“We strongly condemn this behaviour which reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred.”

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard yesterday’s interview on Radio 5 Live with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), in which Stephen Abell, the director of the Press Complaints Commission, refused to accept any responsibility whatsoever for the behaviour of the press. I promoted a debate in the House on the self-regulation of the press. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that now is the time for a root-and-branch review of the commission?

Mr Sanders: I did not hear that interview, but when one considers the Press Complaints Commission, the phrase “chocolate teapot”, or indeed the phrase “fishnet condom”, comes to mind.

Our 2007 inquiry had elicited a response from News International that it had carried out a full inquiry itself and was satisfied that the Mulcaire-Goodman case was isolated. That was patently untrue. Our second inquiry encountered more obstacles: Goodman and Mulcaire refused to present evidence, as did Rebekah Brooks. More worrying were the attitude and answers of Scotland Yard.

I return to the point that I made to the Prime Minister today. We cannot have confidence in an investigation by the Metropolitan police; we can have confidence only in a full judicial inquiry with a judge who can take witnesses under oath, ask questions under oath, seek papers, and subpoena witnesses to appear. We desperately need that inquiry. Clearly, where there are allegations of criminal acts or there is the potential for collusion between suspects and the police, a more rigorous investigation is required than, sadly, a Select Committee can offer. It is

6 July 2011 : Column 1573

also clear that we need to extend the scope beyond News International. Operation Motorman highlighted that the

Daily Mail

was trading most prolifically in illicit personal information, while the

Daily Mirror,

when under the auspices of Piers Morgan, is suspected of using voicemail interception to reveal Sven-Goran Eriksson’s affair with Ulrika Jonsson. Given that there are questions over Scotland Yard’s handling of the current case, it is essential that its actions are reviewed independently and that future action against suspected phone hackers does not remain solely the domain of the Met.

When the Culture, Media and Sport Committee looked at the first investigation under Andy Hayman, it found that there was the air of Inspector Clouseau about it, but as the subsequent investigation under John Yates progressed one almost got the impression that something far more sinister was at work. The revelations to date show that the police must have known far more than they let on, and that there is considerable scope for them to have misled Members of the House on several occasions.

Finally, let me say that I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for ensuring that we can hold this debate, and the whole House should be grateful to him for that as well.

4.6 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): May I add that Mr Speaker has done a great service to Parliament and the many victims and their families by allowing today’s debate?

Three years have now passed since we who serve on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee started our inquiry into press standards, privacy and libel. We undertook that inquiry because of the treatment the tabloid press meted out to the McCann family, and it took such a long time because we had to reopen the investigation into phone hacking, not for political reasons but for the integrity of this House as it was clear that we had been misled by News International. Last year, we did not believe its follow-up evidence either, and subsequent events have proved us right. As many people have said, the latest events are likely to prove to be the tip of the iceberg of cynicism, double standards, cover-up and law breaking over a long period by a publication that clearly felt itself to be above the law.

Helen Goodman: My right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) made the point that the former Director of Public Prosecutions has now been taken on as a silk for News International, and that is indeed the case. He was DPP when Glenn Mulcaire was prosecuted. The Attorney-General said that that was a matter for his professional ethics, but surely this should have gone through the Cabinet Office as he was a senior public servant?

Paul Farrelly: I entirely agree. The former DPP should be invited to examine not only his ethics and his conscience, but his record in this, because he is also culpable in the failure to get to the bottom of this affair.

Nothing should surprise us about the News of the World, but what did surprise us during our inquiry was the approach of the Metropolitan police and the evidence it gave to us. Our report was highly critical of the Met, but

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right up until the start of Operation Weeting in January there seemed to be a determination to limit the inquiry and close it down as quickly as possible. The concerns about that, and about the Metropolitan police’s links to a powerful Sunday tabloid, have long merited this independent inquiry that is going to be allowed today.

We must not lose sight of the fact that, despicable and unlawful as it is, phone hacking is just one clever ruse, and there is a further question any inquiry must address: was there a trade in information in return for payments or favours between the police and the News of the World that was not only unlawful or unethical, but was to the detriment of ordinary people—not just celebrities such as Sienna Miller, or politicians, but ordinary people who might be considered fair game by the News of the World, but whose well-being it is the police’s duty to protect? These questions alone constitute good grounds for an independent public inquiry.

Before the Prime Minister’s statement today, I was pondering whether we could rely on the News of the World, with its new spirit of thorough co-operation, to whistleblow on itself fully. I suggest the record rather suggests not. Indeed, following the publication of our report of February last year, News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks dismissed it, and News International issued a statement saying, with absolutely no hint of irony, that

“the reaction of the Committee to its failure to find any new evidence has been to make claims of ‘collective amnesia’, deliberate obfuscation and concealment of the truth.”

For good measure, it added, again with no irony, that

“certain members of this CMS Committee have repeatedly violated the public trust.”

Editor Colin Myler was more explicit. He singled out me and my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) in a full-page editorial:

“We’ll take no lessons in standards”.

He continued:

“Sadly, the victims here are you, the public”.

That was very prescient of Mr Myler, but clearly not in the way he intended. That scathing, self-serving editorial ran to more than 1,100 words, whereas the eventual apology to victims in April this year ran to just 160 words. That would be comical if it were not so sad.

Much has been said about Rebekah Brooks, and I agree that her position is untenable. As for the editor of the News of the World—I will be charitable—Mr Myler has, by now, had so much wool pulled over his eyes that he clearly cannot find his own self-respect or his resignation; he is staying in post at the News of the World.

Could the Press Complaints Commission be trusted with an inquiry? Sadly, the answer is no. The PCC was lauded in that editorial, but this is how its chair, Baroness Buscombe, returned the compliment yesterday:

“There’s only so much we can do when people are lying to us.”

The PCC accepted none of our recommendations, including our suggestion for a new name—the press complaints and standards commission. The body commands little respect and it has a much-diminished chair. As for the police, Operation Weeting certainly seems to be more thorough, but beforehand there was little competition. It is time for a public inquiry, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has suggested.

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Following the latest revelations there has been much talk of a “tipping point” for the press, but we have been at tipping points many times before—for example, with the McCann family—and nothing has changed. Above all, for the better of decent journalism in this country, all newspaper proprietors, not just Rupert Murdoch, must look themselves in the mirror and ask, “Do I like what I see?” and, “Do I care to change it?”

4.11 pm

Anna Soubry (Broxtowe) (Con): Yesterday, I momentarily hesitated before rising to support the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), but only because I was unfamiliar with the procedure—I did know that he was doing the right thing. I, too, congratulate him, and not only on bringing this debate to this House. I congratulate him also because I believe that a consensus is forming across this House, and that is to be welcomed.

I thought also yesterday that our newspapers had sunk to the darkest moment in their history, given the revelations about the tapping of Milly Dowler’s phone. It is important that we get the language right; we are talking about the theft of evidence, the destruction of evidence, the impeding of the investigation into the disappearance of a child and, as it turned out, a murder investigation. I might have misheard the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), but if I heard him correctly and he is right in what he was saying, all of that was known by the Metropolitan police back in 2002. For reasons that I cannot comprehend, no investigation was undertaken by the Metropolitan police at that time into what were undoubtedly extremely serious criminal offences. I am absolutely confident that this new inquiry will look into the dealings of the police, because the spotlight is rightly now not just on our newspapers; it is moving on to our police. What has been going on concerns me greatly.

Yesterday was also a bleak day for our newspapers, because we saw the Attorney-General prosecute two of them for contempt of court for their coverage of the arrest of a man in Bristol in relation to the murder of Jo Yeates. I wholeheartedly congratulate the Attorney-General on taking that prosecution, as it was a courageous move. The hon. Member for Rhondda talked about the need for politicians to be courageous and I absolutely agree. We must be not only courageous, but honest. I will be honest and say that I am not sure that I was as courageous as I should have been with my private Member’s Bill in February. That is because any politician treads exceptionally cautiously when they stand up in this place to criticise the press and ask for it to be curtailed. As the hon. Gentleman said, we know the possible consequences of making that sort of move.

Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Have not the words of Stanley Baldwin some 70 years ago, when he described the press as having

“power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”

been brought to bear by this most grotesque example that we have discussed today?

Anna Soubry: I concur absolutely, and I am sure that that sentiment is echoed across the House.

Such is my concern—I have been persuaded by much of what I have heard today—that I think there must

6 July 2011 : Column 1576

now be a pause in the consideration of the matter that has been referred to and will be determined by Ofcom. I urge the Secretary of State to consider whether we should pause things, given what has happened.

In the time remaining, I want to return to the subject of my private Member’s Bill. I am not sure whether it falls within the remit of the public inquiry, but I hope that the Government will consider changing the law. I believe that the press has lost the moral plot and I say that with a heavy heart because before I went back to the Bar I trained as a journalist and worked as one for many years. I am proud to be a member of the National Union of Journalists and I was mother of the chapel at Central in Nottingham. I look on my brothers and sisters at a national level with, frankly, despair. It is important to remind ourselves that small local papers are very different from national papers—

Chris Bryant: Any in particular?

Anna Soubry: I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman’s sedentary intervention, which is probably a good thing.

In all seriousness, it is right and fair to say that all of us know from our considerable experience that local papers act properly and responsibly. We all enjoy a perfectly proper relationship with them—a relationship that has not been enjoyed between other politicians and national newspapers, which is a situation that must change.

It comes down to this: if people did not buy these newspapers, we would not have this problem. Too many people have an insatiable appetite for gossip, trivia, scandal and the scum of life and that is why we have found ourselves in this position. If people did not buy such papers—I hope that on Sunday the News of the World will get its real punishment through a complete and total slump in its sales—we would effectively see the sort of regulation and change that we all want. There must be a huge cultural shift not only in how we deal with newspapers but in how they conduct themselves. They should act in a much better and more responsible manner in future.

4.16 pm

Mr Michael Meacher (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): I strongly support my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and, of course, the demand for a public inquiry, but I want to argue that its remit should perhaps be a little wider than the immediate phone hacking affair.

The central question concerns the governance of News International, the present chief executive of which, Rebekah Brooks, says that it is “inconceivable” that she knew about phone hacking—[ Laughter. ] That was her word. A former News of the World journalist, Paul McMullan, said in effect that it was inconceivable that she did not know, however. The idea that she will stay on, effectively to investigate herself, is simply surreal.

It was News International that paid out large sums of hush money to cover up evidence of criminality within the organisation and that, according to the PCC, lied to the regulator, yet that is the company seeking the right to become the most powerful media company that this country has ever seen. Based on the evidence that is already known—never mind that which is still due to come out from the other 11,000 pages of Glen Mulcaire’s notes—I cannot see how the Secretary of State for

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Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport can let that go through. After today and after this week, almost the whole country will be behind that view.

There are wider questions. The first concerns the media plurality that the Secretary of State likes to pray in aid to explain how hemmed in he is by statute. The answer to that question is that, as formulated, the system is antique and obsolete when faced with a behemoth such as the Murdoch empire. The combination of News Corporation and BSkyB will be in a position to distort or bend competition through cross-promotion, price bundling, preventing rivals from advertising and other distortions in the advertising market. The fact is that none of those issues, which are crucial to the question of competitiveness, was even considered by the Secretary of State. That is the decisive reason why he should reconsider.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Meacher: I would love to give way to my right hon. Friend, but I am under instructions not to give way.

