Defence debate on election day “an insult to the armed forces”

June 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm Leave a comment

troops
by Yepoka Yeebo

A debate on defence on Thursday saw MPs wrangling over its timing, with Conservative James Arbuthnot calling the proceedings “an absolute disgrace.”

MPs pointed out that most members were in their constituencies, getting the vote out for Thursday’s European and local council elections.

“It is quite wrong that an issue of such crucial importance is always debated before an empty House,” said Mr Arbuthnot, chairman of the defence committee.

“At the moment, we are talking to an… empty Chamber.

“None of the important things that we will say about this vital subject, which is central to the survival of this country, will be listened to at all.

“We might as well not be here.”

In a wide-ranging speech, John Hutton, who on Friday resigned as Secretary of State for Defence, said that British military focus in the Middle East had ‘naturally shift[ed] to Afghanistan’

“Operation Telic was not the beginning of our involvement in Iraq; this week, the Royal Air Force concluded almost 19 years of operations in the skies above the country.

“Whether it was strike missions during the wars in 1991 and 2003 and the protection of the Shi’a of the south and the Kurds of the north from the malevolence and violence of Saddam’s regime, or the provision of support to ground forces and the playing of a vital logistics role over the past six years, the Royal Air Force has a proud record, in the finest traditions of that service.”

“We have certainly learned our lesson from the failure in allowing Afghanistan to fall into the clutches of the violent extremists and ideological terrorists. We remain in Afghanistan to prevent it from again becoming an ungoverned space from which terrorism can be launched against ourselves or our allies.

“So our mission in Afghanistan is designed first and foremost to protect our own national security.”

While the discussion largely centred on training operations in Iraq and work in Afghanistan, the most heated exchanges were over the timing of the debate.

Conservative Liam Fox, MP, asked why the debate was scheduled ‘on a day when they knew that most MPs would be away from the House’.

“I can just hear the Government business managers asking, “What subject is so unimportant that we can stick it in the Commons on polling day for the European and local elections?” and the answer coming back, “Why not defence in the world? It’s only about Iraq, Afghanistan and the rest—nothing terribly important.”

“In the year since we last held this debate the world has become a more, not less, dangerous place.

“We have a military presence in the form of 41,000 British troops in 32 countries and overseas territories.

“It is against that backdrop that the Government have decided to hold a debate on this subject today, meaning that, for obvious reasons, it will be poorly attended.

“We need more, not less, understanding among the British public of the threats to our wider national security.”

Dr Fox also warned against placating Iran: “I have heard voices on both sides of the House say that we should learn to accommodate Iran as a nuclear weapons state.

“I believe that there are three reasons why we must not. The first is the nature of the regime itself, and the second the willingness of Iran to destabilise its neighbours via Hezbollah and Hamas. We have seen their involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Do we want fissile material added to that mix?”

Conservative Ann Winterton, MP, said she was told the vote was scheduled for polling day because there was no vote: “I suggest that it is an insult to our armed services that the debate is being held today.”

Labour’s Madeleine Moon, MP, defended the timing of the debate: “I think it highly appropriate that we are here in the House on the day of the European elections, discussing defence in the world, because it is thanks to the European Union that we, citizens of Europe, have experienced the longest period of peace in our history.”

Ms Moon also highlighted the effect war had on women: “The most vulnerable person in the front line of any conflict is not in the military—it is the female civilian.

“It remains the men with the guns who get to the peace table; women are for the non-governmental organisations and the male leaders to sort out.”

“We have women in the front line in all sorts of roles, and women have shown their capacity to meet the requirements of the front line in those roles.

“I see no problem in women undertaking front-line roles.”

Mr Hutton set out five priorities, and touched on a wide range of geo-political issues – nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea, as well as the impact of cyber-terrorism and threats to Arctic security from Russia.

“When force is required, NATO will remain the cornerstone of our security architecture and we must and will ensure that we can operate with our major allies and partners,” he said.

“We are and will continue to be involved in a variety of activities, including protecting civilian staff, training local security forces or working on engineering projects.

“It means that UK forces must have the capability to carry out limited reconstruction of, for example, local infrastructure.

However, perhaps more often, their main military role will be to build a secure environment in which NGOs and others can operate effectively.

“Thirdly, we clearly have to prioritise within the resources available. That means managing risk—tackling immediate priorities and most likely future threats—and doing so using structures that are agile and capabilities that are flexible to allow our forces to be able to “stretch, surge and recover”.

“Our fourth and fifth priorities are international institutional reform and future capability.

“The essentials are sound, but we need the right military capabilities to meet the military threats that we face, whether they are from fundamentalist terrorists in Afghanistan or at the periphery of NATO’s homeland area.”

Labour MP Barry Gardiner, asked for assurances about stability in South Asia: “will [the minister] tell us of any prospective talks with his counterpart in the Indian Government to ensure that the bulwark of stability in the region that is democratic India?”

“India, perhaps more than any other, has experienced exactly those kinds of terrorist attacks from that base in Afghanistan and, indeed, in parts of Pakistan.”

Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin highlighted what he said was a ‘deficiency in international law’: “a British frigate had intervened on pirates off the gulf of Aden who had rocket-propelled grenades in their boats and clearly intended to commit crimes on the high seas, but said that because they were not caught in the act, although the Royal Navy could destroy the weaponry, it had to let them go.”

During the debate, Mr Hutton also paid tribute to Cyrus Thatcher, who was killed on active service in Afghanistan this week, and to the 179 armed forces personnel who lost their lives in Iraq.

photo: MoD website.

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