the Defence Secretary has just clarified further, we now plan to do the same in Sangin, where we have tragically suffered many losses. We will soon have a concentrated area of responsibility in central Helmand valley, where we will be well placed to progress. The Defence Secretary was absolutely right to resist those who wanted to move to Kandahar and sacrifice the knowledge that we have gained at such a high price in Helmand.
There are now about 30,000 ISAF forces in Helmand province alone. It is, and always was, a coalition effort. However, with respect to our many allies, since 2006 Britain has provided forces that no one other than the United States was capable of fielding in that most difficult province. We have done so after taking military advice, and retired soldiers who wish to claim that we, the previous Labour Government, did not fully resource
the mission, should reflect on that. They should also remember that we doubled the number of helicopters available, delivered hundreds of new vehicles and took tough decisions about cutting other military capabilities to provide more counter-improvised explosive device equipment. That meant that as the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Jock Stirrup, has said, our troops were fighting with equipment that was
"frankly the best that they've ever had"
Mr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has outlined what the Labour Government did, but will he also congratulate the current Government, who have decided to double the operational allowance and maximise rest and recuperation periods for those deployed? Does he believe that servicemen and their families will welcome that?
I have a couple more questions to ask the Secretary of State about things that I hope the Government will do in a timely manner. I do not know whether he is going to respond to the debate, because I know he has to leave the Chamber.
Force densities are not the only thing that we will need to succeed. We need the right equipment, and I wish to ask two specific questions about that. Last December I made some changes to the defence budget, partly to address some of the pressures ahead of the strategic defence and security review and partly to prioritise equipment for Afghanistan. That included an order for 22 Chinook helicopters. Why have the new Government not gone ahead with that order? The Secretary of State, the very man who continually criticised our record on helicopters, seems now to be allowing delay in that order, and I should like to ask him why. Equally, in the summer of 2009 I made it my business to intervene to put maximum speed and effort behind the development of a light protected patrol vehicle. Why have the Government not yet placed that order?
"By 2015 there will not be any British combat troops in Afghanistan".
Yet in a debate that I attended earlier this week the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Defence Secretary's Parliamentary Private Secretary, said that we should think of that announcement in the same terms as General Petraeus's clarification of the US position. He said that there were a lot of conditions, and that there would still be special forces there. I absolutely agree with the Defence Secretary that we must be as clear as we can with all the sets of people involved in such an important matter as our intervention in Afghanistan, but the situation is currently not clear.
There appear to have been definitive statements from both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister that irrespective of what happens, the combat mission will end in 2015. The Secretary of State knows that that is causing angst both within and outwith our armed forces. He did his best today to finesse that argument, but too many intelligent people who follow the record carefully know that there is a problem. Unless there are
conditions-based timelines rather than an arbitrary finish date, the success of the mission is not helped. He need only read this morning's edition of The Daily Telegraph to see the confusion that can occur, with people believing that Sherard Cowper-Coles's departure indicates that the Government no longer have comprehensive determination to pursue the mission in Afghanistan.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): Does the shadow Secretary of State accept that the reason why both President Obama and our Prime Minister seem intent on setting deadlines is the high level of casualties being incurred? Does he accept that if they did not set a deadline and continued with the current strategy, we could end up having that high level of casualties for perhaps another 20 or 30 years? Will he consider the fact that given a choice between taking too many casualties for a very long period or, perhaps, very few casualties through precipitate withdrawal, we ought to go for an intermediate strategy that has no deadline but does not incur the same number of casualties? That is the basis of the amendment that I shall move later, which I hope the right hon. Gentleman might consider encouraging his party to support.
Mr Ainsworth: I know the hon. Gentleman's views and that he has tabled an amendment to the motion. He has spoken on this issue previously, and he has given a lot of thought to it, but the reason he gave is not one of the reasons given publicly for the strategies that are being pursued. Perhaps we need a debate in this country on whether we are sufficiently steely or enduring to pursue prolonged counter-insurgency conflicts, but that is not the reason for the Government's strategy. If it is, let the Government encourage such a debate and let us have it in the House. However, what he says is not what the Government are saying. He has added yet more complexity to the reasons for what the Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister are saying.
