The Secretary of State was asked—
After the retirement from service of the Canberra PR9 at the end of next month, we will continue to provide military intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities through a combination of in-service systems and new equipment programmes such as ASTOR and Watchkeeper, which will incrementally deliver enhanced capability.
The analysts are all agreed that wet film—traditional film—provides a higher definition and resolution than any other service. What the Minister has described is a platform for providing digital surveillance, which is not good enough. We have known for a long time that Canberra is going out of service at the end of the month. What will provide a platform for the wet film cameras?
We propose to invest between £2 billion and £2.5 billion per annum over the next 10 years on our network-enabled capability. That will give us a range of stand-off surveillance systems, which will greatly enhance our capability. The hon. Gentleman says authoritatively that wet film is the only way forward, but that is not the analysis of those who are considering our new requirements for a network-enabled capability, which co-ordinates what is happening in the field and what we see from the sky and provides enhanced communication to people on the ground.
Is there any risk that the successor to the Canberra will not be end-on to the retirement date for Canberra, and that we shall therefore avoid a capability gap of the sort that some analysts have been predicting for some time?
We have a range of new systems coming on-stream, one of which is ASTOR, which is the overall capability, while the Raptor reconnaissance pod will be fitted to Tornados and is expected to be ready for operation before the end of this year. That will provide an enhanced capability and is a wet film concept upgraded to digital technology. I hear what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) say, but our proposal is based on what we believe to be the appropriate technology for the decades ahead. It is a major investment based on the best analysis of what we need to meet our requirements in the field.
Will the Minister find time today to pay tribute to the last remaining Canberra PR9 squadron based at RAF Marham? Such squadrons are in many ways the unsung heroes of numerous conflicts over the past 40 years or so, flying in extremely tough conditions in all weathers.
I am only too happy to do so. The media has shown some good news footage about all that recently, pointing to the age of some of the crew who have been with that aircraft for a considerable number of years and provided work of incredibly high quality. I am sure that those who fly on the replacement reconnaissance aircraft, combined with the unmanned facility, will provide an equally high standard in the decades to come.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) in paying tribute to this singular aircraft, its contribution to the Royal Air Force and its capabilities over the past 55 years. No other aeroplane can hold a candle to the service that the Canberra has given. I understand that even Her Majesty the Queen had a small tear in her eye as she saw the last Canberra fly over Buckingham palace.
I have seen the Canberra in operation in Oman, where I spoke to the crew. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) says, there is no substitute for wet film. Given the Minister’s acceptance of the singular capability of the Canberra, its replacement with what he described as a combination of incremental improvements is no substitute for the Canberra. When will Project Dabinett, the Ministry of Defence’s study of the long-term replacement for that capability report? Are not our armed forces again being made to carry the operational risk of yet another capability gap because the Ministry of Defence makes it decisions not on military imperatives but to deliver more short-term savings to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who now struts around the country pretending to be the new friend of the armed forces?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a question or to make a political attack. I shall deal with the political attack first. Let us remember that we have seen the largest real-terms increase in defence expenditure for 20 years. That will procure, for land, sea and air, a substantial upgrade of all our equipment needs for decades ahead.
The hon. Gentleman asked about a specific project. I do not have any information to hand on when a report on it is likely, but I will write to him.
As for the idea that what we are doing is short-term and represents a cut, I have given the figure for the investment that we shall be making in digital technology. What we are doing is all about improving the capability of our operatives in the field. That is the direction in which our European allies and the United States are going, and it will give us inter-operability with our main allies. I do not see it as a cut; I see it as an enhanced capability.
Before I answer the question I will, with the permission of the House, take the opportunity on a special day to pay tribute to those who, through their exceptional valour, have earned either the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. My ministerial colleagues, along with members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and representatives of the Liberal Democrats, were privileged to be at a commemorative service for the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross and the 50th anniversary of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in Westminster abbey this morning in the presence of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Those of us who were present at that very simple and dignified service, in the presence of holders of those decorations, were both honoured and humbled to be there.
While there has been an increase in violence across Iraq in recent months, the majority of attacks remain confined to four out of 18 provinces. Although across three of the provinces in Multi-National Division (South-East) the security situation remains relatively calm, in Basra there has been a recent increase in violence. However, on 19 June the Prime Minister of Iraq announced a security plan for Basra which has been agreed with the coalition forces. He also announced that the Iraqi security forces would take responsibility for the security of Muthanna province from next month. Both those events were unfolding during my visit last week. As they have very important implications for our troops, I am sure Members will understand why I decided there and then to extend my visit at the expense of my contribution to the defence policy debate in the House on Thursday.