In particular, the idea cooked up by News International that putting Sky News into a separate company somehow preserves media plurality is utterly spurious. Newco, the company that will run Sky News, will be dependent on News Corporation for 85% of its revenues and for access to the market, and the safeguards for editorial independence are weak and of the kind that News International has repeatedly undermined before. Neither Ofcom nor the Office of Fair Trading regards this arrangement as a sustainable solution, the two-week consultation period was clearly inadequate, and the arrangement puts far too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State rather than independent regulators. Those are all very strong reasons why the Secretary of State has to look at this again, after a pause, which the whole House is asking for.

Lastly, I want to say something about the Press Complaints Commission, which is surely one of the most ineffective performers in the regulatory landscape. It played absolutely no role whatever in uncovering the phone hacking revelations; indeed, it far too readily dismissed The Guardian’s original warnings nearly two years ago. I really do think that the PCC has been so poor that the public inquiry should look again at the future of self-regulation after so many cautions, including David Mellor’s warning 20 years ago—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order.

4.21 pm

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): First, let me apologise to hon. Members who might wonder why I have been called, given that I left the Chamber earlier. I went to see the Third Reading of my private Member’s Bill in the other place; unfortunately, there seemed to be a mini-debate on Lords reform first.

I absolutely share hon. Members’ feelings of being appalled at the revelations and allegations being made today. Of course I extend my sympathy to the victims,

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including Beverli Rhodes, a 7/7 survivor whom people might have heard on LBC this morning saying that she was concerned that her phone had been hacked.

There are several issues to discuss, but I am afraid I might break the somewhat cosy consensus that has developed so far. There is no question but that the police investigation has been shown to be unsatisfactory, as we have seen from previous reports of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. However, there are some things we can do straight away. The whole business of dancing on the head of a pin regarding whether certain hacking is illegal could be dealt with by a simple change to clause 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. I have confidence that Deputy Assistant Commissioner Akers will make some progress with Operation Weeting, but I also understand that it might be appropriate to bring in an external force to help with that.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) has brought in some new allegations about News International today. I agree that News International has not helped itself with its drip-drip feed of information and, perhaps, casual approach to investigation internally. I do not know whether the actions were deliberate or whether there were simply people there who were out of control. What I do know is that News Corp did finally react, and has brought in people to do an investigation, which is the right thing to do alongside the police inquiry.

I believe that a witch hunt against Rebekah Brooks is being developed. I do not hold a candle for her—I met her once last year at a Conservative party conference and I am sure that she has been at Labour party conferences before—but I am worried about this aspect. This is not the time to hold back evidence, and I hope that my hon. Friends will present evidence rather than simply say that Rebekah Brooks was the editor at the time. Let me give the analogy of a sales director I know of from my previous commercial experience who was pressurising his sales people to keep up with their quotas and find new business. He was not aware that two people were indulging in what could be called illegal practices—basically, bribing people—and it is right that we found that out, but I am not saying it was right for that sales director to be told they personally had to resign.

Helen Goodman: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Dr Coffey: I cannot give way, because I know that other people want to speak.

I also recognise that Operation Motorman and Operation Glade took place. Indeed, Rebekah Brooks herself was told that her phone might have been hacked and that the Home Office and the police also tapped her phone—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I am just saying that it happens to a number of people. What that reflects, as the Information Commissioner discussed in his report back in 2006, is that the problem was not unique to one news group. The multiple inquiries that we have, which I fully support, should look across the news industry, not solely at News International.

There is also a route within Parliament to address this. We have heard today about how Parliament did not react, but the Culture, Media and Sport Committee did. We also have an opportunity to address this issue through the privacy committee being set up to look at

6 July 2011 : Column 1579

super-injunctions. We could extend its terms to address this, in addition to the public inquiry. Given the lack of confidence in previous Members of the House, perhaps it should have a majority of new Members.

Moving forward, I should like the police inquiry to be given as much resource as it needs to reach its conclusions very quickly. I want the public inquiries to be established and I should like the privacy committee to be enhanced. Finally, let me make one point about BSkyB. News International is not News Corp, Rebekah Brooks is not a director of News Corp or BSkyB, and I understand that she has no intention of ever being so.

4.25 pm

Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab): Some years ago I was a questioned as a witness in the investigation in the “cash for honours” allegations, because I am a former staff member at No. 10 Downing street. Those allegations may have harmed the Labour party’s capacity to raise money, because people did not want to go near our party in case their reputation was trashed in the media. The allegations may have harmed our ability to win elections, thus resulting in our being in opposition, rather than in government. The police investigation, however, came to nothing. There were no prosecutions, no charges and no case that the Crown Prosecution Service thought worthy of prosecution.

During those investigations thousands of e-mails and notes were investigated, and dozens of people were interviewed. Those who were questioned—and in some cases arrested, although never charged—often found themselves in the newspapers immediately, as the twists and turns of the investigation leaked out. People were taken from their beds in the early hours of the morning and appeared immediately all over the newspapers, even though they were innocent of any crime.

It is absolutely right that the police should be tireless in their pursuit of truth and that no obstacle should stand in their way, but it is impossible not to draw a contrast between the zeal with which that ultimately fruitless investigation was pursued and the investigation into hacking by the News of the World—particularly in view of the fact that, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), the Chair of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, most of the evidence that has emerged in recent days has been in the hands of the police since 2006. Why was the defence of one rogue operator believed for so long, as it has become clear that the practice was much more systematic? Why, after each new piece of information comes out, do we suddenly find that new e-mails are uncovered?

The affair focuses on the conduct of the News of the World and the victims of the practice of phone hacking, but the conduct of the newspaper—and perhaps of other newspapers that may be involved—is not the only question. Given the history of the issue, we must consider the question of who in this affair polices the police, and asks hard questions about the police investigation. That investigation may have been stepped up, but we need an inquiry to ask hard questions about the relationship between the police and the News of the World in particular—about payment for information and the trade in information and personal details. Whether it is an IPCC inquiry or the public inquiry for which we have called, those questions are part of the picture.

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The Attorney-General rightly said that there must not be one law for the powerful and another for the non-powerful, but it is also true that there should not be one law for part of the powerful—the political world—and another law for another part of the powerful, which is the media world. All of us must be equal and subject to the law.

4.28 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Any newspaper or other media outlet that interferes by hacking or any other means into people’s phones, e-mails or post, and any newspaper that interferes with police investigations to maximise profits and concoct more salacious headlines, is acting despicably and illegally, and inflicts more pain on victims. Any claim that it is acting in the public interest, or that it is all down to a single rogue operator, will be treated with the derision and scorn that it deserves. That newspaper should expect the full force of the law to bear down on it, and it should feel the heat as consumers and advertisers vote with their feet. I am pleased that that is exactly what is beginning to happen.

It is difficult to believe that those illegal activities, given their scale and the specific nature of the information that was being supplied to a newspaper—which could not, in my view, have been obtained legally—were restricted to one private investigator or one newspaper. It is hard to understand why the original police inquiry was so truncated. For those reasons there is agreement in the House today on the need for a wide inquiry or inquiries headed by a judge. The inquiries should look at which media used those illegal techniques, what can be done to address what is clearly a widespread cultural problem within the industry, and what changes to the law might be required.

We also need to tackle the Met and examine what went wrong with the original inquiry, where it appears that not only was every stone not turned over, but a whole rockery was left in place. Were payments made? Were investigations hindered as a result of other unacceptable activities? Those are just some of the matters that the judge and the Home Secretary—if that is who sets the terms of reference—will want the inquiry to examine. We will need to establish a clear time scale and the costings for the inquiry.

There are many other aspects that I wanted to touch on, but time is short. We are faced with a scandal of expanding proportions, including hacking, allegations of interference in police investigations, and claims that payments have been made to officers. To restore faith and trust in the police and the media, we must lock up the guilty, establish a statutory inquiry, shine a cleansing light on the culture of the media and, if necessary, of the police, and implement the reforms necessary to ensure that the privacy of victims and citizens is never intruded on again. It is clear from today’s debate that this is the will of the House, and we are committed to making it happen.

4.32 pm

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I extend my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) on securing this emergency debate, and on his longstanding and

6 July 2011 : Column 1581

tireless campaign to bring these issues to light, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson).

There have been many thoughtful, powerful, comprehensive and brave contributions from Members in all parts of the House today, including from a number of the victims and alleged victims of the phone hacking scandal, and from several Chairs of Select Committees who have been involved in investigating the matter. It is clear that all Members of the House hold a common view that the ongoing criminal investigation into phone hacking activity must take priority.

It is important to be clear that we on the Opposition Benches would not support any course of action that could or would put the hard work of the police and investigators, or any future criminal prosecutions, at risk. Our priority and focus must be on ensuring that justice is secured for people who have been victims of that crime. In considering this issue, it is of course important to reiterate that the increasingly shocking and distressing revelations in this scandal should by no means result in all journalists and newspapers, whether national or local, being tarred with the same brush. The incredibly important role played by the tireless campaigning of The Guardian on the issue has been mentioned. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) paid tribute to the great work of local journalists too.

However, a criminal justice system that inspires public confidence and an independent, rigorously regulated media are two key planks of a functioning democracy, and it is clear that both of these have been damaged by this developing scandal. The allegations unfolding daily, and sometimes hourly, have thrown up many more issues than can be dealt with or resolved through criminal investigations and prosecutions alone. We are not alone in saying this. The Government should listen to the public and, as the shadow Home Secretary outlined earlier, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner himself. That is why we welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment today to hold a public inquiry, or inquiries, into the issues that have arisen as a result of this scandal.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Catherine McKinnell: I am afraid that I cannot, as time is very short.

As outlined earlier, given the potential conflicts of interest, we need reassurance about exactly what the Prime Minister’s role will be in this. I must also reference the widespread concerns expressed by Members across the House about News Corp’s takeover of BSkyB. I trust that the Attorney-General and the Culture Secretary will treat all these concerns with the seriousness they deserve and take action accordingly. Although the Attorney-General said that he was mindful of the comments that have been made during the course of the debate, we have not been reassured that positive steps to set up a full, independent, wide-ranging and transparent inquiry will be taken without delay.

Without jeopardising any criminal investigations or future prosecutions, the Government can begin the work of agreeing the nature and scope of the inquiry and who will take it forward before those criminal

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proceedings are complete. Criminal investigations into, and prosecutions for, phone hacking will certainly take months to reach a conclusion, and possibly years. If we are to start to rebuild the public’s confidence in our criminal justice system and the operation of our newspaper industry, the public and the victims of this dreadful crime need the reassurance of a public inquiry now.

4.36 pm

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): We have had an important and overwhelmingly thoughtful debate on a subject of deep significance not only to the House, but to a huge number of people across the country. Right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have, as is perfectly reasonable, expressed their disgust and outrage at the latest allegations we have heard over the past few days.

To hack into the phone messages of victims of murder and terrorism and their families will strike all right-thinking people as completely beyond the pale. As the Prime Minister has made clear, and as the Attorney-General stated at the start of the debate, the Government share the shock of the House and the nation. Our thoughts are with the families of those affected by this latest cruel twist in what has been for many of them an horrific ordeal. The Dowler family have gone through more in the last few weeks and years than any family should ever have to go through. The same is true of the families of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. Now, as we approach the sixth anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings, we hear that the families of the victims of our worst ever terrorist attack might also have had their phones hacked. The timing is a particularly terrible irony, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said at the outset of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on behalf of the whole House not only on obtaining the debate, but on fighting for so many years on the issue. I congratulate him also on striking exactly the right tone in the debate; it is a matter on which the House needs to move forward as one. I also agree with the shadow Home Secretary’s point that one of the institutions that need to look at how they operate in this regard is the House of Commons, which must decide how best to deal with such difficult matters that not only give rise to complex issues of public policy, but require personal bravery on the part of individual Members by putting themselves and their reputations on the line. She made that point and it is exactly right.

