by Dick Barry
Ukraine: Perfidious Albion Sends “Military Advisors And Trainers”
On 25 February, Labour’s Kevan Jones asked Secretary of State Michael Fallon if he will make a statement on the deployment of UK personnel to train Ukrainian forces. The following is his statement with responses from some of the many Members who participated. They show, with the odd exception, the belligerence of Labour.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):
The Government’s position from the outset has been that we deplore Russian aggression in Ukraine. We do not believe that there is a military solution. There needs to be a diplomatic solution, which can be enabled through sanctions, pressure and the economic weight of Europe and America. Obviously, however, as the Prime Minister has said, where we can help a friend with non-lethal equipment, we should do so. The second Minsk agreement of 12 February provided a framework for stabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine. We want it to succeed and we urge all sides to take the necessary steps to implement it.
In light of continued Russian-backed aggression in eastern Europe, the UK is committed to providing additional non-lethal support to the Ukrainian Government to help their forces deal with the pressures they are facing. As the Prime minister confirmed in Parliament yesterday, we are providing additional non-lethal support by sending advisory and short-term training teams. This support, provided at the request of the Ukrainian Government, will help their armed forces develop and maintain the capacity and resilience they need, and help reduce fatalities and casualties. Support to the Ukrainian armed forces is not new; we have been providing it for some time. This includes support on anti-corruption, on defence reform and on strategic communications and procurement. Over the last year, we have also provided personal protective equipment, winter fuel, medical kits and winter clothing for the Ukrainian armed forces.
As part of the wider Government effort to support Ukraine and ensure a robust international response to Russia’s aggression, UK personnel will now provide to the Ukrainian armed forces medical, logistics, infantry, and intelligence capacity-building training from mid-March. Most of the advisory and training support will take place in Ukraine, but well away from the areas affected by the conflict in the east of the country. The number of service personnel involved will be around 75. In respect of medical support, we will provide combat life-support training through a “train the trainer package” to multiply the numbers trained. The logistics team will identify and help improve deficiencies within Ukraine’s logistics distribution system. The infantry training package will focus on protective measures to improve survivability, and the intelligence capacity building team will provide tactical-level analysis training.
We are considering further requests from the Ukrainian Government for support and assistance, and we will work closely with key allies through the Ukraine-US-UK-Canada joint commission. In the meantime, Russia must abide by its commitments in Minsk. That means the separatists withdraw their heavy weapons, stopping continued separatist attacks so that an effective ceasefire can hold, and allowing effective monitoring to take place.
Kevan Jones (Lab.):
Let me begin by apologising to the Secretary of State and the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Croaker). As the Secretary of State knows, my hon. Friend is currently making a scheduled visit to our armed forces who are involved in Operation TOSCA. Members on both sides of the House are rightly concerned about the serious and ongoing situation in eastern Ukraine, and about the question of an immediate ceasefire. Labour Members have made it clear that the international community must be ready to increase diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin should Russia fail to implement the ceasefire and change course. We support these non-lethal steps to improve the capacity of the Ukraine armed forces, but the public will want not only to know what strategic rationale lies behind the announcement, but to ask questions about the operation itself.
If this deployment is to succeed, it must form part of a broader NATO strategy. How does the Secretary of State’s announcement fit into the broader NATO strategy on Ukraine, and what discussions has he had with our NATO partners about the deployment? What is the overall strategic objective of the deployment, and how long has it been in the planning? How does it fit into the wider ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current crisis?
Let me now ask some specific questions about the operation itself. What force protection arrangements will there be for the UK service personnel who are involved in this operation, and how long does he expect the deployment to continue? What will be the legal status of the UK forces while they are in Ukraine? As I have said, we support these non-lethal steps to reinforce the Ukrainian forces’ logistical, medical and intelligence capabilities. We also pay tribute to, and recognise the professionalism of, those of our armed forces who will take part in this vital operation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Let me make it clear from the outset that Ukraine has the right to defend herself, and to defend her sovereign territory. The hon. Gentleman asked what was our strategic objective. It is to help Ukraine in that task: to help it to build up the capacity and resilience of the armed forces, and above all, when we can, to help to reduce the number of fatalities and causalities that are occurring. The hon. Gentleman asked about NATO. This is not a NATO deployment; it follows a decision by the United Kingdom Government. Obviously we consult our allies very closely—I hope to do that in Washington very shortly—and NATO has set up a couple of trust funds, to which we have contributed, as part of its partnership with Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is not a NATO operation. A number of our allies are considering providing non-lethal assistance, and the United States is already doing so.