Nearly a quarter of the British soldiers lost in hostile action in Iraq were in Snatch Land Rovers at the time. Those vehicles are widely recognised to be inadequately armoured to withstand roadside bombs, and are consequently seen as a soft target for insurgents. In the interests of preventing unnecessary deaths, will the Secretary of State tell us which specific vehicles he is considering deploying as replacements for Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq?
The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. The Snatch Land Rover was a popular option earlier in the campaign in Afghanistan, because it was mobile and a good all-rounder, and had the right profile to help our troops to engage with the people of Basra in Multi-National Division (South-East). I think Members will appreciate that a vision of our troops thundering down narrow streets with battle tanks was not exactly what we wanted to convey to the people of Basra and other parts of south-east Iraq.
Things are changing. As I have said, the level of violence in Basra has increased. I will not go into detail for obvious reasons, but the weapons that the terrorists are using have changed radically, as I have seen for myself on visits. I have seen that that is a serious issue, and have asked for a review. There are medium and long-term plans relating to vehicles, and I shall be considering what we can do to respond to the situation in the short term—although we do also respond by means of tactics and operational instructions.
Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that enough is being done to secure the border with Iran, and to prevent Iranian influence in southern Iraq and Basra? I am thinking particularly of the transport of improvised explosive devices which are being used against Snatch vehicles.
I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of the size of the land border between Iraq and Iran. I am sure he is also aware of something that is very clear to me: many of the people living in that area do not necessarily accept in their lifestyles the lines that others have drawn on the maps for them. There are tribes that move freely across the borders and have done so for generations, long before any European country had any interest in that part of the world. It is highly unlikely that any military operation will change that way of life. That having been said, we are very aware of the malign influence that interference by those outside Iraq’s borders can have on its politics and destiny. My hon. Friend can rest assured that that is significantly high in our interest and that of the Iraqi Government, and will figure as part of the Basra security plan.
The Minister of State said last week in the debate:
“Our focus at all times is the protection of our personnel”.—[Official Report, 22 June 2006; Vol. 447, c. 1502.]
Bearing that in mind, what street parameters are regarded as reasonably acceptable—including width and spacing between buildings—for Snatch armoured Land Rovers to patrol in urban areas in Iraq?
I cannot give the hon. Lady a response to a specific question about sizes of streets, and I apologise to her if she thinks that I should be able to do so. I shall look into the issue and if it is of any relevance to the point that I think underlies her question, I will be in touch with her. Decisions on which vehicles to use on operations are for the commanders on the ground. They have to weigh up several points—including the levels of protection, which have been the focus of the debate on the Snatch Land Rover, its mobility, and the ability to reduce the threat through tactics—and they then make a choice. In the view of the general who has responsibility for that area, protection is 30 per cent. about equipment, 60 per cent. about tactics and—because soldiering is a difficult and dangerous operation in those circumstances—the other 10 per cent. is accounted for by other elements.
In Baghdad a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to discover that NATO has a training mission there. What does the Secretary of State envisage as the future of that training mission? Does he envisage that it will take over the whole of the training in Iraq when the multinational security transition command is wound up next year?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman had an important and informative visit to Iraq with his Select Committee. I am not in a position to give him a direct response to that question at this stage, but NATO training is very important to building capacity in the Iraqi security forces. It is certain that beyond the date that he mentions, when the planned multinational training comes to an end, there will continue to be a need for training for the Iraqi security forces, and it is almost certain that NATO countries, if not NATO itself, will make a significant contribution to that.
What assessment does the Secretary of State make of the effect that the indefinite detention of 14,000 Iraqi prisoners, under the authority of the multinational forces, is having on perpetuating the insurgency? What measures are in place to charge and try those people under any recognisable judicial procedure and what hope is there that the reconciliation moves being mooted by the new Prime Minister might lead to the release of some of those people soon?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in addition to those who are in the detention principally of the United States, some 30,000 others are in the detention of the Iraqi Government. In all my meetings last week with a significant number of Iraqi Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the President, I discussed the issue of detention. It is an important issue and, in my view, there is no possibility of a sustainable and long-term future for the new Government of Iraq beyond the point of relying on coalition forces if they have large numbers of people in detention and insufficient judicial capacity to deal with them. Consequently, I was pleased that the need to address the significant number of people in detention was a significant part of the reconciliation statement made yesterday by Prime Minister Maliki. However, hon. Members have to understand that many of those people are detained because they are a danger to the Iraqi people. The Government’s ability to deal with those detained in the context of reconciliation will be a function of their ability to build a judicial system that can deal with that number of people.
General Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said last week:
“We are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces are providing weapons, I.E.D. technology and training to Shia extremist groups in Iraq.”
Do the Government share that very serious American assessment of Iranian involvement, and what increased risk does it pose to our troops?
I have said, and my predecessor said, that from the nature of some of those weapons, and the coincidence in the description of them and the weapons in the hands of those who have been associated with Iran in the delivery of violence through terrorist activity in other parts of the world, some of them are believed to have their roots in Iran. Whether they are being brought into Iran on the instructions and direction of the Iranian Government or by other elements is not yet clear. However, those sophisticated weapons pose a considerable threat to our forces.
Clearly, there is an increased risk. Lord Drayson told the other place recently that in Iraq, the Snatch Land Rover
“provides the mobility and level of protection that we need.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 June 2006; Vol. 12, c. 2.]
Fusilier Gordon Gentle was killed by a road-side bomb way back in June 2004, and since then other soldiers have been killed who would have survived if they had been in properly armed vehicles.
Snatch Land Rovers do not offer the level of protection that our troops need in Iraq, yet we continue to use them. Why are our troops not given the level of protection that they need, and which American troops already enjoy? Commanders cannot deploy vehicles that they do not have.
As I have already said to the House, it is open to commanders to deploy vehicles that have heavier protection than the Snatch Land Rover and they have to make—[Interruption.] Other vehicles are available to them; there is a choice. However, commanders must be free to make decisions in relation to the operations for which they deploy soldiers. I have already said to the House that I am aware of the issue: I could not but be aware of it following my visit last week and, indeed, my earlier visit. I have asked for a review of what we can do in the long term and immediately. I shall see what we can do immediately to respond to the changing situation, although significant measures other than those in relation to the vehicle’s armour must be taken. We are at the leading edge of some of them, and electronic counter-measures, in particular.
Veterans Challenge Fund
The veterans challenge fund allows communities to celebrate the role veterans play in our society by financing projects that support the three pillars of the veterans strategy. They are: to provide excellent preparation for the transition of service personnel back to civilian life; to provide advice and support for those of our veterans who need it; and to ensure that the nation recognises, understands and commemorates veterans’ contribution to society.
In the past 12 months the fund has supported 23 projects, ranging from work with rough-sleeping veterans to support for the ongoing Victoria Cross and George Cross anniversary celebrations.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. A number of my constituents have contacted me with a view to setting up a local advice facility for veterans. Will he agree to meet them along with me at some point?
I should be delighted to meet them. That sounds exactly the sort of initiative for which the veterans challenge fund was created.
The requirement for a continuing coalition presence in Basra will persist until clearly defined conditions are achieved. As with all 18 Iraqi provinces, it is the achievement of those conditions that will ultimately determine when Iraqi security forces can take over responsibility for security.
Is not the purpose of UK forces in Basra to maintain order and to ensure basic amenities? If so, why did a state of emergency have to be declared after a surge of killings, and why is Bill Neely, ITN’s international editor, reporting on limbs amputated for lack of basic medical supplies, children dying from preventable diseases, and no treatment for cancer patients for three years in Basra’s main hospital? Why are Ministers sleep-walking when they should be waking up to their responsibilities? If they say, “Can’t do”, should not it be a case of “Can’t stay”?
My hon. Friend’s position on the presence of British forces in Iraq is well known, as it has been over the years. The fact is that British forces in Basra have seen an improvement in a significant number of the services available to the people of Basra. There has been an increase in violence over the last few months, but that is entirely coincidental with the period between the election and the formation of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government are now in place and the Prime Minister, the new Defence Minister and the new Minister of the Interior have publicly stated that security in Basra is a priority. They have developed a plan that will be led by the Iraqi security forces themselves, in the form of the Iraqi army. There are significant difficulties; the Iraqi police have been significantly infiltrated by violent groups who are part of an outside process and there is a degree of corruption, but the plan addresses those issues. To suggest that the situation for the ordinary people of Basra is no better since British forces have been there is not true—it has improved for them.