It is not just the rich and famous whose lives may have been affected—although they, too, have basic rights to privacy and fair dealings—but the families of those who have suffered pain beyond what any of us can imagine have had their lives intruded on. The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), who also deserves congratulations, provided new and powerful evidence about some of the things that have gone on. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) made the particularly important point that, although much of the debate has inevitably concentrated on News International, the subject is much wider and relates to other press groups and newspapers as well.

I also praise the honesty of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), the former Home Secretary, and the former Police Minister, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson),

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in revealing that some of the untruths and cover-ups that they might have had to deal with meant that they either took decisions that in retrospect they might wish they had not taken, or, indeed, actively said things that misled the House. It is important that everyone accepts the honest tone in which such revelations have been made. I congratulate also my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), who made a powerful point about not endangering prosecutions.

Clive Efford: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Damian Green: I apologise, but I really do not have time.

Owing to the seriousness of the allegations and to the fresh information, the Metropolitan police service decided in January to open a new investigation, which many Members have mentioned. It is being led by Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, and I should emphasise that it involves a completely separate unit in the Met from the one that carried out the original investigation in 2006. It is one of the largest ongoing police investigations, and it is precisely because of this new, thorough investigation that new evidence and information about what exactly went on is being obtained. The investigation has already led to five arrests, and it is entirely possible that there will be further arrests and, potentially, further prosecutions.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced that the Crown Prosecution Service will examine any evidence resulting from the Met investigation, and it has asked Alison Levitt QC, who has had no previous involvement in the case, to take a robust approach in deciding whether any prosecutions can be brought.

The Home Secretary spoke this morning to Sir Paul Stephenson, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He assured her that the current investigation is fully resourced and proceeding well; he told her that any allegations of inappropriate payments made to police officers by journalists is being fully and independently investigated in conjunction with the Independent Police Complaints Commission; and he assured the Home Secretary also that this matter will continue to be investigated through Operation Elveden, under the direction of Deputy Assistant Commissioner Sue Akers, in partnership with the Met’s directorate of professional standards.

Of course, a number of cases may go before the courts, so it is important that we do not prejudge or prejudice potential future prosecutions. We must allow the current police investigation to get to the bottom of these terrible allegations and to discover the truth, but it is clear that, in the light of the step change in the seriousness of the allegations, we must have a public inquiry or inquiries into these matters.

4.42 pm

Three hours having elapsed since the start of proceedings, the motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 24).

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Estimates Day

[3rd Allotted Day]

estimates 2011-12


Afghanistan and Pakistan

[Relevant Documents: Fourth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee , Session 2010-12, on th e UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan, HC 514, and the Government response, Cm 8064.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, for the year ending with 31 March 2012, for expenditure by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—

(1) further resources, not exceeding £1,279,625,000, be authorised for use for current purposes as set out in HC 921,

(2) further resources, not exceeding £19,718,000, be authorised for use for capital purposes as so set out, and

(3) a further sum, not exceeding £1,188,315,000, be granted to Her Majesty to be issued by the Treasury out of the Consolidated Fund and applied for expenditure on the use of resources authorised by Parliament.—(Mr Vara.)

4.42 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): The British involvement in Afghanistan has been long and costly, and whether it has achieved its stated objectives is a moot point, but that does not imply that it was the wrong decision or that we should not be there.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it was essential to deny al-Qaeda a base to operate; the intervention was essential; and there was a United Nations-mandated coalition of the willing led by the United States, but as usual we were in close support. Following the general election, the coalition Government very much followed the Afghanistan policy of their predecessor, but two important changes did take place: first, the establishment of the National Security Council to co-ordinate Whitehall’s Afghan war effort; and, crucially, the publicly announced decision to set 2015 as the deadline for withdrawing British combat troops.

Both initiatives were welcome, although famously the National Security Council did not make the withdrawal decision. Nonetheless, the key policy objective in Afghanistan mirrors that of the Government’s predecessor: Afghanistan should not again become a place from where al-Qaeda and other extremists can attack the UK and British interests.

Achieving that objective is said to rely on four main goals: a more stable and secure Afghanistan; the conditions for withdrawal of UK combat troops by 2015; an Afghan-led political settlement that represents all Afghan people; and regional political and security co-operation that supports a stable Afghanistan. They were the right objectives then, and they are the right objectives today.

Some progress is being made on all those fronts. Increasingly, the Afghan army and security forces are taking over control of the districts, troops are beginning to withdraw and there is talk of a political-led settlement, all of which is of course welcome.

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I just wonder whether we need to reassess the policy objectives. The Foreign Affairs Committee received evidence to suggest that the core foreign policy justification for the UK’s continued presence in Afghanistan—that it is in the interests of UK national security—may have been resolved some time ago. There is a big difference between the Taliban, who are locals who want their country back, and al-Qaeda, which is made up of hard-nosed international terrorists. Given the apparently limited strength of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, its desire to continue to use Afghanistan as a base is questionable. The tracking down and shooting of Osama bin Laden adds weight to that argument.

When the Prime Minister appeared before the Liaison Committee, I asked if he was still receiving intelligence that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan remained a threat to UK national security. He confirmed that it did, and he said the same when I put a similar point to him this afternoon. I said that that poses a dilemma for Parliament. It seems that the justification for Britain’s most important policy initiative is based on an intelligence assessment that has not been subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The ghost of the Iraq war hangs over us. Under the circumstances, I suggest that the intelligence is shown to a committee of Privy Councillors or the Intelligence and Security Committee, which can report to the House on whether it agrees with the assessment.

In the meantime, the military campaign continues. The Taliban are being pushed back, and so they should be with the firepower ranged against them. However, I question whether they can be defeated militarily. The Foreign Affairs Committee has considerable doubts over whether the international security assistance force’s counter-insurgency campaign is succeeding. We question the fundamental assumption that success in Afghanistan can be achieved through a strategy of clear, hold and build. The Taliban are, at heart, Afghans who resent the presence of occupying forces. It is questionable whether the USA’s full military onslaught on the Taliban is necessary to deny al-Qaeda a place from which to operate. The key thrust of the Committee’s report is that we should encourage ISAF, and the United States in particular, to engage in a political reconciliation process. There is little support outside the United States for continuing the surge started by George Bush and continued by President Obama. The continued military pummelling of the Taliban is, in all certainty, counter-productive in achieving a political settlement.

The recent announcement by President Karzai that the United States is involved in reconciliation negotiations is a good start. However, talking to the Taliban is not easy. There is no address or phone number, and the hard-liners and the top brass of the Taliban have turned their backs on any reconciliation attempts. None the less, in my judgment there is a split in the Taliban between the hard-liners and the moderates. Those who are most opposed to a political settlement tend to be more on the fringes of the movement—the uneducated and the unemployed. Those who are more focused on the future prosperity of their country are prepared to talk. We should exploit the divisions in the Taliban and engage in the process of reconciliation as soon as possible. The US draw-down of troops will help in that, as will the additional numbers announced by the Prime Minister

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during his visit this week. We have to set the tone and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Afghans who want to bring up their children and enjoy the prosperity that we are used to in the western world.

Combined with that, we must continue to support the Afghan army, police and security services. Huge strides have been made to bring those forces up to a level of competence that will allow them to maintain law and order in their country. There will be a large army and a large police force. The Prime Minister said this afternoon that for every one troop that is withdrawn, two will go in from the Afghan police and security services. Those services have a long way to go to achieve the operational standards that we see elsewhere. The exit of NATO combat troops will not be smooth, and the handover will be fraught with problems, but the sheer size of the Afghan forces should be sufficient to hold the line against the inevitable counter-attack once the occupying forces have left.

The US draw-down is bigger than expected, and 33,000 troops will have been withdrawn by this time next year. The President of the United States says that the US has crippled al-Qaeda’s capabilities and been successful in its mission in Afghanistan, claiming that Kabul is much safer than it was before despite continued attacks such as the one on the Intercontinental hotel last week.

Interestingly, the President has been criticised on both sides in Congress, with his opponent in the last presidential election, John McCain, arguing that the current troop levels should be maintained for at least another year to accomplish their objectives. On the other hand, the Democrats have argued that the President has been too timid. The cynic in me says that that probably suggests he has got it about right.

However, the military do not agree with the President either. We may raise eyebrows here when senior military officers enter the political arena, and we may wish that they would do the fighting while we do the talking, but they have nothing on what has been going on in the United States. Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quite openly said that he advocated a less aggressive draw-down schedule. General Petraeus, the former head of the armed forces in Afghanistan, who is about to become the director of the CIA, said that he, too, had recommended a more gradual withdrawal. Marine General James Mattis, commander of US central command, who was General Petraeus’s boss and immediate superior, agreed. With friends like that, who needs enemies? I respect the President for his courage in rejecting the arguments of his military and continuing with the draw-down.

The House should be in no doubt that this is going to be messy. Security incidents in Afghanistan continue, such as the tragic loss of Scott McLaren from the Royal Regiment of Scotland. However, the provinces and urban districts continue to be transferred to Afghan forces, which shows progress towards transition.

No one likes to engage in talks with an enemy that has been killing one’s own armed forces, and I share the view of Hillary Clinton, who has said that she finds the need to have contact with the Taliban “distasteful, but worthwhile”. It is not a pleasant business, but it is a necessary one. I have no doubt that any negotiations leading to a political settlement must be Afghan-led, despite the Taliban saying that they want to speak

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directly with the United States. So far, top US officials have sidestepped that, and I hope the Government will now encourage them to get more fully involved and get a forum up and running with the full involvement of Afghanistan, the United States and Pakistan.

Relations with Pakistan are difficult, but if we think we have problems, nothing compares with the US-Pakistan relationship, which is at rock bottom. I have to confess that I am quite shaken by the level of mistrust between Pakistan and the United States. The situation has been exacerbated by the shooting of Osama bin Laden. I personally have no doubt whatever that that was a necessary step for the United States to take, and I quite understand why such sensitive information could not be shared with anybody. As a result, I am quite puzzled by Pakistan’s aggressive reaction and apparent failure to understand why the US did not share the information with it.

Pakistan has difficult decisions to make. It has deployed troops in Waziristan and the north-west frontier, but my instinct is that its heart is still not in it. Another illustration is the US use of drones, which are fearsome weapons that are turning out to be remarkably effective—so much so that everybody wants them. So why is Pakistan ordering the United States to take its drone bases out of the country?

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Pakistan has suffered huge losses, and at a high level, from the activities of the Taliban and other terrorists? That partly demonstrates its level of commitment.

Richard Ottaway: Yes, which makes it more the mystery why it does not take stronger action against the Taliban. It is not how to get into the hole that counts but how to get out of it, and I believe that Pakistan is still worrying about how it got into the hole. I would encourage it to engage fully and totally in denying the Taliban a base in its own country.