Derek Twigg: Perhaps there is some clever strategy to say to Karzai, "You've got to get your act together. We're getting out in five years so get it sorted," but I would find that quite bizarre given the nature of Afghanistan politics and Karzai. However, there is another question. If we are 100% committed because Afghanistan is so important to our national security, why are we imposing a five-year deadline? I cannot find an historical precedent for that.
Mr Ainsworth: I have heard lots of reasons given for that, and we just heard another from the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). There is a genuine need to put pressure on the Afghan Government to make the necessary improvements in governance and security force capability-that is perfectly legitimate, as the Defence Secretary says-but we will not do that by giving succour to the enemy, as General Sir Mike Jackson said we may well be doing. The Government need to get to grips with that.
That most certainly has the potential to encourage speculation. People will speculate that the helicopters have not been ordered-they will not arrive
until 2012-because they will not be needed. That adds to the Government's difficulties with their message on Afghanistan. Conservative Members condemned our policy and said there was a lack of foresight before they election, but they are now delaying decisions to order helicopters. They said one thing in opposition and say another thing in government, but they must expect to be held to account.
Sir Menzies Campbell: Is not the outcome of the defence review another element that will influence people's perception of the Government's intentions? I know no more than anyone else, but if, for example, there were to be a reduction in the number of infantry battalions, irrespective of our intentions, people will perceive that our capability for a longer period in Afghanistan is materially affected.
Mr Ainsworth: As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we will have the opportunity to discuss the defence review and the future of our armed forces next Thursday, but there are some real concerns. Those who in opposition complained about the number of helicopters are delaying a decision on helicopter numbers now that they are in government. Those same people also said in opposition that we should have three extra battalions in the Army, but they now appear to be saying that we can take 5,000 or 10,000 heads out of the Army. That is a debate that we will have next week. I want our troops to come home as soon as possible, and I want pressure for progress to be put on the Afghan Government, but that must not be done at the price of giving comfort to the Taliban.
This week reports emerged-and they have been alluded to already today-that injured war heroes from Afghanistan and Iraq may be forced out of the Army. The Defence Secretary tried to suggest that this was a Labour policy, but it was not. Nobody injured would have faced compulsory discharge. That was made clear by General Richards and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones),the then Veterans Minister, when they announced the Army recovery capability policy earlier this year. I hope that the Minister will tell us today whether the Government intend to force injured soldiers out of the Army. Those who have made these heavy sacrifices for us deserve our gratitude: they do not deserve to be treated in this way.
We have always said that the Government have our full support as they proceed to take difficult decisions in the best interests of our mission in Afghanistan and our troops who are doing a fantastic job. But the Government cannot expect to get away with false criticism, mixed messages and empty promises any longer. We have a duty to hold them to account.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). Unfashionably, perhaps, and on a personal rather than a party political level, I always greatly enjoyed our exchanges when I was chairman of the all-party group on the armed forces and he was Secretary of State. He was a member of a useless Government, but he was a first-class Secretary of State, as his speech today testifies.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave us a tour de force explanation of why we are in Afghanistan and why it is so important that we should remain there. It was an important speech that will be listened to and read carefully by the four audiences that he correctly delineated. We are being watched in our debate today in a similar way to which that famous debate in the Oxford Union in 1933 on the motion
"That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country"
I hope to remain in order if I touch not so much on why we are in Afghanistan and whether we should remain there, but on the way in which we consider whether we should do so. I strongly support the new Backbench Business Committee, and it is superb that it is addressing the imbalance between Parliament and the Executive. I also broadly support the conclusions of the Public Administration Committee before the election that going to war-or, as in this case, remaining in a theatre of war-should be a matter for substantive debate in this Chamber. But there are real dangers inherent in that approach. It is interesting to note that in the long history of this Parliament there has been only one vote thus far on the substantive question of whether to go to war. For the second world war, the Falklands war, the first Gulf war and so on, the decision was made on a motion for the Adjournment. The only substantive vote that we have ever had on going to war was in 2003 and the war against Iraq. Many of us who were opposed to that war and believed it to be probably illegal do not necessarily believe that a vote in this House to support the war somehow justified it.