Whatever the time scale for our armed forces in Basra, the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on possible replacements for the Snatch Land Rover in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq are welcome, provided they lead to early action. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the grievous gap in our capability for clearing mines for light forces, which in practice means most of our forces in Iraq, and indeed in Afghanistan. Both those factors are putting lives at risk unnecessarily.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. I have already made my position clear to the House, so it is unnecessary to repeat it. I shall take into account the hon. Gentleman’s second point, although I am not aware of a level of risk immediately generated by the absence of capability that he suggests.
When the members of the Select Committee on Defence were in Iraq recently we met members of the 10th Division and General Latif. As well as giving the Iraqis support in training, did my right hon. Friend hold discussions with the Iraqi Government about how they can be resourced in terms of equipment and other things they need to do the job that they are eager and willing to take over in neighbouring states, as well as playing their part in bringing security to Basra?
I, too, met General Latif and visited the 10th Division. At that stage, he was proudly showing off to me the equipment allocated to him. The indications were that if there had been a blockage in relation to the necessary equipment, the equipment was now forthcoming. The 10th Division was deploying forces in Basra city when I was there, giving security in the city a clear Iraqi face, which was welcome both to our troops and to the people of the city.
I am pleased that the first-ever national Veterans’ day is taking place on 27 June. Not only will a major event be organised at the Imperial War museum in London, but we know of 150 events that are being organised locally across the UK. More than 70 events have received financial support from the Department at a total cost of about £130,000. I am delighted that this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our veterans is being embraced so enthusiastically by organisers, veterans and the general public.
While many congratulations are due on the introduction of Veterans’ day and all that has been achieved, may we turn our attention to how we recognise those involved in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, now approaching its 25th anniversary? But a more pressing point—at least for me—is the situation of those interned by the Japanese during hostilities in the second world war. Can my hon. Friend update me on how we are settling that debt of honour?
I shall answer both parts of that supplementary question. I can confirm that there will be a major celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands. I probably speak for both sides of the House when I give the reason why. Today, many of us were in the company of the most remarkably brave people, who have served their country in military and civilian capacities. Some of them served in the Falklands and they deserve a commemoration 25 years on. My view is that the anniversary should be celebrated in the UK and the Falklands. I am not in a position to sketch out the detail yet, but I will report to the House when we have more information.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am pleased to say that the criteria for the new 20-year residence criterion for the far east prisoner of war scheme have been agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region. They will be implemented with effect from today. I hope to place the detailed rules in the Library of the House. Those who were British at the time of their internment who think that they meet the criterion of 20 years residence in the UK between 1945 and 7 November 2000, whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces of the British empire, should apply to the Veterans Agency. We expect the first payments to be made very shortly.
The Minister’s answers to both those questions will be warmly welcomed throughout the House and the country, but would it not focus attention on what we owe to the veterans, and also enable young people to be taught just what is involved, if we had the commemoration as a public holiday?
The granting of a public holiday is not in my gift, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people, for whom the Falklands war is something that they learn about in history, is well made and I hope that, as part of our commemorations of 25 years, we can involve school and youth groups up and down the country.
The Stockport British Legion was presented with a cup for its outstanding fundraising last year. This year, it will surpass even last year’s effort. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the British Legion, the Normandy Veterans Association and the Combined Services Association in Stockport on the valuable work that they do in helping veterans? His announcement on extending the veterans medal has been warmly welcomed.
The whole House will wish to congratulate Stockport British Legion. My hon. Friend failed to invite me up to visit the British Legion personally, but if she were to do so, perhaps I could do that during the summer recess.
I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the far east prisoners of war. I know that that has taken a good deal of time, and I hope that that will deal with the rest of the outstanding cases. As for the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about a veterans day, it may not be within the Minister’s power to grant a day’s holiday, but since there has been some criticism this year of the extent to which the Chancellor has tried to involve himself with veterans day and since he appears to be all-powerful in the Government, perhaps the Minister could have a word with him to see whether he could grant such a day.