On the other side of the equation, the US should recognise that Pakistan is a proud and sensitive country. We all admire the US for its can-do attitude and for getting things done, but there comes a moment every now and again when it must think about how others will feel about that, and work with the grain, despite its dominant position on the world stage.

The UK does have a role in all that. There are now 3 million Pakistanis living in the UK. Our embassy in Islamabad is making every effort, but diplomatic opportunities exist to win Pakistan’s confidence in our genuine desire to help them. Can we help with textile exports or commercially in another way? Can we help it to break down the barriers with India? Above all, we should encourage the US to adopt a policy on Pakistan that takes account of Pakistan’s security concerns, and we should help the US to play a constructive role in the reconciliation process.

I am under no illusion about the difficulties involved in respect of any of those countries. None the less, the Foreign Affairs Committee commends the UK Government for its advocacy of the regional approach to political reconciliation. Currently, the conditions for political settlement are virtually non-existent, but if ever there was a time to make the effort, it is now.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. There is no formal time limit on Back-Bench speeches, but I have something like nine people on my list, and I am looking to call the Opposition to wind-up at approximately 6.30 pm, so Members can do the arithmetic for themselves. A certain self-restraint would be appreciated.

4.56 pm

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway). I thank him for, and congratulate him on, the quality of his Committee’s reports, particularly the last report on this subject.

It was a disappointment to hear the Prime Minister present a statement that was very much the traditional one of unreasonable optimism, of exaggerating the threat of terrorism from the Taliban, which is almost non-existent—there is a threat from al-Qaeda, but not from the Taliban—and of ignoring altogether the most optimistic sign: namely, the possibility of talks with the Taliban.

We have heard so much accentuating the positives and ignoring the negatives. The Prime Minister spoke of the progress with the Afghan army and police, but said not a word about the fact that NATO delivered the final blow by bringing the helicopter in following the recent attack on the Intercontinental hotel, and made no mention of the group of UN workers who were lynched by a mob, even though they were being protected by the Afghan police and army. Nor did he mention the most depressing incident, when 500 prisoners, many of them Taliban who were captured at grievous cost in blood and treasure, escaped, almost certainly with the collusion of local Afghans. Those 500 are now free to attack our soldiers again.

I am concerned greatly by our attitude. We are trying to deny the truth and to protect ourselves, but there are no good reasons for that. It is extremely wounding to the families of the bereaved to suggest that the cause in which their loved ones died bravely was a noble but vain one, but we must get that across. The Prime Minister has a difficult task to convince the country that we must not only talk to but negotiate with the enemy. That will be difficult for the relatives or loved ones of the fallen.

It is disappointing that the Prime Minister did not give a clear answer on the hurt that will be caused if the plan to take the remains of the fallen to Brize Norton continues. They would then be taken via a circuitous route that avoids the most populated areas. Local people, supported by many of the families of the bereaved, say that they want and appreciate the opportunity to give public expression to their grief, as happened in Wootton Bassett. The public would like to pay their respects as they have done before. No impression should be left that there is any attempt by the Government or local people to deny the country the chance to pay its tributes and accept the true effects of war.

That has been done twice before. Last year on a Monday and a Tuesday, the names of the fallen were announced, but that was at a time when the House did not have the maximum attendance, or the attention focused on it, that it has at Prime Minister’s Question Time when those names are announced. It is impossible now, because of the rules of the House, to do what I

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have done in the past, which is to read out the names of the fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is now forbidden. I would not look forward to doing that again, though, because to read the names of the fallen in Afghanistan and the thousands with serious injuries would take about an hour and a half, if I was to include their ranks and give a suitable pause to each one. None the less, that is the most effective way of getting across to the House the consequences of decisions that we took.

I was grateful to see the report on Helmand on BBC 2. It is worth remembering that, as has been repeated, politically we went into Helmand because senior politicians believed we would be there for three years and hoped that not a shot would be fired. We are grateful for the evidence given to the Foreign Affairs Committee and to the Public Administration Committee in which we saw the incredibly trivial reasons we went into Helmand. At that point, we had lost two soldiers in combat—five in other regions—but now it is 375. A written report to the FAC attributed it to the hubris of the Foreign Office, which felt that it might suddenly become a footnote. The conflict in Iraq was coming to an end and it wanted to be in the limelight. The military use the expression, “We must use them or lose them”, knowing that if their battle groups are suddenly stood down, there is the threat of major cuts in a future defence review.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): Although I disagree with my hon. Friend, I have huge respect for his principled stance. However, when the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Vice-Chief of the Defence Staff came before the Defence Committee only three weeks ago, that was not the reason they gave for the Army going into Helmand. They gave completely different reasons: there was a job that had to be done, and if it was not done by the British, it would fall to one of our partners in the international security assistance force.

Paul Flynn: The evidence is in the reports from both Committees—in evidence from a distinguished former ambassador in Kabul and from two senior people in the civil service to the PAC. The evidence is clear. One witness said that no attention was paid to the national interest. It is difficult to see where on earth the national interest lay in stirring up a hornets’ nest in Helmand, but we know the result. This was a peaceful province. We went in to ensure reconstruction, but the result, tragically, was the loss of an unknown number of lives—possibly 9,000—and there was no reconstruction. Instead there was destruction on a massive scale from collateral damage alone. We set up posts that we defended at huge cost in lives to our own people and to the others.

This is a calamity on a scale nearly unprecedented in our military history—and that is saying something. When we went in, we did not take a decision in the House, but we had a debate. In that debate, someone said that this would be worse than the charge of the Light Brigade. This time Blair to the left of them, Bush to the right of them, holler’d and thunder’d:

“Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death”,

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into the mouth of Helmand, drove the 5,000. Before, there were two dead; now it is 375. That is three times the number killed in the charge of the Light Brigade and twice the number killed in the Iraq war, and I challenge anyone to come up with any improvements that resulted from the incursion into Helmand. What is better now? It was peaceful when we went in. There was no threat.

Thomas Docherty: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the chance to intervene on him again. The Chief of the General Staff, Peter Wall, and the Chief of the Defence Staff made it absolutely clear to the Defence Committee that if we had not gone into Helmand, the Taliban would have moved north towards Kabul. It is completely untrue to say that Helmand was a peaceful province; or rather, it was peaceful only because the Taliban had complete control over the area.

Paul Flynn: I was not present on the Committee, but I saw the sitting on the Parliament channel and was profoundly unimpressed by the evidence given. However, I do not want to dwell on this issue; I want to give other people a chance to speak—I have the advantage of speaking early. I believe that at some point an investigation has to be conducted into why we went into Helmand. Of course it cannot be done now, while we are still there, but I believe that the story revealed will be one of military incompetence and political weakness. We are in the position now—the hopeful time—of talking to the Taliban. I do not know why the Prime Minister does not emphasise this more, but for the first time we are in the position of taking practical steps to build peace that would result in bringing our troops home.

The alternative is that we are currently in a period like that the Americans found themselves in in 1970 and 1971, when they knew that the war was coming to an end in Vietnam. We know that there is no happy ending in Afghanistan, and we should not build up the prospect of an Afghanistan that will somehow be like a Scandinavian democracy or anything of the sort. The ending will be messy.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for missing the first part of his speech. Does he not think that after 10 years in Afghanistan, the fact that the Prime Minister now says that there has to be negotiations, including with the Taliban—something that has been patently obvious for a long time—is an indication of just what a military and political disaster this whole thing has been?

Paul Flynn: I am sure that that will be the judgment of history. I am afraid that we in this House will be seen as not having taken the decisions that we should either. We have not challenged our continuing presence in Afghanistan or the continual sacrifice of the lives of our brave soldiers. This has been a bad episode in our history. Tragically, just as we saw one rotten Government in Afghanistan brought down in 2001—they were not as rotten as the one before, who included the Mujahedeen—the current Government might well be replaced in five years by another rotten Government, and we will ask ourselves, “What was the sacrifice for?” We are now in the position that General Kerry, now Senator Kerry, described in ’71 when he asked himself the agonising question, “Who will be the last soldier I will order to die for a politician’s mistake?”

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5.8 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), as we have similar views on this issue.

As those Committee colleagues who are here will know, I voted against this report. It will come as no surprise to the majority of Members present that I come to this afternoon’s debate as a sceptic about our mission generally. Having cautioned against our deployment in Afghanistan and voted against the Government’s continued policy—in the one opportunity that we had to debate and vote on the issue, last year—I remain deeply worried about our progress generally. To reflect briefly on the past, our intervention defied all the lessons of history. We fundamentally underestimated the task and we under-resourced it accordingly. We have been playing catch-up every since. Having served as a platoon commander in South Armagh during the 1980s, I have no doubt that the mission suffered in particular from low troop density levels. We have suffered as a result.

My criticism is not levelled at the troops. We all know that they have done everything that could have been asked of them. They and we can be proud of what they have achieved. Rather, my criticism is levelled at the US and UK Governments, who have failed because they have not recognised two fundamental distinctions, which even at this late stage could salvage something positive from this otherwise sorry affair. First, we have failed to distinguish between the key objective of keeping al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan and the four main goals on which that objective is said to depend. Those goals include the achievement of a stable and secure Afghanistan. In fact, the key objective and the attainment of those goals have become confused to the extent that the goals have become ends in themselves. This has given rise to mission creep and loss of focus. The talk of nation building, women’s rights and human rights are but three examples. In effect, we have become missionaries instead of focusing on the mission.

In my view, this confusion permeates the report. For example, the report assesses progress against each of the so-called goals instead of focusing on the key objective. We go into great detail in the report about what we are doing on women’s rights and human rights, for example. The goals are a means to an end, however, not the end in itself. Our main mission in Afghanistan is not to build a better country but to defeat al-Qaeda, and our losing sight of that fact has cost us dearly. That is why I voted against the report, having tried unsuccessfully to make a series of amendments. We are not in Afghanistan to build a better country; we are there to defeat al-Qaeda.

This confusion of purpose has gone to the top of Government. When the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) was Prime Minister, he claimed that our troops were in Afghanistan to protect the citizens of London from terrorism, yet in almost the same sentence he threatened President Karzai with troop withdrawal if he did not end the corruption in his Government. That clearly illustrated the confusion, and I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman in Prime Minister’s questions back in 2008 that those two statements did not fit well together.

Last year, the coalition Government gave a deadline of 2015 for troop withdrawal. Again, that is inconsistent. If our commitment is conditions-based—in other words,

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if it is to defeat al-Qaeda—one cannot logically place a deadline on it. Yet the Government have made it clear that all combat troops will be withdrawn by the due date, regardless of the situation on the ground. It is therefore little wonder that Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers have admitted that their communications strategy needs to be reviewed, as it appears that Joe Public has still not got the message. Someone should perhaps ask why, after 10 years, the message is somewhat confused. Could it be that the mission itself is incoherent? If that is the case, there is little point in shooting the messenger.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any evidence whatever that the streets of London have been made safer by our presence in Afghanistan? Or does he believe that our involvement has caused radicalisation and perhaps made London a more dangerous place, and that we need to look to our foreign policy if we want to make ourselves secure?

Mr Baron: The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. I certainly think that our recent aggressive interventions have radicalised parts of the Muslim world against us—a fact that I think was confirmed by a former head of MI5 in giving evidence. I certainly do not think that our involvement has helped our situation, and I see no concrete evidence that the situation has improved in regard to the threat on the streets of London. If I am wrong about that, I am sure that the Minister will correct me.