We also have to think about the consequences of a yes vote in the Lobby this evening and what that would mean for morale on the ground in Afghanistan. Or let us imagine a narrow result, with the House divided more or less 50:50. What message would that send to the four audiences mentioned by my right hon. Friend? It is unlikely to happen, but let us imagine that some other Parliament voted no in such circumstances. It might happen that a good war that should be waged would be voted down for political reasons. Such votes can have very serious consequences.
I do not wish to caricature what people have said about the war in Afghanistan, but I suggest that two broad arguments have been advanced in the debate this afternoon. The first is-and it is also my view-that if we were not in Afghanistan we would give succour to al-Qaeda, with consequences for security here at home and throughout the region. It is important that we are there doing what we do for that reason. The other broad argument, which has already been passionately advanced and no doubt will be repeated later, is that it is a waste of time being there. After all, the argument goes, we lost three Afghan wars, the Russians could not win there, there is no known enemy and we do not even know who the Taliban are. The entire thing is therefore a waste of time and every one of the 333 soldiers we have lost gave their lives needlessly. I think that that argument is wrong, but people have advanced it.
However, neither argument is entirely correct-in fact, we do not actually know; these are enormously complicated and difficult matters. Although I accept that there are people in the Chamber who know about these things in great detail, I hope I speak as a relatively average Back-Bench Member who has followed these matters closely for a number of years when I say that I do not know in detail whether what we are doing in Afghanistan is right, wrong or indifferent. I should not set myself up as some kind of guru who knows those things. There are occasions when the House should say that there are people who know about these things, and that we do not. That has been the principle behind the royal prerogative that the Executive has always used to go to war.
There are consequences if we do not accept that argument. The first and most important is that we politicise warfare, which would send out very serious messages to our men and women on the front line. The second argument is more complex but more worrying: were a Secretary of State to come to the House to persuade us of a particularly controversial or difficult war-possibly in a narrowly divided House-he would have to explain to us the full intelligence lying behind his reasons for being in a theatre of war or going into one. He would have to lay out details of intelligence, and I am not certain that it is right that we should know about that. On Iraq, for example, the then Prime Minister had Privy Council terms discussions with the Leader of the Opposition and other Ministers. That was correct, but I am not certain, as a Back-Bench Member, that I should be told every minute detail of the military intelligence available to us.
Mr Gray: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Of course, the House is answerable to the public for what it does, and of course at a general election it is right that the Prime Minister should go to the public and say, "Here's what I've done during the last Parliament." That applies to a wide variety of decisions that are not subject to a vote in this place. The second world war, the Falklands war and the first Gulf war were all conducted without a vote in this place, but the Prime Minister and the Government were none the less answerable to the public. Simply to say that having a vote here is the only way we can be answerable to the public is simplistic and not correct.
There is also a concern about what the consequences would be for the Backbench Business Committee of different outcomes of tonight's debate. Suppose for a moment there were to be a no vote-it is very unlikely-and the House voted not to leave our troops in Afghanistan. What would then happen? Would the Government say, "Very well, the House of Commons has voted against staying in Afghanistan, so tomorrow we will order an immediate withdrawal." I doubt that would be the case-indeed, I hope that would not be the case-and if it is not the case, what is the purpose of voting no? Does that not in itself undermine the force of the Backbench Business Committee? However, if the answer tonight is yes, does that mean we are staying in Afghanistan indefinitely? Does it mean that we support what the
Government have said about withdrawing in 2015? What is the force, the importance, the wisdom of the vote we will take this evening?
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): As the person who tabled an amendment-and I would have liked to move it-calling for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, I should say that had the House voted for it tonight, it would have sent out an incredibly strong signal that we recognise that our presence in Afghanistan is not making us safer. Even our own security forces raise questions about whether our presence in Afghanistan is making this country safer. A vote tonight would be a wake-up call to look at a different strategy in Afghanistan.