As for how the deployment fits in with other efforts, it accompanies our continuing diplomatic efforts. I should emphasise that this country has been at the forefront of the efforts to impose sanctions on Russia. I should also emphasise that it is leading the efforts to ensure that those sanctions are renewed, and to make Moscow understand that unless its aggression ceases, it will face further sanctions and additional international isolation. The hon. Gentleman asked about force protection. The training will be carried out either around Kiev itself or in the west of the country, an area that we know well and where exercises and training takes place. Obviously, however, we will continue to assess what force protection is required for each specific mission. The hon. Gentleman asked about the status of our trainers. I want to make it very clear that we are providing this training capacity at the request of the Ukrainian Government. Each of these things has been asked for by Ukraine; we care answering Ukraine’s call.
Sir Edward Leigh (Con.):
The trouble with sending advisors is that, as the Americans found in Vietnam, and as many other nations have found since, mission creep eventually results in the sending of combat troops. Given that Ukraine is an area the size of France, where whole German armies of tens of thousands of men were enveloped and destroyed in the second world war, is there not a real danger of that? We must rule out sending ground troops, and we should concentrate our efforts on promoting peace, self-determination in the east within Ukraine’s borders, and solving what the Foreign Secretary described as a “sink of corruption” in Kiev. We should send advisors to help sort out corruption, not wage war.
We already provide advice and support on how to tackle corruption inside the Ukrainian Government. We have done so over the past few months and, indeed, I think even before then. As for mission creep, may I make it absolutely clear that we are not deploying combat troops to Ukraine, and we will not do so? We are providing non-lethal assistance that has been requested by the Ukrainian Government to enhance the capability of their armed forces and to attempt to reduce the number of fatalities and casualties that they have suffered.
John Woodcock (Lab/Co-op):
Of course everyone wants a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but are the Government not at risk of showing naivety in the face of a calculating thug in President Putin? Every time that the hon. Gentleman stands at the Despatch Box and rules out a military solution from the UK and its allies he makes such a military catastrophe more likely by emboldening Putin.
I do not accept that. W have to make it clear to Russia that it has to cease its aggression and its encouragement of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The best way to do that, as we are already doing, is through sanctions and political pressure on Russia. Equally, it would not be right to refuse the call that we have received from Kiev—from the Ukrainian Government—to help with some of the basic training, support, and equipment that they need.
Sir Gerald Howarth (Con.):
The whole House will recognise that there is a risk here, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it is in our interests to check President Putin’s aggression? Does he also agree that it is entirely consistent with our obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement, signed by Boris Yeltsin, John Major and Bill Clinton?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, who has experience of serving in the Ministry of Defence. He is right about the aggression that Putin has shown. We need to stand up to that, but there are a number of routes to that. They are political and diplomatic: we do not think there is a military solution to the conflict. However, where we have been asked to help, we should do so. We are a friend of Ukraine, and we should come to the help of a friend in need.
Angus Robertson (SNP):
Like the Defence Secretary, I abhor the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, and I support the EU sanctions approach. Has he had the opportunity to review the Ukrainian media? The Kyev Post writes: “The United Kingdom stunned officials across Europe with a unilateral announcement that it would send 75 troops to Ukraine…EU officials in Brussels first learned of the decision when contacted by the Kyev Post for comment, and were unable to provide one.” Why do our allies seem so badly informed, and why did the Government not come to the House and make a proactive statement to Parliament?
On the latter point, I announced in Defence questions on Monday that we were preparing such a package, and the Prime Minister gave details of the package to the Liaison Committee yesterday. One thing we cannot be accused of is not keeping Parliament informed: we are keeping Parliament informed. As for consultation with allies, of course we talk to them. I meet my fellow Defence Ministers in NATO all the time, and I shall meet another one later this afternoon I saw High Representative Federica Mogherini yesterday. This is a decision for the UK Government, this is not a NATO deployment. It is a decision by the UK Government to respond to a request from the Ukrainian Government.