The bottom line is that there is confusion of purpose, and the first distinction that we are failing to make is that between achieving the objective and the four main goals.

The second distinction that the Government are failing to explore rigorously is that between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. The relationship is complex and not well understood. There is no shortage of evidence—some was submitted to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee—to suggest that the Taliban would not necessarily allow al-Qaeda back into the country if the Taliban were to regain control of certain regions. They know that, ultimately, al-Qaeda led to their downfall. Indeed, US intelligence sources suggest that fewer than 100 al-Qaeda fighters and certainly no al-Qaeda bases are left in the country. To all intents and purposes, we have achieved our mission some time ago—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), the Chairman of the Select Committee, made well. We all know that the Taliban are not a homogeneous group, but there are fundamental differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—yet the threats from al-Qaeda and the Taliban have become conflated and almost synonymous.

Mr Spellar: Given the distinctions that the hon. Gentleman is making, why does he think the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to establish themselves and a base in Afghanistan?

Mr Baron: The bottom line is that there are various factions of the Taliban, but the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is very complex and not well understood. I could return the question and ask: how is it that, given that the fundamental differences between the two are clear, we are failing to explore them? At the end of the day, peace is not made with friends but with enemies. We have got to initiate talks.

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These two distinctions—the distinction between the key objective and the four main goals, and the distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda—are very important. If we are trying to build a more stable and secure Afghanistan and make it a better country, we will in all probability have to beat the Taliban. If, on the other hand, we are just trying to make sure that Afghanistan is free of al-Qaeda, we might not have to defeat the Taliban. That shows the importance of the two distinctions. What they lead one on to believe is the need for the Americans and the British to open meaningful and non-conditional talks with the Taliban in order to explore common ground.

Thomas Docherty: It is certainly the understanding of the Defence Committee that our role is to place the Afghan national security forces on a footing where they can deal with security. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that it is not about beating the Taliban, as the mission goal is to get the ANSF to a point where they can take control of their country.

Mr Baron: In an ideal world I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the report makes it clear that there are severe doubts about the ability of the Afghan national security forces to take over once we leave, despite all the money and the training that have gone in. The fact that the ANSF could not protect UN personnel in areas that had been handed over and were deemed to be safe illustrates the problem that we face. There is not a uniform view on this matter, as it is worthy of note that there are severe reservations about whether the Afghan security forces will be in a position to take on that role, come the deadline.

Suggestions have been made that preliminary talks have taken place. This is welcome news. The delisting from UN sanctions of 18 former senior members of the Taliban is perhaps part of that process. However, I have concerns about the substantive nature of these talks. Until very recently, the American view has been that America will talk to the Taliban only if they lay down their arms and accept the constitution. Frankly, that is living in a dream world. The Taliban will not be beaten and they will not lay down their arms.

History suggests—we could look at counter-insurgency campaigns in Malaya, for example—that not one of the preconditions for a successful counter-insurgency campaign exists in Afghanistan. There is no control of the borders; the troop density levels are insufficient; we do not have the support of the majority of the population; and we certainly do not have a credible Government in place. Not one of the preconditions exists. The Taliban are not going to lay down their arms and simply walk away, particularly now that we have declared our hand with the deadlines.

I believe that the time has come for the British Government to press the Americans to have non-conditional talks with the Taliban. That is crucial. Just holding preliminary talks will get us nowhere. They have to be non-conditional. We need to remind the Americans that it is possible to talk and fight at the same time, as we proved in Northern Ireland. However, it was the very nature of those talks—the fact that they were unconditional—which played such a key role in bringing the IRA into the peace process. The American wish to

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see the Taliban and al-Qaeda sever all contact must be part of a settlement, rather than a precondition. I believe that the decapitation strikes on the Taliban leadership should end, because there must be a degree of trust in the negotiations. If the last 10 years have shown us anything, they have shown us the Taliban’s ability to replace one generation of leaders with another.

Given the cost to the United States in blood and treasure, this will not be easy for US politicians. There will be those in the Democratic party who will think about human rights, women’s rights and so forth, and there will be those in the Republican party who will not want to talk to terrorists. At the end of the day, however, holding unconditional talks is the only way forward. Our brave soldiers can only buy time; now it is time for the US politicians to step up to the plate.

5.21 pm

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). I wish that we had heard from him in earlier years, because his calm and rational approach was very impressive. I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis): his idea of establishing sovereign bases that we should seek to control, but without going out on patrol to have our men killed, is entirely sound. I also look forward to hearing the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), who has direct experience of the region.

The plain fact is that this is not a winnable war. I found the Prime Minister’s metaphor about al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, and Sinn Fein rather bizarre and ill-judged; but judgment is not, perhaps, the Prime Minister’s strongest suit at the moment. We are talking about a huge mess: an intervention undertaken for sincere and decent reasons that is now terminating as so many other interventions throughout recent and older history often have. I do not think that we withdrew cleanly from India and Pakistan, from Aden or Cyprus, or from any number of situations. The same could even be said of Northern Ireland. Some might observe that the almost apartheid segregation between Catholic and Protestant communities is hardly a tribute to community and society building in parts of Belfast and Derry.

The real problem is the eternal question posed by, I think, Lord Salisbury, who said, “If we listen to the generals, we will never be safe.” Clemenceau, 20 years later, said, “War is too important to be left to the generals.” We have allowed our Afghanistan policy to be over-driven and over-controlled by the military: of that there can be no doubt. My hon. Friend from Scotland who is on the Defence Committee quoted the generals who had spoken to the Committee—

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab): All of Scotland!

Mr MacShane: Well, it is nice to have a true Scot here, rather than a nationalist.

I do not know of any recorded moment when any British general giving evidence to any parliamentary or public inquiry has admitted he got things wrong. It is in their contract that generals are always right. If they are let down, it is the fault of the politicians. Before the election we were told continually by Labour Members that it was the Prime Minister’s fault for not providing

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enough Chinook helicopters and reinforcements, and that Ministers were responsible for the fact that we were not succeeding in Afghanistan. It is a tribute to my colleagues on the Front Bench that they have not adopted those rather shoddy tactics—as some might have been tempted to do—in respect of the handling of the conflict since May last year.

Thomas Docherty: As a member of the Defence Committee and the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, I can tell my right hon. Friend that when the Chief of the Defence Staff and Chief of the General Staff appeared before the Defence Committee, they did put their hands up and say mistakes had been made when going into Helmand. Perhaps that was the first time that that happened, but the Army has admitted it made mistakes.

Mr MacShane: I am glad to hear it, but frankly—I do not want to quote Bismarck and the Balkans and Pomeranian grenadiers—I weep every Wednesday when the poor Prime Minister has to come to the Dispatch Box and yet again read out the name, or perhaps names, of a dead British soldier, and for what? I cannot find an answer to that question.

To give the Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway), and his colleagues their due, they admit that, because one of their report’s key conclusions, on page 83, is that

“at a strategic level, we seriously question whether the efforts expended…have a direct connection to the UK’s core objective, namely the national security of the UK”.

That is absolutely right; the Select Committee Chairman has summed it up there—it is written down. It is a Foreign Affairs Committee conclusion, and it should be at the forefront of all of our discussions on Afghanistan. There is no longer any connection between UK national security and our men going out on patrol and being shot dead by the Taliban.

The Select Committee’s excellent and thorough report contains an account of a fine passage of questioning, which resulted in a most extraordinary confession by the Foreign Secretary. Committee members were trying to find out who is actually taking decisions on Afghanistan, and specifically in this instance the announcement to withdraw—or retreat—by 2015. Please can we avoid the absurd new euphemism of “draw-down”? It is a retreat and a withdrawal; that is what it is, so let us revert to plain English. The Foreign Secretary said that that decision was taken collectively in the National Security Council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) asked whether the Defence Secretary had been consulted, and the Foreign Secretary replied:

“I am sure the Defence Secretary was consulted, but I cannot tell you when everybody was consulted. You would have to ask the Prime Minister.”

The Committee Chairman asked whether the Foreign Secretary could confirm

“that the decision wasn’t actually made in the Council.”

The Foreign Secretary said:

“It wasn’t a formal item in the National Security Council.”

This gives a fascinating insight into the mechanism of government. Where was the decision taken—by whom and how? We know it was no longer taken on a sofa, but

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we are none the wiser—


I have not been invited to No. 10 so I cannot check whether the sofa has gone. We do not know who took the decision and on what terms.

I would argue that we should be getting out a lot faster. Canada is out, the Netherlands is out, and Belgium is pulling out half of its men. The presence of international security assistance force-NATO allies in Afghanistan is now getting thinner and thinner, and, yes, it will be a withdrawal. No general wants to be the one who folds up the flag, climbs the ladder to the top of the embassy building and climbs in a helicopter and leaves, but stopping a war is, perhaps, as great a military art as starting one.

It would be fascinating to look at the official record of the Russian Duma for the 1980s, when the Russians were convinced that they were bringing a civilising mission to Afghanistan, to see whether debates such as this one were taking place. Then, of course, they faced the external foe of the Mujaheddin paid for by President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. There has been little reference to the fact that the Mujaheddin of the 1980s was a product of western foreign policy. We have heard in the past couple of days that Mr Reagan won the cold war, and part of that winning presumably included the driving of the Soviet Union and its troops out of Afghanistan. If that was the case, every Russian would wish that Mr Reagan had won it a lot earlier; they perhaps believe that the red army should never have gone into Afghanistan. However, the money sent by the west to create the Mujaheddin sowed dragons’ teeth that turned into dragons on 9/11 and 7/7, and it would be good if the people examining the history of that era had the honesty to say so.

Jeremy Corbyn: Is my right hon. Friend aware that after Soviet forces went into Afghanistan there was a considerable number of unreported demonstrations by the families of soldiers who had died there, and that there is a huge memorial movement within Russia today on behalf of those who are still not recognised for the sacrifices they made?

Mr MacShane: Yes, indeed. That conflict contributed to the undermining of the Soviet Union, but in the very worst sense, in that it required the senseless sacrifice of a lot of young Russian men finally to persuade Mr Gorbachev and his new Soviet leaders that the action in Afghanistan had to come to an end. In some ways, I wish that we had been able to defeat communism in Vietnam, because the period after the retreat of the United States was a horribly cruel one in Vietnam—we saw what happened with the boat people, the re-education camps and the killings and tortures. But there was no question of our remaining longer in the vain hope that we could have created a more stable, orderly or democratic regime.

The Select Committee’s report stated:

“We welcome the Government’s attempt to engage more pro-actively”—

I never know what that adverb means—

“with parliamentarians on Afghanistan.”

That might interest the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I understand that a new poem is doing the rounds there. It goes as follows, “From Kandahar to Kabul, the whispers grow and grow, stand by Pashtuns

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and Tajiks, here comes Mr Speaker Bercow.” We will see whether our Speaker is going to be the magic solution and whether he will be sent down there to spread lightness and parliamentary tolerance among the peoples of Afghanistan. I do not think that anybody can move an immediate amendment and call a Division on that subject


Perhaps one of his deputies would be more appropriate.

When I talk about “the west” I mean the broad family of democracies—north America, Europe, and our friends in Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea. As long as the west is mired in Afghanistan, we will not be able to promote our core interest now, which is to recover economic strength and to recover confidence in the need to have an adequate security profile against the rise of authoritarian powers, which are arming fast, which might, at some stage, threaten our interests and which, because we are lost in the wildernesses of west Asia, we are unable to see coming over the horizon.