Mr Gray: Of course, the hon. Lady is right. It would send out a strong signal, a wake-up call and all the other things she said. I just wonder whether formal Divisions and motions of this kind in the House are designed to send out signals and messages in the way she described. If the House votes that we do not wish to be in Afghanistan, surely it is right that the Prime Minister should be instructed to withdraw troops from Afghanistan. How could it be that the majority of Members, who are answerable to the electorate, could say, "We have decided to withdraw from Afghanistan," but the Defence Secretary and Prime Minister then say, "Well, despite what you said, we do not intend to withdraw"?
There is an extra complication, which is this. Let us imagine that the House were to vote for withdrawal and that there were to be an election in a year or two. What would bind the following Government, who might be of a different party from the current one? The strength of Backbench Business Committee motions, which I strongly support, is undermined by having a vote on something that is impossible for the Government then to carry out. That is something that the Committee perhaps ought to consider.
I very much hope that we will vote overwhelmingly in support of what our troops in Afghanistan are doing, which I strongly support personally. Every single bereaved family whose eyes I look into down the High street in Wootten Bassett, once or twice a week, would not understand it unless we sent out an enormously strong message that we firmly support what those lost soldiers have done in Afghanistan. If we do not do that, we will also be sending a message to the Taliban-the enemy-that we in this place do not support our troops on the ground. I would therefore prefer there to be no Division. I would like to return to the old tradition in this place, which is that the message to our troops on the ground is that this House unanimously supports them. I will be supporting the motion this evening-I will be in the Aye Lobby, as I hope 95% of Members will be. Even better would be to have no Division, but to send a unanimous message to our troops on the ground.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab):
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I have taken great offence over the past week at comments by Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Manning of US Marine battalion command in Afghanistan. He claimed the British did not pursue the Taliban and said, "We'll go after them," implying that our troops had stayed safely hidden in their bases. Not content with traducing the bravery and commitment of
our British soldiers, Colonel Manning went on to criticise British reconstruction efforts by the Department for International Development. That is dangerous talk at a time when the British public are wearied by the mounting death toll, mounting financial costs and the perceived lack of progress in the war. I therefore welcome today's debate, because it is time to put the record straight. It is time to take stock of why we are still in Afghanistan nine years later, and to look at what has gone wrong, how we move forward and what we need to get right before we can leave.
We need to remember that in the beginning it was US finances that helped Pakistan to create the Taliban, along with other Islamic fundamentalist groups, which were developed as a tool to fight against India in Kashmir and the Russians in Afghanistan. It was the Taliban who welcomed and supported al-Qaeda. When war was declared in Afghanistan, the US continued to fund the Pakistan military, which in turn continued to fund the Taliban, providing a safe haven for both them and al-Qaeda. America has been fighting a war against al-Qaeda. Destroying al-Qaeda has been its priority, not freeing and reconstructing Afghanistan. Pakistan's military has been fighting an ongoing war against India, using its fundamentalist forces to maintain instability in Kashmir and using the Taliban to ensure a pliable neighbour, not a democratically independent Afghanistan.
The Bush regime made the Defence Department, not the State Department, responsible for the major decisions made in Afghanistan, including in reconstruction. The failure, right from the start, to put in the great amounts of money, effort and commitment needed to reconstruct a strong central state in Afghanistan was a major factor in allowing the Taliban to regroup. Too many decisions were based on hunting for al-Qaeda, rather than on reconstructing and improving ordinary people's lives, and rebuilding the state. That, followed by the change of military and financial focus to Iraq, allowed the Taliban to regroup, occupy the south and build the heroin trade, ready for the new offensive.
When British troops moved into southern Afghanistan, they encountered problems because there had been virtually no US intelligence or satellite monitoring in the south. The Taliban had been allowed to grow, to develop their drugs trade, and to use that trade to fund their insurgency. We are still there because Afghanistan has been a proxy setting for other wars. Money poured into the hands of war lords and their militias, not into building a viable state, into focusing on reconstruction, or into building a police and justice system and an independent army. British troops have also been fighting against the loss of moral authority of western forces following the US promotion of torture, rendition, disappearance and secret jails, all of which have aided the growth of Islamic extremism.