Dr Liam Fox (Con.):
I welcome the Government’s initiative, particularly if it is alongside our allies in the United States. The Ukrainians need the ability to defend their homeland against a much more powerful aggressor and they require equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and targeting. They require anti-tank capability and encrypted communications. Is not the argument that we cannot give defensive equipment to a country under threat because it might provoke a further reaction from Russia simply a bully’s charter that is already discredited by history?
I agree with my predecessor but one as Secretary of State. We are supplying defensive equipment. It might not be lethal, but it does help the Ukrainian armed forces better defend themselves. As I said in my initial statement, in addition to the secondment of 75 trainers we are considering a further request from the Ukrainian Government for additional equipment and support. That is non-lethal, but we reserve the right ultimately to keep it under review.
Madeleine Moon (Lab.):
The Secretary of State said that the 75 trainers would “mostly” be in Ukraine. Where else will they be operating from? If any Ukrainians are coming to the UK for training, can we have an absolute assurance for the citizens of the UK that we will not face another incident such as those in Bassingbourn, where we were training Libyans and members of the Cambridge community were assaulted? Can we have an assurance about how many are coming to the UK and where else they will be trained?
It is slightly unfortunate that the hon. Lady has compared the general purpose force we were attempting to train—a very raw force of recruits from Libya—with the Ukrainian armed forces. She asked me a straightforward and quite reasonable question about where else the training might be. There will be, and has already been, some training in the UK, but there can also be training in countries alongside Ukraine. We are looking at where the training can best be provided, but it is likely that most of it will be provided in Ukraine, in the Kiev area or elsewhere in the west of Ukraine, areas that are very familiar to the British military as we have been on exercise there in the past.
James Gray (Con.):
It is of course very important that there should be non-lethal support and training, but in a parallel situation in north-east Iraq, where we are training the Peshmerga in Kurdistan, we have discovered that the Americans and other EU allies are training on the front line and they find that much more effective than the kind of training we have been providing about 100 miles behind the front line. Is there not an argument that, although that support is non-lethal, we might find a way to move the troops forward so that they can advise the Ukrainians where they are doing the fighting?
I do not think it is right for other countries to get involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. On the contrary, Russia should now be withdrawing its heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine and be putting pressure on the separatists to lay down their arms. On the location of the training, we are not putting combat troops anywhere near the front line. The training we have been providing to the Peshmerga in northern Iraq has, as my hon. Friend says, been well away from the front line. We have trained more than 1,000 Peshmerga as well as supplying them with machine guns and ammunition.
Derek Twigg (Lab.):
We know for a fact that the Russians are supplying lethal weapons to the rebels. NATO’s response has been pretty woeful, but may I ask a specific question about what the Secretary of State said? I am sure that he mentioned that he was considering what else can be done about further requests, so will he enlighten the House on what more might be being considered to be put in place in the future?
We have had a series of requests from the Ukrainian Government, including lists of equipments of all kinds. I do not want to give too many details, but we are looking at these shortfalls in their capacity and at what further training we might be able to provide in addition to the infantry training, logistics and medical and intelligence capacity-building training I described.
Sir Nick Harvey (LD):
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. These are proportionate and sensibly judged measures for us to take. We are good at this sort of thing and as we have been asked to help it is only right that we should do so. Let us not exaggerate the scale of what we are doing, however. The idea that 75 trainers will lead to creep into a mission in an area the size of France is clearly far fetched, but we should be willing to respond to anything more of a similar kind and we should do so on a pan-governmental basis to help the Ukrainian Government build up their capacity more widely.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend, another former Minister in the Ministry of Defence. He has got it exactly right. We should respond to requests. Ukraine is our friend, it is in need and we should respond to requests, whether they are for equipment or additional training. I want to assure the House that that is exactly what we will continue to do.
Dennis Skinner (Lab.):
Is the Secretary of State aware that mission creep knows no boundaries? That has happened so many times, as evidenced by the point made much earlier by one of his hon. Friends. In Vietnam, it started with only a little request. On Libya, not so long ago in this House I asked about mission creep and did not get a satisfactory answer. I never could and now I know the result: ISIL roaming over large areas of Libya. That is what mission creep did. As sure as night follows day, Ukraine will now realise that the United Kingdom is a participant in a battle and will ask for more. What is he going to do then?