In the few years after America withdrew from Vietnam things were unclear, but for the 20 years after 1980 America led the world in many ways. It did so economically, in inventing new forms of technology and in expanding many human freedoms to do with personal liberty and respect for multicultural and multi-ethnic cohabitation. Right now, America is bogged down in this wretched war. The UK is a minor ally of America and the sooner we are out of this war, the better. I sincerely say to those on the Treasury Bench that if they look at history, they will find that it has very often been the Conservative party that has had a greater sense of geopolitical reality than some of the opposing parties and has known when enough was enough. I would like us out before 2015.

Finally, the title of the report we are debating is “The UK’s foreign policy approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan”. It is very detailed on Afghanistan, and I congratulate the Committee on that, but it does not in any way address foreign policy towards Pakistan. Pakistan hardly gets a mention and is seen only in relation to Afghanistan. That might be the way in which the title of the report was chosen—I am not criticising the members of the Committee—but we need a policy on Pakistan and part of that must involve telling the truth to our great friends in India. As long as they have 500,000 people in an oppressive occupation of part of the region—I am choosing my words carefully—called Kashmir, there will be no possibility that the people or the Government and military of Pakistan, however constituted, will not see that as a direct threat to their identity and national interest. If 500,000 armed soldiers are camped on a country’s western border, that is where that country will have to put its troops.

Until we ask India to take a new approach to Kashmir and to take it off one of the world’s fault lines, we will not be in any position to ask Pakistan to take a new and more helpful approach on Afghanistan or on other issues. The western world, if I might use that term—the Euro-Atlantic world, let us say—has spent too long in majority Muslim countries creating giant armies. Whatever the motives for sending those armies originally, they are making matters worse. It is time to get out. I want to spare the Prime Minister, with his many problems, from ever again having to stand at that Dispatch Box to lament the loss of a British soldier’s life in a conflict of which we should no longer be part.

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Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are running out of time and I have eight Members wishing to speak. I want to get everybody in, so will Members be courteous to each other and try to limit the length of their speeches?

5.37 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): It would be foolish for anyone to suggest that NATO had not made foolish mistakes with regard to Afghanistan in recent years, or that the matter will come to a conclusion in the way that would have been hoped. It is equally unwise, however, for the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) to suggest that the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan will simply constitute a retreat, or for the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) to say that the whole presence in Afghanistan has been an unqualified failure.

Let me go back to the point that the House was reminded of by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron): we went into Afghanistan to ensure that the country could not be used again as a base by the Taliban. One only has to ask whether it was ever possible or realistic in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 for us not to have seen international action, given the Taliban’s refusal to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda as a continuing base for terrorist operations at that time. The decision made at that time, with the unqualified approval of the United Nations Security Council, was the right one, and we should never lose sight of that fact. Mistakes have been made since then, as my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out, but the question today is not whether it was all a mistake but how we can maintain what has already been achieved.

I agree with those on both sides of the House who have said that al-Qaeda is now effectively out of Afghanistan. It is no longer able to use that country as a base, so there is no long-term rationale for the presence of combat troops there. That does not mean, however, that the matter is now entirely resolved. The question now is: how do we leave in a way that will not enable al-Qaeda to return? At the moment, we do not know whether by the time we leave there will be a coalition Government including the Taliban, or peace in Afghanistan—in which case we can be relatively relaxed that there will be no future for al-Qaeda there. It is equally possible either that the Taliban will not agree to a coalition Government and that we will leave without their being part of a joint agreement, or that they will be part of a coalition but will have their own agenda, which will be one that will not give us comfort.

Although I welcomed what the Prime Minister said today and have no difficulties with it so far as it went, it seemed to me that it left open certain serious gaps. He said that as far as the Government are concerned, our future relationship with Afghanistan after the withdrawal of our ground forces will be based on our diplomatic, developmental and trade relationships. He said that the only military dimension would be the support we would give to the development of a military academy. All of that is very sensible and desirable, but we have to ask about something that is not just a British problem, but primarily a problem for the United States. How can we help to ensure that an Afghan Government who may not have full control of all the territory of Afghanistan

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when we have withdrawn will be able to prevent the use of parts of the country that they might be unable to control, even with their fullest efforts, as a base for terrorist operations?

I believe that the international community, including Russia and China, should be arguing for two things. First, we should be asking for the basis of the withdrawal of combat forces to lead also to an agreement with the Afghan Government, because this can happen only with their support and agreement, and preferably to a treaty sanctified by the United Nations, for the continuing facility of air support for the Afghan Government if that should prove necessary. If there are areas of Afghanistan that the Government do not control, and if there is evidence that those areas have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda, we should have the legal authority—in co-operation with the Afghan Government and through the use of special forces and other means—to eliminate that threat if and when it arises.

We must remember that when the Taliban Government were eliminated, that was done not by NATO ground forces but by air power combined with Afghan Northern Alliance ground forces. In exactly the same way, at the end of current operations when all of our combat troops are withdrawn, having Afghan ground forces, which will be very strong, with the back-up of potential air support and the potential deployment of special forces purely to deal with terrorist threats, will be the way to provide the long-term security that the right hon. Member for Rotherham seemed to doubt would be available.

In the light of your comments, Mr Deputy Speaker, I shall keep my comments very brief, but there is a second proposal that should also be part of the international response. We know that Russia and China are just as concerned about a premature withdrawal from Afghanistan as NATO or the west might be—for obvious reasons, given their own domestic and internal problems. What is needed for Afghanistan, as part of that country’s future, is an internationally recognised declaration of neutrality. Afghanistan should become a neutral state, rather in the way that Austria became a neutral state in 1955 as a way of ensuring the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from that country and the ability of that country to develop in peace. Austria is now in a situation very different from that of Afghanistan. Only by having regional support for an independent Afghanistan that cannot give sanctuary to terrorist forces will we have the level of confidence that we need to produce the desired result.

Mr MacShane: I am conscious that others want to speak, but may I gently put it to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, for whom I have immense respect when it comes to foreign affairs, that China and the Kremlin might not be totally unhappy to see America and the west bogged down as badly as we are in Afghanistan?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: For other reasons, the right hon. Gentleman might be right, but we are not going to get bogged down because there will be a withdrawal of NATO forces. The Russians have said publicly, through the Foreign Minister, that a premature NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a disaster, so they are obviously concerned about the power vacuum that could result.

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I believe that the real concern—this goes back to the struggles that there have been over Afghanistan for 150 to 200 years—is about Afghanistan’s future status. Of course the Russians and the Chinese will not wish to see Afghanistan as some American client state—why should they?—but there is no need for that to happen. It should not happen, and it must not be allowed to happen. Equally, Afghanistan will not be strong enough to defend itself without maximum international regional support from its neighbours—not just Russia and China, but India, Pakistan and Iran, all of which have an interest in the situation, and all of which could live with a truly neutral Afghanistan that was not the client state of any of the big powers.

We must not see the withdrawal of combat forces as the end of international military involvement. I hope that it will be, but there has to be a fall-back position if a terrorist threat re-emerges. The real solution is a combination of a treaty arrangement with the Afghan Government combined with an international status for Afghanistan, which the Afghan Government would welcome; they have already said that they would be interested in and attracted by such a proposal. That would give the kind of political and military security that ought to give confidence.

Mr Baron: Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the best way of achieving progress in talks with the Taliban is to make those talks unconditional?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I do not have any privileged information, but I am pretty certain that they already are. Whatever the formal public position, there is no doubt that talks are going on and that Americans have been involved in discussions with the Taliban. I bet that they were not simply discussing what the agenda would be or what preconditions would apply. It is a slow steady process, and I am sure that it has begun. It should have begun some time ago, and I hope that it leads to progress, but we cannot assume that it will do so. Even with the best will on our part, there is no certainty that the Taliban will wish to co-operate. They may think that they can win without such an agreement, so we have to have a structure in place, both internationally and among western countries, that takes into account all the possibilities, including the Taliban not being willing to co-operate.

5.45 pm

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to make a contribution. I had not planned to speak, but having listened to speeches from Government and Opposition Members, I felt compelled to bring some sanity to our discussions.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and I have decided not to read the report by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs because, as the House will know, we are producing our own report on Afghanistan and I thought that it might prejudice our inquiry—although I accept that there is probably a debate to be had about why two august Select Committees are doing reports on the same subject almost at the same time.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane), who has left the Chamber, discussed, in a speech that did not just span 40 years but which seemed to go on for 40 years, the art of stopping the

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war. Perhaps I am being naive, but the way to do that is by winning the war, not by pulling out because we do not particularly like how it is going in the short term. I am slightly confused because I found myself agreeing more than would normally be the case with the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who offered a great deal of common sense on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Defence Committee had the opportunity to visit the United States a couple of months ago, and we spent a week or so at various locations, including US Central Command, the Pentagon and Norfolk. We were privileged to visit the Walter Reed hospital, where we met a number of what the Americans call wounded warriors—their very brave men and women who have suffered life-changing injuries. The Committee was overwhelmed not just by the courage and sacrifice of those very young men and women but by the fact that many of them were determined, despite the horrific injuries that they had suffered, to go back to Afghanistan, both to be with their comrades in arms and because they genuinely believed, despite what they had been through, that it was a fight worth having. If they did not see it through, the sacrifices that they and their friends had made would have been for naught. I was humbled by our meeting with those brave men and women.

On our visit we also met General Mattis and General Allen, with whom the Foreign Affairs Committee and others in the House will be familiar. It is fair to say that we were pleased when President Obama announced that General Allen would succeed General Petraeus as commander in Afghanistan. If there is a lesson from the past 10 years, it is that continuity of command is crucial. There is no point in changing senior personnel and strategy every two or three years, whether in the military or in political leadership, and I hope that the Prime Minister will think carefully before he makes any moves in the next three years while the job moves towards completion.

I am uncomfortable with the Prime Minister’s statement this afternoon about withdrawal. There is an inconsistency in his logic. On the one hand he talked about conditions and progress, but he gave an arbitrary unilateral date of 31 December 2014, which sets a calendar against which the Taliban can measure progress. We should withdraw because the conditions allow us to do so, and because we have completed the missions on which we set out.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I share the hon. Gentleman’s general concern about an arbitrary time line, but if the US has set an arbitrary time line, given how dependent we are on the Americans’ scale of operation there, surely we have little choice but to match their arbitrary time line.

Thomas Docherty: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s point, and I shall respond briefly to it. It is not often that I say this, but the US has been more nuanced than we have. It is not something that the Americans do particularly well, and I am not sure that many of them can spell the word, but they have said that although that is their goal and they are beginning to pull out their surge troops, they are not absolutely committed to their end date.

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There is a simple hypothetical question that the House may wish to consider: what if, as we get to the end of 2014, President Karzai says to President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron, who I expect will still be Prime Minister at that point, “We’re almost there but we need another six weeks, or another two months”? My understanding is that President Obama has made it clear that there would be an element of flexibility. Our Government have said that there is absolutely no flexibility. I think we need a plan B, and we need to have an element of flexibility built in, so that if it is a matter of extra weeks, or even a couple of months, a small number of combat troops may stay.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I share some concerns about the current strategy. Given that the support for the Taliban is, to some extent, a reaction to the presence of occupying forces, what would the hon. Gentleman define as completion?