Turning to next year’s celebrations, veterans day in 2007, which will be coterminous with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, will be particularly poignant. I urge the Minister to assert the primacy of the Ministry of Defence on that issue and to work closely with Opposition Front-Bench Members to make sure that we have a day that will truly be worthy of our veterans.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we can do that. The whole House needs ownership of that commemoration. I hope that his input and that of his colleagues will be paramount. As for the Chancellor granting a bank holiday, I am not sure whether that is in his gift either, although, of course, he is all-powerful.
UK forces in Afghanistan are primarily deployed as part of the international security assistance force. The ISAF mission, as published, is to help the Afghan Government to create a secure environment in which their authority can be extended across the entire country and reconstruction of the country can be taken forward. Of course, that objective will not be achieved by military means alone, and consequently the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that we deliver a fully integrated package that addresses governance, security, economic development and political and social change.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that that objective will also not be secured with only 6,000 NATO troops in the southern part of Afghanistan. Is it not essential that more troops are made available, and what is he doing to ensure that that happens?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that no one is yet at full operational capability in southern Afghanistan. We are in southern Afghanistan with several international partners—Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark, Romania and Australia—and for our part, in Helmand province, we believe that we have deployed an important and appropriate force. I do not necessarily accept that there are insufficient forces in any other part of southern Afghanistan. However, the issue will need to be kept constantly under review by ISAF and NATO. It will be incumbent on us to ensure that we deploy sufficient forces to enable us to carry out the task in hand. However, the right hon. Gentleman should not forget that the Afghan army itself is increasingly deploying forces to that area. The assessment of those soldiers that I am given is that they are of the highest calibre.
I know that the Secretary of State will agree that central to a successful deployment in Afghanistan will be the heavy-lift capability provided by the Hercules aircraft from RAF Lyneham, which is in my constituency. In that context, he will know that one of the contributory factors to the tragic crash of a Hercules in Iraq last year might have been the absence of foam flame retardant in the wing tanks. Will he tell us how quickly the retardant will be fitted in the Hercules fleet and how many planes will be fitted with it? Will he confirm that all the planes that are deployed in Afghanistan will have that safeguard fitted to them?
I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to the contribution that the Hercules—and, more importantly, those who fly the Hercules—have made to military operations in not only Afghanistan and Iraq at present, but elsewhere. He knows, as I am sure that the House does, that we intend to fit the flame-retardant foam into Hercules and to ensure that those that are deployed to the theatre are fitted with that. I have said in public, so I have no reason to say anything different from the Dispatch Box, that we hope to be able to do that by August for the first of them. We will ensure that sufficient numbers of Hercules are fitted with the appropriate retardant foam so that operations can be conducted.
Royal Marine Corps
The Royal Marines make a unique and essential contribution to our armed forces and have done so for more than three centuries. We remain firmly committed to maintaining a world-class Royal Marine force and amphibious capability.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise and applaud the work of the Royal Marines, especially in the deployment to Afghanistan that will take place shortly. What thoughts do the Minister and the Department have about the formation of a future additional fourth commando of the Royal Marines? Has he thought about the formation of a new special operations group with commandos from the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment and others who have done the commando course at Lympstone?
On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman might be aware that a special support regiment has been stood up and is based at St. Athan. The question of the fourth manoeuvre unit of the Commando Brigade is being examined, although no recommendations have reached Ministers’ desks yet. I will wait and see what the recommendations are before giving the hon. Gentleman an answer to his specific question because I will have to see the merits, benefits and, perhaps, disbenefits of the proposal before reaching a considered opinion. Work is in hand to achieve that, however.
The Minister will know that there has been a lot of speculation in Scottish newspapers recently about the possible deployment of 45 Commando, which is based in my constituency, to Afghanistan. Those troops have special expertise—they are technology experts—in winter warfare. Given the Secretary of State’s earlier answer, will the Minister assure us that any such deployment would keep UK troops within the agreed ISAF parameters and would not represent an extension to the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan?
No decision has been taken as to the next deployment, but 45 Commando clearly has particular capabilities and is trained for specific purposes, and that comes into play as part of the planning process, in both the medium and long term. However, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it not to be deployed or he is in favour of it being deployed. I do not know where his party currently stands on that because we are talking about a NATO mission, and his party is of course opposed to NATO. Therefore, I am unsure where he is coming from on this issue. I meet 45 Commando personnel regularly and I can say that, in common with all other members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, they actually like being deployed. We have to make proper judgments accordingly as to when and how often that deployment takes place.