It is rather odd to describe the operations in Libya as mission creep. This was a mission to get rid of Gaddafi and to help the Libyan people get rid of a brutal dictator; a dictator I believe the former Labour Government cosied up to—
No, Mrs Thatcher did to get more oil during the pit strike—
It was a mission to help the Libyan people get rid of a dictator and give them the chance of choosing a better future. Obviously, we would want to see the situation in Libya improve. This is a closely defined training mission. We think it is right to respond to the call for help. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should shun such a call, I cannot agree with him.
Comment. Throughout his statement Michael Fallon insisted that the UK’s “non-lethal support” to Ukraine is a response to a direct request from the Ukrainian Government. We have only his word for this, of course, but as he also said that the UK is right to help a friend (since 1992) it is pertinent to ask, as some Members did, how far is the UK prepared to go? Fallon also said that other countries were considering support, but the only one to provide it, before the UK, was the United States. And where the US goes, the UK follows. His response to James Gray’s suggestion that the training of Ukrainian troops should be at the front line was puzzling, to say the least. “I do not think it is right for other countries to get involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine”, he said. Sending military personnel trainers to Ukraine and supplying equipment, albeit “non-lethal,” is getting involved. For Fallon to believe otherwise is mind boggling.
His sneering accusation that the last Labour Government cosied up to Gaddafi is true if he believes that as Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke solely for the Labour party. We don’t know how Blair’s cabinet colleagues felt about his embracement of Gaddafi, but Dennis Skinner was spot on to remind Fallon that Thatcher had no qualms about accepting Libyan oil. And Cameron is not averse to supping with some disreputable political leaders. For example, his Government continues to sell arms to oppressive regimes in the middle east and elsewhere. One can hear the sound of glass houses and stones here. But Fallon need have no worries about lack of support for his attitude to Putin and Russia. Reading the comments of some Labour Members, one can almost smell the whiff of gunpowder.
A further statement by the Secretary of State for Defence on 6 March set out in some detail the support package referred to in the 25 February statement.
Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Fallon):
I have today laid before Parliament a Ministry of Defence Departmental Minute describing a gifting package which the UK intends to make to the Government of Ukraine.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilising activities in eastern Ukraine, including direct military support to the separatists, have demonstrated its disregard for international law. The latest ceasefire agreement, reached in Minsk on 12 February and which came into force on 15 February, has seen a reduction in violence in the conflict zone. We very much hope it will help end the conflict. However, fighting has not ceased in some areas and there continues to be fatalities and casualties among the Ukrainian armed forces.
This Government are committed to supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity. As a result of their prolonged engagement in this conflict, the Ukrainians face a shortage of basic equipment, and have requested help. Our proposed gift of non-lethal equipment is designed to prevent further Ukrainian fatalities and causalities and to help improve situational awareness on the ground.
The Departmental Minute, which I have today laid before Parliament, describes a gifting package to the Ukrainian armed forces that will comprise five priority items that are needed which will provide immediate benefits. These items are individual first aid kits, global positioning systems (GPS) units, helmet-mounted monocular night vision goggles (MNVGs), ruggedised laptops, and Mk6 helmets. Subject to completion of the Departmental Minute process, delivery is expected to be undertaken over the coming weeks. The total cost of this proposed package of equipment is approximately £850,000, including transportation and contingency costs. This gifting package is being provided alongside other training activities, which are being delivered by UK military personnel to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Comment. Fallon insists that his primary objective is to prevent further fatalities and casualties arising from the conflict. However, it appears that his only concern is for fatalities and casualties on the Ukrainian side. His package may help to achieve a reduction there, but it could increase those on the separatists side. Given UK support to the Ukrainian armed forces his condemnation of Russian support to the separatists is rank hypocrisy. And his wish for a halt to the conflict is pure moonshine. UK military support will simply prolong it.
Eurostar Sale: Another Derailment
The Coalition is having a final frenzy of selling state assets before the election on 7 May. The latest sale, announced on 4 March by Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, (forecast to lose his seat to the SNP), is of the Government’s interest in Eurostar.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Danny Alexander):
I am pleased to inform the House that the Government have agreed the sale of their entire interest in Eurostar International Ltd (“Eurostar”) for £757.1 million.
The autumn statement 2013 and “National Infrastructure Plan 2013” set out the Government’s ambition to achieve £20 billion from corporate and financial asset sales by 2020. Eurostar was identified as a possible candidate for sale and following a competitive auction process which started in October 2014, the Government have now reached final agreements.