Thomas Docherty: As I said earlier, completion of the mission is training up the Afghan national security forces to the level of troops and police that can take forward their own security. It is not about defeating the Taliban. It is about leaving Afghanistan in a stable condition.

5.51 pm

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): There have been some fascinating contributions to the debate, not least the eloquent and expert contribution by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

I start by doing what many others have done in the Chamber many times, but is still worth doing—paying tribute to our armed forces and, in particular, to those who have lost their lives. I would like to make special mention of Colour Serjeant Kevin Fortuna, who went to school in my constituency and who lost his life not that long ago in Afghanistan. I do not think that he died in vain. The presence of Colour Serjeant Fortuna and many others helps to achieve the central aim of our presence in Afghanistan, which is to protect the security of this country, but has also increased the chances of Afghanistan being a more stable and peaceful country at some stage in the future. If it is not a perfect democracy, that was never one of the core aims of our intervention.

That is why I am slightly puzzled by some elements of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report. It makes a couple of highly controversial claims. It states that the core justification of the UK presence, which was the threat posed to national security by al-Qaeda in particular, was removed some time ago, but somewhat contradictorily, it suggests that the security situation is still precarious. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington made exactly the right answer to that, which was that even if that was true, and even if al-Qaeda has been massively damaged in its capacity to regain control of Afghanistan, we still have to find a way of extricating ourselves from the position we are in now in a way that maximises the Afghan Government and society’s chances of stability and peace. We cannot simply walk out.

The report also suggests that there were wider secondary aims that have now proved unachievable, one of which was the defeat of the Taliban. Again, I am not sure that that was ever one of the core aims. The idea was to increase the capacity of the Afghan national security

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forces to contain and manage the security situation themselves. That is still an important aim as we proceed through withdrawal.

Rather paradoxically, the report goes on to query the 2015 deadline for withdrawal, but accepts that it has concentrated minds. That is an important function of deadlines, but in some ways the debate has moved on, especially after the Prime Minister’s announcement earlier today of further troop reductions. Quite a few hon. Members have pointed out the hard-headed realism that is needed, and the fact that we are not in a leadership position in Afghanistan—a role that effectively falls to the Americans, as we have only one 10th the number of forces that they have there. That leadership will inevitably pass at some stage to the Afghan Government and the people themselves. Therefore, the troop reductions that the Prime Minister announced today are not only right but inevitable.

Political reconciliation ought to be part of the process that we encourage as the withdrawal takes place, which is something that liberals and democrats might find difficult to accept. Would we have wanted political reconciliation with our enemies in previous wars? Has political reconciliation worked everywhere else it has been tried—in Zimbabwe, for example? If we support democracy, should we not defend it at all costs and recognise that there are non-Pashtun political leaders in Afghanistan who really do not want reconciliation with the Taliban at this stage?

I think that there is a role for political reconciliation if some of the points made in the report and elsewhere are acknowledged, including the importance of recognising the regional context and finding a solution that takes into account not only Pakistan and Iran, but India and Russia, and approaches the region on a wider scale. It should also encourage a political solution that recognises the complexity and diversity of Afghan society, its highly tribal structure and perhaps the need for less control from Kabul and a more decentralised approach. In that situation, such an approach to political reconciliation might be, as the hon. Member for Croydon South (Richard Ottaway) described it, distasteful but worthwhile. It might not be successful, but in a regional context and with an attention to complexity and diversity, it might become more likely.

The UK’s role must be to support development, and preferably not just in militarily volatile areas, to support the institutions of government and society—such support ought to be, if anything, increasing—and to do whatever we can to embed universal human rights in Afghan politics and society, especially the rights of women, while accepting that ultimately that will not be our job, and that those responsibilities will have to pass to the Afghans themselves.

We have to encourage the same thing in the border areas of Pakistan. I commend to the Minister an extraordinary report that recently landed on my desk, produced by an organisation called the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme, which I am happy to say is funded by the British high commission. That extremely revealing report explores in great detail opinions in the federally administered frontier tribal areas of Pakistan. It shows that there is, unfortunately, a high degree of hostility to British and American policy, but far from universal support for extremist or Salafist militancy. Of the respondents, 42% identified

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terrorist attacks as the main threat to life, 57% said suicide bombing was never justified, and there was support for military operations by the Pakistani army. The BBC World Service was rated highly as a source of information, and the same kind of attention was given to issues such as education and schools as we would expect to find among people all over the world.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Martin Horwood: I cannot, because of the time and because I am drawing my remarks to a close.

We must have a realistic approach, but in some senses a more optimistic one, that accepts that the whole debate on Afghanistan is moving into a different phase, but in which we are still determined to support the stability and peace of Afghan society.

5.58 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): We are leaving, and that is a very difficult and painful fact. We are not leaving entirely, but we are leaving combat operations, as the Prime Minister has made clear. It is the correct decision, but it has troubling implications, because the underlying logic is that we will cease combat operations by the end of 2014 even if human rights are not established, even if al-Qaeda is not defeated and even if the Taliban are not defeated. Why is this difficult? It is difficult because the military, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom, fundamentally do not agree.

I have calculated that I have been in and out of Afghanistan 57 times since 2001, and consistently every general has said, “It’s been a tough situation but we have a new strategic plan requiring new resources, and this year will be the decisive year.” It was said in 2003 by General McNeill; General Barno said in 2004 said that that would be the decisive year; General Abizaid also said 2004 would be the decisive year; 2005 was described by General Richards, now Chief of the Defence Staff, as the crunch year for the Taliban; 2006 was described by General McNeill, returning, as the decisive year; 2007 was described by General McKiernan as the decisive year; at the end of 2008, General Stanley McChrystal said that they were knee-deep into the decisive year, and this was echoed by General Petraeus in 2009; our former Foreign Secretary described 2010 as the decisive year; and 2011 was described by Guido Westerwelle, the German Foreign Minister, as the decisive year.

Why is it difficult to challenge the military orthodoxy? It is difficult for real and moving reasons. It is difficult because we have lost a lot of people—we have lost a lot of lives and spent a lot of money; it is difficult because we have made promises to the Afghan people; and it is difficult because we have developed great fears about Afghanistan, fears about our own national security, fears about Pakistan and fears about our credibility and reputation in the world.

Therefore, when a politician meets a general with a row of medals on his chest, coming in and saying, “Just give me another two years”—exactly what General Petraeus is saying at the moment—“don’t drop the troop levels, and we can guarantee that we will reach a situation where the Taliban will never be able to come back,” it is very difficult to disagree.

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Withdrawing is the most difficult thing. In Vietnam, and in Afghanistan for the Soviet Union, more troops were lost after the decision to withdraw than in the entire period leading up to the decision. By 1968, the United States had come out of an election determined to withdraw from Vietnam, and Henry Kissinger was obsessed, as we are now, with a political settlement with the enemy. He begged the North Vietnamese to give him the political terms that would allow him to withdraw with honour.

After Gorbachev made the decision to leave Afghanistan in 1986, more Soviet troops were committed to a surge and more Soviet troops were killed, because of the real problems of fear, credibility and loss. So the Prime Minister is absolutely right to set a firm date for withdrawal.

Let us hope that by the end of 2014 we have achieved the things that we are looking for. Let us hope—I, too, join in this hope—that the Taliban have been defeated, that al-Qaeda can never again come back, that human rights have been established, that the Afghan Government are credible, effective and legitimate, that the Afghan national army and police are able to look after themselves, and that there is no risk from Pakistan.

Let us hope. I fear that those things may not be achievable, but we need to have the courage to go ahead regardless at the end of 2014. We need to have the courage to say that we must leave at the end of 2014 regardless because—this is the very difficult thing to say—we no longer believe that we are likely to achieve those objectives. If we have not achieved those objectives by the end of 2014 and the general comes back, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) suggests, and says, “Just give me another two weeks,” or, “Just give me another two months, it’s all going to be fine,” in the end we have to say no.

Why do we not say no? We do not say no because it is horrible—because if I were to stand up in this House, for example, and say, “Afghanistan matters, but there are other countries that matter more,” that, “If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important,” and that, “If we are worried about regional stability, Egypt is more important,” there would immediately be a headline, perhaps in The Sun, declaring “MP says Afghanistan doesn’t matter.” A flag-draped coffin would be produced, and the mother of a veteran would step forward and say, “The suggestion is that they died in vain.”

I met the same situation last week, talking to Afghanistan veterans. A man sitting in the front row was missing both his legs, and somebody in the audience said, “Are you suggesting that we have made no progress? Have you not acknowledged what we have done in Helmand? Have you not seen that the bazaar is now open? Are you suggesting that people died in vain?” We have to learn to say that no single soldier dies in vain, regardless. The courage, commitment and honour of our soldiers is connected to their unit and their regiment, not to the fantasies of politicians. We must pay them every form of honour and respect, but we do not honour dead soldiers by piling more corpses on top of them.

To conclude, it is difficult for Britain to lead a withdrawal from Afghanistan. We need to make it something that acknowledges that Britain’s pride and reputation has never been connected with extreme ideological projects.

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We are not a nation of crusades or great ideological wars, but a nation characterised by scepticism, pragmatism and deep country knowledge. If we get the withdrawal right, it will not go down in history as a symbol of ignorance or cowardice, but will represent our wisdom and our courage in sticking to the decision. There should be a realisation that our motto should be and must remain, “Passionate moderation”.

6.6 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) has been to Afghanistan on 57 occasions, as he told us. That is 56 occasions more than me. Nevertheless, I have a few ideas about campaigning there. When faced with a deadly insurgency, one has three options: to counter it, contain it or quit. We have been trying to counter it and now we are going to quit. It seemed to be the nub of my hon. Friend’s eloquent contribution that those are the only two alternatives.

I believe that NATO’s Afghan strategy has a fatal flaw: the knowledge that however effective our efforts may be, we plan to quit. That signals to the Taliban that they will ultimately win and removes their incentive to negotiate the political deal that we all agree is what must end an insurgency. President Obama and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have set a time limit for the current surge. British troops, as we have heard many times today, will no longer fight after 2014. By then, the Afghans should be self-sufficient. That is the theory, but as we all know, the key question is, “What if they are not?”

Is there a third way to be found between full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, which is what the generals have been doing all along, and total withdrawal when the deadlines are reached? In other words, instead of countering or quitting, should we be containing? Some say, and I have heard it said this afternoon, that the long-term use of special forces will be enough by itself to underpin a post-surge Afghan Government. That seems to me inherently improbable. As I have argued before, and as I continue to argue—completely unavailingly in the United Kingdom, but perhaps with a degree more resonance on the other side of the Atlantic—what is required when the surge concludes is a strategic base and bridgehead area, or SBBA, to secure our strategic needs permanently.

There are only two sound reasons for NATO’s military presence in Afghanistan: to prevent the country from being used again as a base, training ground or launch-pad for terrorist attacks, which has been mentioned many times today, and to assist next-door Pakistan in preventing any possibility of its nuclear weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or its imitators, which I do not believe has been mentioned today. The following three objectives, though desirable, are not adequate reasons for our presence in Afghanistan: the creation of a tolerant and democratic society, the prevention of drug production, and the advancement of the human rights of women. Full-scale counter-insurgency campaigning, often referred to as war down among the people, involves micro-management of the threatened society. As such, it enables the pursuit of worthy goals such as those. By contrast, a strategic base and bridgehead area cannot secure such goals, but it can achieve both of our genuine strategic interests. During the period of grace provided

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by the surge deployment, an existing base area should be selected, or a new one constructed, in a remote area out of sight and largely out of mind of the Afghan population.