Dr. David Kelly
Dr Kelly’s role in the Department, on secondment from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, was as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities, the work of the United Nations Commissions dealing with inspections in Iraq, and on issues relating to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. Dr. Kelly also advised the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission on training, and communicated Iraq issues to the media and institutions. All that was set out in the Hutton report.
Dr. Kelly made an immense contribution to the security of this country and the world. As part of his work for the Department, shortly before his death he co-authored a report for the United States and the UK that was delivered to the US on 27 May 2003, and which made it clear that the so-called mobile biological weapons laboratories were nothing of the sort. However, two days later President Bush indicated,
“we have found the weapons of mass destruction”,
which Dr. Kelly flatly contradicted in public afterwards. What discussions took place between the UK and the US regarding Dr. Kelly’s public statement about that matter, and what investigations have been conducted to establish where the fake trailers masquerading as mobile laboratories came from? If the Secretary of State cannot answer now, will he please write to me?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be surprised that I approach the Dispatch Box to confirm that I am unable to answer a question of such a nature without having had some prior notice of it. However, what I will say is that it is my understanding that although the hon. Gentleman has publicly said, in terms, that he is about to devote one year of his life to pursuing investigations in relation to Dr. Kelly and the circumstances surrounding his death, it is not my intention, periodically or consistently, to start an investigation from the Dispatch Box. The position is that Lord Hutton investigated fully the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to start picking up aspects of that case piecemeal. However, I will look carefully into the question he has asked to see if I can provide any information, despite the fact that my Department was entirely open in respect of Dr. Kelly’s role and all the evidence that it had for the Hutton report. If, contrary to my view, there is anything of assistance that I can communicate to the hon. Gentleman, I will do so.
A combination of high employment, a prosperous and strong economy, attractive alternatives in further education and stiff competition from other employers have all increased the pressure on the Army in its efforts to attract young men and women. To counter this, the Army’s recruiting group has redoubled its recruiting effort through advertising campaigns. During recent months, its intensive marketing campaign has paid dividends and the number of applications has increased. The challenge now is to convert that interest into enlistments.
With unprecedented numbers of Territorial Army soldiers and other reservists currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet with TA strength at its lowest level since its formation more than 100 years ago, what do the Government plan to do to fix the recruitment crisis now affecting all our reserve forces?
As of 14 June 2006, some 574 members of the Territorial Army—about 1.8 per cent. of the TA—were deployed on operations overall, of whom 397 are serving in Iraq. Extensive efforts are being made to achieve better recruiting. As at April 2006, the TA’s strength was more than 2 per cent. higher than it was one year ago, and it is at its highest level since June 2004. Its strength has increased by about 900 since the beginning of the year, which could indicate a trend. However, in respect of the TA, the reserves and the regular forces, constant effort needs to be made to keep the marketing intensity high, because that is what the competition is doing to attract young men and women into their areas of interest. We are beginning to see some trends that are to our benefit, but we can maintain them only through such intensive effort.
I know that my right hon. Friend is well aware that Lancashire and the entire north-west is a very fertile recruitment area for the armed forces. However, has the time not come to ensure that, in addition to good recruitment, we enjoy good retention in the north-west by moving Army bases from the south to the north, which is where the families live? That is much overdue and much needed, and the time has come to recognise the needs of our troops.
It is about recognising the need of the armed forces overall—in this case, the Army. Part of the basing reason is to be close to training areas, and that is why we still have extensive basing in Germany and in the south—to be close to those training areas—but my hon. Friend raises a good point, which he should follow with interest in the months and years ahead. Super-garrisons are being considered as part of the future Army structure, but it is too early to say where the lay-down of such garrisons will be—whether in Northern Ireland, Scotland, the north-east, the north-west, the midlands or the south. However, all that work is under way. Moving troops involves spending an extensive amount of money on infrastructure and has to be planned for. That will not happen overnight, but work is under way to achieve some of those objectives.
I am very pleased indeed to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) in emphasising the importance of the north-west to Army recruitment. Will the Minister accept that the TA makes an increasingly important contribution to our armed forces, and certainly in respect of recruitment? He recently admitted to me that there has been a problem with the payment of the bounty to TA soldiers in the north-west, in that soldiers who deserve the bounty have not been awarded it. Will he ensure that that matter is corrected at a very early date?