We sent troops into Afghanistan to fight terrorism and a vicious fundamentalist regime, and we have ended up fighting terrorism funded by drugs. This brings me to a grave concern about the future direction of the war. Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, has said that we must apply our learning in Colombia to places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is not the path to take. I spent a week in Colombia taking evidence from people whose family members had been assassinated by the state. I saw how the military in Colombia had been used to "disappear"
people in an attempt to create an impression that the drugs lords were being tackled. We do not want to go down that route in Afghanistan. We do not want to find mass graves that have been created by the Afghan army in the fight against drugs. To avoid going down that route, we must not hand power over to paramilitaries or to local defence forces in our desire to leave Afghanistan. It is the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police force that must take on those roles.
Reconstruction and redevelopment must be better organised and targeted. Aid must be controlled by the Department for International Development, by civilian groups and by non-governmental organisations. The military must be there to provide the security, but it is the civil society that must build the civil structure of the future Afghanistan.
"peace is the presence of justice".
The absence of justice has become one of the primary recruiting tools for the Taliban. That is why I believe that building an effective police and justice system is essential for the future Afghanistan. An article in September's Prospect magazine states:
"The repression of women and the assault on certain freedoms was a small price to pay"
if the rise of the Taliban stopped the wholesale rape and slaughter in Afghanistan. I do not see a world in which women have their noses cut off for running away from violent and abusive husbands, in which they are denied education and the right to medical help, and in which they are stoned to death for alleged infidelity as a "small price to pay".
We need to be in Afghanistan to build and create a better society, and we must be aware that to fail would be to risk instability throughout the region. Our troops will be fighting wars for many years to come if we do not stay and fight until the end.
Mr James Arbuthnot (North East Hampshire) (Con): When we went to war in the autumn of 2001, unlike with Iraq, there was no serious disagreement over why UK troops were being sent to Afghanistan in the first place, but nine years later, after nearly a decade of allied military operations, there have been changes of President, changes of Prime Minister and changes of Governments. The emotional commitment of the international community to what we are doing in Afghanistan has undoubtedly diminished. Our stated purpose in being there has evolved not once or twice, but several times. We are now less interested in al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan than its presence in Pakistan.
For all those changes, we seem to have returned to the use of the word "war"-I have used it myself-but I am beginning to wonder whether it might be a mistake. It amounts, I think, to an over-simplification of why we are in Afghanistan. Although it allows us to ratchet up in people's minds why we have sent our troops into harm's way and quite how serious it all is, it over-simplifies
by implying that there is something to be won or lost and by suggesting that there is something clear-cut going on, with a high degree of finality to it. We have thus created a series of expectations, which history suggests are completely impossible to meet.
I believe that our presence in Afghanistan should be seen as part of a wider global security mission in the middle east region as a whole, and that we should begin to explain it in those terms. The stability mission already exists in different places and in different forms-whether it be in the middle east peace plan, the sanctions against Iraq or the international aid given to Pakistan after recent disasters-and the public broadly understand these priorities. They also accept why we should give our priority to them. They accept that the stability of each of the individual nation states, of their people and of their rights and needs, is absolutely crucial to the world. People understand why, if these people and nations are stable, secure, free and prosperous, it makes it less likely that we will face another 9/11.
I believe that it is now our task as a Parliament to link together the different jigsaw pieces, to explain why they all connect to each other and to include Afghanistan. Only by linking those pieces together will the public see that we have a choice as to whether the picture being formed is either broadly encouraging or deeply worrying.
Defence and security are policy areas that people consume, just as much as they consume transport, education and health spending. However, this policy area becomes important only when things begin to go wrong, so things have to be explained to the public much more carefully than other issues that the public consume. For politicians to provide the explanation or give the narrative on the conflict will not be persuasive in a context where the public perceive-although I do not-Prime Minister Tony Blair as having lied over the war in Iraq. Politicians are not persuasive against that background. In the light of the allegations and counter-allegations over Iraq, and of the disastrous lack of post-war planning in Iraq, which we now all recognise, the people have lost their faith in the need for conflict and in our ability as politicians to demand it. I believe, however, that the conflict in Afghanistan is much more important and much more difficult than the conflict in Iraq ever was.