It is often said—in fact, I have lost count of the number of times it has been said—that there can be no purely military solution in Afghanistan, and that eventually a political deal must be done. Yet there is no basis for such a deal under our existing strategy. The deadlines for scaling down and ending our military presence will certainly put pressure on the Afghan Government to compromise with reconcilable elements of the Taliban, but they will have the opposite effect on the insurgents. The creation of an impregnable, long-term SBBA would enable pressure to be applied equally on both sides, and would confer many benefits, which I will summarise very briefly.

First, any return of international terrorists could be punished without having to re-invade the country. Secondly, any assistance needed by the Pakistan Government to secure its nuclear arsenal could be provided via the long-term strategic base. Thirdly, NATO would be almost completely disengaged from Afghan society, thus removing the constant irritant of a uniformed infidel presence in the towns and countryside.

Fourthly, the ending of micro-management would do away with the need to send service personnel out on vulnerable patrols, along predictable routes, which can easily be targeted. Fifthly, the balance of political and military forces in Afghanistan would be allowed to find its own level. If the worst happened and the Taliban took over, we would still have the strategic base and bridgehead area as a safeguard. Sixthly, the prospect of an SBBA would make it more likely that the Taliban would reach a deal with the Government. If the eventual outcome were nevertheless a more radical regime than NATO would like, that would be a matter for the Afghans alone as long as they offered no support to international terrorists. Finally, an SBBA could be garrisoned by as many or as few service personnel as the political and military situation dictated. Too remote to attack, it would be a deterrent to extremism and a bridgehead for easy entry and operations if, regrettably, they become necessary under a policy of containment.

It suits al-Qaeda to embroil us in Muslim states, as it did most calculatedly in Afghanistan in September 2001. That was why, 48 hours before the attacks in America, General Massoud was assassinated by al-Qaeda. It wanted us to, and knew perfectly well that we would, respond by invading Afghanistan. That was why it removed him.

Costly counter-insurgency cannot be our answer every time our enemies establish a presence in a different country; but there is an alternative to the extremes of micro-management, which is what we have been doing, and total withdrawal, which is what we say we are going to do next. That alternative is containment, and the means of doing it is a strategic base and bridgehead area.

6.13 pm

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). I agree completely with my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) in recognising that we need a definite date for withdrawal.

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I wish to pay tribute to Rifleman Martin Lamb, who recently died. He was a constituent of mine who was serving his country bravely and correctly, and we remember him appropriately.

The next person whom I wish to mention is my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), because I agree that it is very important for us to consider the international approach. It is what we do next that matters, and we need to prepare the ground now. I want to talk briefly about the Helsinki accords, the process that they led to and the process of getting to them, and see where the parallels might be with the situation in the region that we are discussing today.

Very bravely, Gerald Ford signed those accords as President of the United States when neither he nor the idea of détente were at their most popular in the US. Nevertheless, off he went to complete the process, which involved 35 states. Many had views that were not consistent with one another, and many had a huge number of reasons to disagree with their neighbours.

Three baskets of themes were captured in those accords, the first of which was security. The idea was to give other member states the confidence that their military position and security issues would be treated fairly and justly. That would be achieved largely by states notifying one another what would happen.

The second basket was politics and the production of good governance—we should remember the governance of some of those states at that time, and certainly, for example, Romania. Good governance was an important part of the Helsinki accords, but it is also an element that we need to deliver in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The third basket was culture and human rights. Oddly enough, the third basket turned out to be the most influential. Many commentators will now say that the Helsinki accords suggested to repressed people in those 35 states—obviously, I am talking in the main about eastern Europe—that we would give them the comfort and space to develop their interest in having human rights.

If we extend those three baskets, and in particular the third one, to Afghanistan, Pakistan and—critically—their other neighbours, we could engage them in a way that gives shape to their security and traction to better governance, and that starts to equip their people with the idea that they have space to develop their human rights. That model—it cannot be exactly the same as that of 30 or 40 years ago—could be a framework for international co-operation and for involving the various states that we need to involve. That is the kind of thing that would be of interest as we move towards a new phase of politics.

Martin Horwood: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Neil Carmichael: I would prefer not to, but if the hon. Gentleman is quick, I will.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it may apply in unexpected areas. One of the points made by the Community Appraisal and Motivation Programme report, which I cited earlier, is that the frontier areas of Pakistan have never been fully integrated into Pakistani democratic politics. In

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effect, they still have the post-British colonial style of military administration. That has isolated people in those areas from mainstream politics, and indeed from the enjoyment of full human rights of the kind that he is describing.

Neil Carmichael: That is exactly right. Another interesting thing about the Helsinki accords is that, oddly enough, they recognised frontiers that had not been properly recognised before. The accords also enabled those frontiers to be changed through peaceful means. Funnily enough, that mechanism was used by the two German states that were unified in 1990. That is a parallel of what the hon. Gentleman says, although the situation is not precisely the same.

We should go down that route and look at the processes that were involved in the accords. We should ask who would participate and how far the region would extend. My belief is that it should be pretty big, and that we should think in terms of 20 or more states in the area. The UK, the US, and Russia and China ought to be involved in the process too.

That is a big project and it will not happen overnight—it will not happen very quickly at all. Most people would recognise that the Helsinki accords took an awful long time to produce anything, but produce something they did. The process worked. It enabled nation states to start understanding one another, to build better governance, and above all, to respect and promote human rights. That is the basis on which we should start, and it would be interesting to see how such a process unfolds if we develop that policy.

6.19 pm

Stephen Gilbert (St Austell and Newquay) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) because, in putting human rights at the heart of the long-term stability of Afghanistan, he touched on an issue that I raised with the Prime Minister earlier today about the preconditions that we might put not on talks—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) that talks should be open and without conditions—but on power sharing.

The Afghanistan operation was legitimatised by the United Nations and was in this country’s national interest. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), I pay tribute to the 375 members of our armed forces who have lost their lives in that part of the world. This country has spent billions of pounds on the operation and committed itself to the mission in that region for more than a decade. That gives value to the nation’s overall commitment to delivering both our security and a better future.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report makes it clear that UK operations and those of the international community have led to some tactical successes on the ground, but the situation overall remains precarious. The military surge has no doubt played a key part in that, but it is not sufficient. The Prime Minister was right when he said today that we now need a political surge. That political surge should be Afghan-led, however. It is right that initial conversations are being had with the Taliban. However, when we look to a future of

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power sharing, rather than just negotiation, it is right that we ask ourselves: what are our red lines on women’s rights? What are our red lines on minority rights within Afghanistan? Are we going to ensure that any Afghan Government that includes the Taliban maintains freedom of worship and continues to develop democracy within its borders?

The repudiation of violence is, of course, the first step to legitimising the Taliban, but it is not the only step that they need to take and it should not be the only line that the UK Government should push in discussions. We owe it to those 375 members of our armed forces to ensure that we deliver in Afghanistan the kind of environment that we ourselves would want to live in.

Paul Flynn: The hon. Gentleman has described in these red lines an Afghanistan that never existed in the past 2,000 years. Is there not a great danger that our beliefs and our aim of securing these rights are so unobtainable that they will delay the peace process?

Stephen Gilbert: The Afghan constitution enshrines those rights. I am not seeking anything more or less than what is already in that constitution. I simply want to ensure that we do not move backwards by involving in the government of Afghanistan parties that might seek to go back rather than forwards.

Martin Horwood: My hon. Friend is making many important points. In response to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), is it not the case that if the Arab spring, the Arab awakening, has taught us anything, it is that these universal human rights and aspirations are present in every population? It is slightly patronising to regard them as inappropriate for some countries, even in places where we know that a perfect liberal democracy is not going to emerge in the short term.

Stephen Gilbert: As always, my hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. I have spoken in the House several times about the hope that the Arab spring is delivering to generations of people who have been excluded from the rights that we take for granted.

As the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr MacShane) disappeared into Vietnam, you might forgive me for mentioning Iraq briefly, Madam Deputy Speaker. We failed in Iraq; we made fundamental mistakes: de-Ba’athification, disarmament of the local militia and army, and demobilisation of a civic society. They were the wrong choices to take, and it took Iraqi society years to recover from them. To get Afghanistan right we need to learn those lessons. We need to ensure that we do not undermine Afghanistan’s society as it stands.

Rory Stewart: I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman might like to reflect on whether US expenditure of $125 billion a year and the presence of nearly 150,000 foreign troops are not likely to undermine local capacity and Afghan society in exactly the ways that he is warning against.

Stephen Gilbert: My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point, which is why I was encouraged by what our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said earlier today. For every member of our forces leaving, there

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will be two local people taking those responsibilities forward. If I may touch briefly on recommendation 35 in the report—

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Gilbert: No, I will not.

Mr Sheerman: This is a very important point.

Stephen Gilbert: No, I am afraid I will not.

Mr Sheerman: I am sorry, but—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman has said several times that he will not give way.

Stephen Gilbert: I note that the hon. Gentleman has not been in the Chamber for the debate—

Mr Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman was very disagreeable—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is up to the Member who is speaking whether he wishes to give way to another Member, and the hon. Gentleman has said that he is not going to give way because of the time pressures.

Stephen Gilbert: Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. In the final minutes I want to look at some of the lessons that the report suggests we can learn for our actions and activities in Libya. The report says that we need a co-ordinated approach to post-conflict stabilisation, which is something that we have perhaps not succeeded in adopting in all the instances where our forces have been deployed in the past, particularly Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are truly to deliver a legacy in Libya that is worth the risks that our brave men and women are taking in that country, recommendation 35, which deals with the need for co-ordinated action, is crucial. We cannot have Departments squabbling over who is leading on post-conflict Libya or from which budgets post-conflict Libya will be helped. Departments need to work together and with their international colleagues. That is one of the key lessons that we can take from this debate.

Overall, the report—along with our international commitment—makes it clear that we as a nation cannot choose the history we live in to meet our budgets; rather, our budgets must be capable of meeting the history in which we find ourselves. We are a member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and I am concerned that our contribution to that organisation will fall over the course of this Parliament to below the international minimum standard of 1.9%. Never again must the forces that we deploy be short of the tools that they need to do their jobs.

Mr Sheerman: I just want to explain why I was trying to intervene. The hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement that we failed in Iraq. I was in the House at the time and voted for the Iraq war, and I do not believe that what we did to remove Saddam Hussein was a failure. The hon. Gentleman said that Iraq was a failure; I do not believe it was right for him to say that this afternoon.

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Stephen Gilbert: I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has managed to get his point on the record. As he knows, I was not in the House at the time. My position is that the Iraq conflict lacked international legitimacy and post-conflict reconstruction, and was a distraction from our important work in Afghanistan, which was in the national interest and did have legitimacy from the United Nations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be generous to me in future, as I allowed him to put his point on the record.

We as a country have an international obligation to spend 2% of GDP on our defence. Over this Parliament we will fall short of that. Never again must we allow our forces to cry out that they lack helicopters, body armour, boots or protective vests. Our role in this place is to be clear about the policy objectives, clear about the need to resource them properly and confident in our military’s capability to deliver those outcomes.

6.29 pm

Mr John Spellar (Warley) (Lab): We fully recognise how the extraordinary events of the past few days have impacted on the length of this debate and possibly on the attention that it will receive outside the House. It is probably true that