I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s comments: the TA plays a substantial part in all that we do, and not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but elsewhere. In many ways, that is perhaps why we are beginning to see, once again, an increase in recruitment. In fact, we are getting indications that people want to join the TA because deployment is becoming a feature of the role, whereas before, that was not necessarily the case. The rebalancing of the TA is about restructuring it to make it more usable and better focused on the regular service, so we have attended to some of those issues. I do not recollect saying to the hon. Gentleman what he said that I said about the bounty, although I might have done so in a written answer, of which I write hundreds in a given period. I do not think that I have given that answer, but I will check whether I have, and if there is an issue to be addressed, it will be.
Recent figures that I have before me show that only one infantry battalion in the whole Army is now at full strength; on average, each battalion is one third below combat strength. Can the Minister confirm that the infantry battalion soldier manning deficit is about 3,000, and that the Government’s own prediction is that that will worsen while we are deploying more troops abroad? If that is not overstretch, just how would he describe it?
I do not accept that overall analysis from the hon. Gentleman. I have given an indication of the trends and we are beginning to see some benefit from our intensive marketing campaign. I do not deny that we are under-strength, that we find it hard to hit our targets, or that we are under-target, but I should point out that, historically, that has always been the case. What we have tried to do through the new future infantry structure and future Army structure is to get the balance right—to set realistic targets and then to try to achieve them.
In my reply to the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), I said that the recruiting environment is difficult. The economy is very strong and we face a lot of competition from elsewhere in the marketplace, so to speak, which is why we are now investing so heavily in the marketing campaign. We can measure the impact in two ways: one of our marketing strategies led to 15,000 expressions of interest, and the Everest west ridge campaign led to an additional 15,000 expressions of interest. What we have to do now is turn those expressions of interest into actual enlistment. That is the next objective.
Coalition operations across Iraq continue to uphold security, to develop robust, self-reliant and capable Iraqi security forces, and to promote effective governance, economic growth and reconstruction. Increasingly, Iraqi security forces are taking the lead in such operations.
The Secretary of State will be aware that 20 Armoured Brigade was recently deployed for ground-holding operations in Iraq, expecting to be there for slightly more than six months. No sooner had its personnel arrived than that tour was extended to seven and a half months. I do not doubt that the soldiers and airmen of the brigade will take that on the chin, but the decision has come as a hammer blow to their families, wives and children, many of whom are isolated in Germany. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that no Ministry of Defence that knows its business could have allowed such a nonsense to occur. Will he tell the House how he will stop that piece of routine planning being made a complete nonsense of again?
I recognise that the hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of these matters, but I do not accept that such decisions are an indication of the Department or the military not knowing what they are doing. On occasion, as he is aware, there is a need to review decisions and to change them. I have met many soldiers on both of my visits to Iraq and I know that they will do the job that they are asked to do, but I accept entirely that we must keep their families constantly in mind. The families face as much pressure in the absence of their family members in theatre as do the members in theatre doing what they are trained to do as British soldiers. I undertake to ensure, as far as it is within my power to do so, that in future planning is conducted in a way that gives families the maximum possible degree of certainty, subject of course to the fact that circumstances may cause us to review decisions that have been made.
Earlier the Secretary of State said that there would be an immediate review of the types of vehicles used by our armed forces in Iraq. When is that review likely to report to the House? Does he agree that, although winning hearts and minds is important, keeping our troops on the ground safe is even more important? Is it not time that we moved them out of Land Rovers, reduced foot patrols and got our troops into Warrior armoured vehicles?
We have already agreed to supplement Snatch with a new patrol vehicle, Vector, which will come into service in 2007. We are currently upgrading the protection on the FV430 to allow it to be used more widely, and we have already upgraded the protection on the Warrior, the Saxon and the CVR(T). Such issues are being considered day-to-day, on an ongoing basis, and the steps that can be taken are being taken. As a consequence of my own observations and information that has been brought to my intention, I asked for a review of the matter. That review is ongoing, but I am not able to give the hon. Gentleman a specific date for its completion. I accept that the protection of our armed forces is my most important priority as Secretary of State for Defence.
The cadet forces organisation offers a vast range of personal development and educational opportunities for young people, allowing them to increase their self-esteem, build their confidence and ultimately realise their full potential. It is widely recognised that in addition to this, they act as a force for good in their communities.
The MOD invests £95 million a year in the development of the cadet forces and furthermore the armed forces support the cadet forces with a significant benefit in kind in the form of training facilities, material and manpower resources.