A consortium comprising Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec (CDPQ) and Hermes Infrastructure has agreed to acquire Government’s 40% stake in Eurostar for £585.1 million. In addition, Eurostar has, on closing of the sale of the Government’s stake, agreed to redeem HMG’s preference share, providing a further £172 million for the Exchequer.
Eurostar is the high-speed train service linking London, Ebbsfleet and Ashford with Paris, Brussels, Lille and other French destinations. Established in 1994 as a partnership between three railway companies: SNCF, SNCB and British Rail—subsequently London and Continental Railways (LCR)—Eurostar became a single, unified corporate entity owned by three shareholders: SNCF, SNCB and LCR in September 2010. In June 2014 the ownership of the UK holding transferred from LCR, a Department for Transport owned company, to HM Treasury.
The sale receipts will be paid on completion of the contract, which is expected to happen in the second quarter of 2015. SNCF and SNCB—the other shareholders in Eurostar—have the option (the “Pre-emption Right”) to acquire HMG’s stake for a 15% premium to the agreed price of £585.1 million. Closing of the sale to the CDPQ and Hermes Infrastructure consortium is conditional on SNCF and SNCB not exercising the Pre-emption Right. The transaction is also conditional on certain regulatory approvals including EU merger clearance.
Comment. The sale of state assets under the Coalition is continuing apace. Osborne is keen to sell around £20 billion of such by 2020, should he still be in post. The sale of the Government’s interest in Eurostar is the latest example of this folly. Writing in The Observer on 8 March, Will Hutton had the following to say:
“The British have given up on owning things. For a generation there has been an extraordinary selling-off of public and private assets to all comers. It is not just the privatisation of former public assets, with the government last week congratulating itself on the sale of its stake in Eurostar for £750m—the latest mindless cashing in of a key public asset.”
“This is matched by the private sale of companies—cumulatively £440 billion sold abroad over the last ten years alone. The average Briton will now work, drink, travel, eat, drive, and use energy from assets and services supplied by foreign owners more than ever before—and in a growing and escalating deficit. Globalisation obviously means increased inflows and outflows of capital. But overseas investors are buying a great many more British companies than we are buying abroad—a ratio of more than two to one. It is not just that the control of our economic destiny moves abroad with nobody turning a hair; the associated flows of income abroad are beginning to be alarming.”
CDPQ is a privately owned investment company which manages public pension plans in the Canadian province of Quebec. It was founded in 1965 by an act of the National Assembly. It is the second largest pension fund in Canada with, in 2014, total assets of around 226 billion Canadian dollars. Hermes International, a UK based company, are institutional investors for pension funds, charities, sovereign wealth and other institutional investors.
CDPQ and Heremes International will own 30% and 10% respectively of Eurostar. SNCF (Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Francais) will own 55% and SNCB (Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer Belges) 5%.
Defence Spending: More Please!
On 12 March, MPs debated a report from the Defence Committee: Third Report from the Defence Committee, Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part Two—NATO, HC 358, and the Government’s response, HC 755. The debate was introduced by Conservative Backbencher John Baron. The bulk of his speech with interjections is reproduced below.
John Baron (Con.):
I beg to move, That this House believes that defence spending should be set to a minimum of two per cent of GDP in accordance with the UK’s NATO commitment.
We live in times of heightened international tensions. We would do well to remember that the adage about defence being the first duty of Government has been forged by events, and we ignore the lessons of history at our peril. The world remains a dangerous and unstable place, and a growing number of countries that are not necessarily friendly to the west are not only rearming at an alarming rate, but becoming more assertive. We need to spend more on defence not only to better protect our interests and support key alliances, but to deter potential aggressors and ensure that we try to avoid conflict in future.
The motion calls on the Government to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence, in line with our NATO commitment. Defence spending as a share of GDP has been falling in recent years, and it is widely believed that Britain will shortly fall below the 2% figure. We all know that 2% is an arbitrary figure; spending should reflect desired capability. I believe that defence spending should be much more than 2%—I suggest 3% to 4%. But the 2% figure does have symbolic value. Having lectured other NATO members about its importance, we should lead by example.
In short we need to rediscover the political will for strong defence, and that political will transcends the political divide here. Some demons may need to be vanquished first, most notably our recent misguided military interventions, which have probably distracted us from greater dangers, but banished those demons must be. That we have the political will to ring-fence the international aid budget at 0.7% of GDP suggests that such will can be found; it is simply a question of priorities.