I do not think that there is a fatigue among the public for war as such. I could be wrong, but in my view, if the public believe that we have a strategy likely to succeed, they will support it. At the moment, I do not believe that that has been demonstrated, which is why they are losing their appetite for this war. There is also a deep mistrust of the politicians who preach it to them.
Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): My right hon. Friend may know that in Wycombe, Afghanistan is an issue of exquisite sensitivity. Many of my constituents hail from Pakistan and Kashmir. I really admire his nuanced and wise speech, but does he agree that it is vital to address various sections of the public to explain that this conflict is actually in the interests of Pakistan and of the Afghan people, and not just in our own interests?
Mr Arbuthnot: I entirely agree. We must take not just our own public with us but the public of those countries where we are based and where we desperately need to help them. My hon. Friend's constituency work will do a great deal to help in that regard.
I agreed with the shadow Secretary of State for Defence that the answer to the mistrust of politicians is not to set an end date to our commitment in Afghanistan. When the Prime Minister made his comment, I said that if our priority is to leave, it makes it harder to succeed, whereas if our priority is to succeed, it makes it easier to leave. Of course, we do not want to be in Afghanistan for a moment longer than necessary, and of course the Afghans want us to leave as soon as the job is done and success is achieved. However, they do not want us to leave before that point is reached. The problem is that we do not know now when that will be.
Commitments made now to leave merely fuel the loss of appetite and the mistrust of which I talked earlier. The media are acutely aware of that loss of appetite and that mistrust, and that feeds into the hearts and minds of our military personnel, who do their job brilliantly. However, if their mums and dads find that the man on the street cannot explain to them in simple terms why they are doing their job, they are bound to feel unease, especially when they suffer casualties. We must give them a developed justification, and we must not be afraid of complexity, of nuance-I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Steve Baker) for his comments-or of truths that might appear difficult. Sometimes conflict is popular, and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is both popular and unpopular, especially when seen in hindsight. However, the man in the street must be able to reduce the argument for a conflict to perhaps a single sentence.
If the middle east peace plan fails, if Iran obtains a nuclear bomb, if Pakistan's infrastructure is not rebuilt after the recent floods, its education system not invested in and its nuclear weapons not protected, and if Afghanistan is some sort of grand linking corridor between the three countries, becoming a vacuum that is a trigger for nuclear war, the potential consequences are catastrophic. We do not face any of those fears being realised individually yet; we face them being realised simultaneously. The result could be shattering. We must act now, in simultaneous regions, to prevent that end point ever being reached. We cannot afford to pick and choose which interests should be prioritised; we must see them all as a wider narrative of global security, and we must see them through. The public are well able to take that narrative and to understand that case, and we should not be afraid of making it.
Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): In view of what I am about to say, let me repeat what I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart): I pay tribute to the British soldiers who have served, to those who have died and, unfortunately, to the many who will die in the course of the next 12 months and longer. It is to be hoped that the spending cuts will involve no reduction whatever when it comes to looking after and giving every possible medical help to those who are seriously injured, when they return to Britain.
For some time, I have taken the view, which I have expressed on the Floor of the House, that our military role in Afghanistan should be coming to a close. Let us look at the period of time involved. British troops went into Afghanistan before the main NATO force, in November 2001. Our military intervention there has lasted nearly nine years, one third longer than the second world war and twice as long as the first.
Of course, no Member on either side of the House disputes the sheer brutality of the Taliban rule. No one disputes the Taliban's contempt for those who do not share their views, their contempt for women, and their denial of education to people simply because they are female. All that is horrifying. We also know, only too well, about the public executions-the hangings that took place. We should, however, bear in mind what has been said by the Secretary of State for Defence, to some extent today but in particular when he took over the job last May. He said then that Britain was
"not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy"
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