I thank the Minister for that response. I am fortunate in my constituency in having active sea, air and Army cadet forces. So much so, that this weekend the 5 Cadet Battalion of the Royal Welch was presented with a new banner by Colonel David Cox on behalf of past members.
Back in April, I was pleased to be present when 2117 Squadron of Kenfig Hill air training corps was presented with state-of-the-art communication equipment by Selex Systems. Will the Minister join me in thanking those armament businesses that support cadet forces by giving them equipment and by allowing them to experience the latest equipment and the latest technologies? Also, will—
Order. Will the hon. Lady resume her seat? I used to be a corporal in the cadets and I am enjoying what the hon. Lady is saying, but we must get on with the questions. I think that the Minister will be able to reply.
I will be brief, corporal. [Interruption.] Sorry. I meant no disrespect, Mr. Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) is right to congratulate local businesses that build partnerships with local cadet forces. The situation that she describes is one that we would hope could be replicated throughout the country. Such gifts help broaden even further the range of opportunities and experience that is open to our young people.
The Minister will be aware of the importance of cadet forces in personal development for young people, but they are important also in terms of recruitment to the armed forces. What assessment has the hon. Gentleman made of the poor state of repair of many of the premises occupied by cadet forces? What will he do to improve matters?
This chastened Private Watson will take away the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion and consider it. There is not a deep pot of money for our cadet forces, but they do remarkable things with small pots of money. Wherever we can help them, we do so.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer I gave earlier today to the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley).
I listened carefully to the answers given by the Secretary of State. In response to one of the earlier questions, he said that there is a threat posed to the security situation in Iraq and to our forces by infiltrators in the security services and the police force. Could he confirm whether he has spoken to the new Iraqi Defence Minister about this? What steps will the UK take in conjunction with the new Iraqi Government to eradicate infiltrators?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that I identified that threat, which I do not think will be news to anyone in this place. I think that it was well known that the Iraqi police service had been infiltrated by militia and other organisations.
As part of the Basra security plan, and particularly for the Multi-National Division (South-East), although I am sure that the arrangement will need to be run in other parts of Iraq, the Army is being deployed to create the opportunity to arrest from the police force those officers who are corrupt or those officers who are involved in violent gangs and use their position in the police to perpetrate violence.
The hon. Gentleman asks me whether I have spoken to the new Iraqi Defence Minister about these matters. I have not only spoken to the Defence Minister, but also to the new Iraqi Minister of the Interior and with the Prime Minister. He can be reassured that all of them explicitly recognise that this is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. We have, with the Iraqi security forces in Basra, been doing something about it over the past week or thereabouts, and have arrested individuals.
The Government provide a comprehensive programme of recognition and support for veterans. This includes an excellent resettlement package for service personnel returning to civilian life; high-quality pension and compensation schemes; measures to meet veterans’ health and welfare needs; and initiatives such as Veterans’ day and the veterans badge, recognising veterans and the debt of honour that we owe them.
I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. I attended an excellent Veterans’ day in my constituency on Saturday with more than 50 veterans, who welcomed the badge that the Minister has announced. However, one group of individuals in my constituency, which is a former mining community, have been left out—the Bevan boys, who contributed to the war effort and deserve the recognition that other veterans have received. Will my hon. Friend look at the issue to see whether those brave people, many of whom lost their lives in the mines, can receive recognition?
There is great merit in my hon. Friend’s suggestion. Other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Gordon Banks), have raised the matter in the House, and I agree to ask my officials to look at extending the scheme.
The accommodation that is being provided under the Colchester PFI is sufficient to meet all current endorsed requirements for Her Majesty’s armed forces personnel who are permanently based at the garrison. Those requirements are, of course, kept under review.
I am grateful for that answer, which is on the record. I shall watch the Ministry of Defence—I hope that the Minister will confirm that he, too, will do so—to make sure that it does not seek to rent houses from the private sector to accommodate soldiers whom they cannot accommodate within the garrison.
Usually, the hon. Gentleman gives credit to the PFI. Stage 1 will provide 1,145 bed spaces out of a total of 2,231. The scheme is ahead of schedule, and delivery will probably be complete in September this year—three months early—so significant progress has been made. As for his specific question, 56 single personnel are currently living in substitute single living accommodation—SSLA—and it is anticipated that there will be no new requirement for SSLA after phase 1 is completed.