We have in this country, I believe, a political disconnect that needs to be put right. None of the main parties seem to question that Britain has global interests and needs to remain a global power, both to protect them and to uphold our international obligations as a member of NATO and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Yet the political establishment, across the political divide, appears unwilling properly to resource these commitments. So why the disconnect? I can only put it down, in large part, to our misguided military interventions of the last decade, which have led some to question the value of spending on defence. These interventions have been very costly in terms of blood and treasure, and have rarely achieved their original aims, with the extent of civilian casualties and the persecution of minorities being two such examples.
Jack Lopresti (Con.):
While I disagree with my hon. Friend about misguided previous military engagements—I do not think that either was misguided—we did see what happens when we try to deploy troops abroad on the cheap without their being properly equipped. We lost a lot of good people because of that, and there were a lot of injuries. We should never put our people in that position again.
My hon. friend and I may disagree about whether our interventions were misguided, but he makes a very valid point, which is that we have been intervening with increasingly marginal effect. Helmand in Afghanistan was a classic case of that. It took the Americans putting in another 20,000 troops before we pulled that situation round.
Let me return to the point about disconnect. The military interventions over the past decade have distracted us from the greatest danger. Too often in these military interventions, we have failed to take the long view in favour of short-term foreign policy fixes that give rise to as many problems as they solve. A key reason is a deficit of strategic analysis at the heart of our foreign policy making, in large part because of continual underfunding—but perhaps that is a debate for another day. There is little doubt that we went to war in Iraq on a false premise, and that we foolishly allowed the mission in Afghanistan to morph into one of nation building after we had achieved our original objective of ridding the country of al-Qaeda. Our Libyan intervention has not ended well courtesy of a vicious civil war. Speaking as someone who opposed them all, we must dispel these demons when thinking about defence more generally, because, in addition to being mistakes in themselves, these interventions have distracted us from, and blinded us to, the greater danger of traditional state-on-state threats.
For example, recent events in Ukraine reveal a resurgent Russia that is once again making its presence felt around NATO’s borders. Russian bomber aircraft and submarines have resumed their aggressive patrols, some near UK waters and airspace. The Defence Secretary correctly observed last month that Russia posed a real and current danger to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia—all NATO members covered by article 5. Only by dispelling these previous intervention demons and recognising the bigger danger can we mend the political disconnect between commitments, on the one hand, and funding, on the other. It is absolutely essential that we do that. (my emphasis).
James Gray (Con.):
Does my hon. Friend agree that two of the most chilling interventions in recent weeks have been, first, from the chief of staff of the American army, who said that he thought that a diminished UK defence capability would serve not alongside, but as part of an American division; and secondly, from the Europeans, who indicated that the best deterrent against Mr Putin was a European army? Are not both of those interventions extremely telling?
I can only agree with my hon. Friend. The idea that British brigades would serve within American divisions would probably have been unthinkable only 10 years ago. That is testament to the alarm in Washington, expressed—this is highly unusual—as we head into a general election. The extent of that alarm is clear for all to see.
Dr Matthew Offord (Con.):
Does my hon. Friend agree that the intervention in Iraq has allowed Iran to get away with its own nuclear programme, which is what our emphasis should have been on?
I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the intended consequences of our misguided intervention in Iraq was that we fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region, and we have been playing catch-up ever since. There are significant benefits to strong defence. As no one can predict with any certainty from where the next substantial threat will emerge, we require armed forces of sufficient capability and capacity to respond to any challenge. The straits of Hormuz or the South China sea may seem a long way away, but we would soon realise their importance should sea lanes become closed, given the fact that the majority of our goods and trade arrive by sea. Argentina is looking to buy sophisticated jets, and that reminds us that our capacity must include the ability to act independently, if necessary.
He heft of a strong military underpins a successful foreign policy. By contrast, a shrinking defence budget threatens our ability to lead global opinion, reduces our foreign policy options and, crucially, sends the wrong message both to our allies and to potential adversaries. It is doubtful that President Putin would operate as he is now if he thought that NATO, especially the European NATO members, would robustly stand up to him. (Interruption) That is very kind.
In deference to the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), I think that that is called coalition co-operation.
Falling defence budgets across NATO have emboldened the Russian President, who has concluded the heart has gone out of the alliance. This is dangerous, and it underlines the point that well-resourced and capable armed forces can, by deterring potential aggressors, make future conflict less likely. How many times have we foolishly discounted or underestimated that fact? As we heard in the statement, the benefits of strong defence are not confined just to deterring potential aggressors. Strong armed forces can help us and others to face many of the emerging global challenges for which we need to be better prepared. Armed forces training has a wide skill base—everything from medicine and catering to construction and telecoms—and is a key component of our disaster relief capabilities, as shown by our response to the hurricane in the Philippines and the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
How are we faring? Following a strategic defence and security review driven largely by financial pressures, rather than strategic design, the current Government have markedly reduced our armed forces. Plans to replace 20,000 regular troops with 30,000 reservists have created unacceptable capability gaps in the short term and false economies in the long term. Particularly given the fact that the original idea was to hold on to the 20,000 regulars until we knew that the plan to replace them with 30,000 reservists was going to work, I suggest it was incompetent to let 20,000 regulars march out of the door while only adding 500 to the trained strength of the Army Reserve in the two years that the plan has been in operation.
Gisella Stuart (Lab.):
It may be worth reflecting on the fact that in 2010 we spent 2.5% of GDP, so considerable cuts have already been made. The 2% is a marker.
I made the point earlier that defence spending as a percentage of GDP has been falling under this Government, but my message is not just to my own Government. There is a political disconnect between the extent of our commitments and the lack of funding that is not being recognised across the political divide. I do not hear either of the main political parties saying that we should scale back our ambitions in the world, but nor has either party made it clear that it is committed to at least 2% in the future. I personally would like to see much more than that, but everyone can see the terms of the motion.
Matters are not much better in the Royal Navy, which has been reduced to a mere 19 surface ships, although a recent SDSR suggested that 30 would be more appropriate. In addition to problems with the new aircraft carrier, the lack of a replacement for Nimrod means that we are in the ridiculous situation of having no maritime patrol aircraft. We have to go cap in hand to the Americans and the French to police our waters against potentially hostile submarines. That is a ridiculous state of affairs for a country of our standing.
With these major shortcomings in our defence, it was alarming that a report by the Royal United Services Institute published this week suggests that the defence budget might be cut by 10% after the next election. Talk that Britain has the fifth largest defence budget—and the second largest in NATO—rings hollow when MOD reforms are cutting manpower, capabilities and the armed forces’ capacity to deploy force. Some estimates suggest that we rank 30th in the world in our ability to deploy forces overseas, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) told us of the extent of the American concern about this issue.
Paul Fynn (Lab. ):
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech with great admiration. He talks about banishing demons. There are 632 demons that we cannot banish: those who will be commemorated tomorrow; those who died as a result of terrible mistakes made in this Chamber that sent them to Helmand and Iraq. Should we not acknowledge the dreadful decisions, under which we have been operating for the past 12 years, which created those disasters, before we repeat them?
All I will say is that we can have our own opinions about those misguided interventions, or interventions generally. I do not think that any of us would say that it has been the fault of the troops on the ground. They did a sterling job in their operations. If the fault lies anywhere, it is with the politicians and the generals who perhaps promised too much and delivered too little.
In closing, I call on both main parties—I do mean both main parties—to recognise their reluctance to commit to spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. As an ex-soldier and an MP now of 14 years, I find it difficult to believe that I am still, with others, having to try to make this case. I make no apologies for repeating that the adage about defence of the realm being the first duty of Government has been forged by events. We ignore the lessons of history at our peril. Whereas previous generations have perhaps had time to recover from such adverse situations, time may be a luxury we can no longer afford. We must learn those lessons.
The motion was carried by 37 votes to 3. The 37 included 31 Conservatives, 4 Labour (Mary Glindon, Dai Havard, Mark Hendrick, Gisela Stuart), 3 Lib Dems (Sir Alan Beith, Andrew George, Sir Robert Smith), 1 DUP (Jim Shannon) and 1 Independent (Lady Hermon). The 3 opposed were Katy Clark (Lab.), Caroline Lucas (Green Party), John McDonnell (Lab.).
NATO Members: The 28 member countries of NATO are: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United States.
More than half of the 28 NATO member countries are either adjacent to or in close proximity with Russia. If Ukraine were to join NATO, which is the objective of the USA and UK, Russia would be almost totally encircled by hostile military forces.