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Defence

Volume 451: debated on Monday 30 October 2006

The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Transport

Before I start, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and families of Lieutenant Tom Tanswell of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, who died in Iraq last week, and those of Marine Gary Wright of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who died in Afghanistan the week before.

The RAF’s fixed wing troop-carrying capability is provided by a mix of RAF aircraft and, when required, by civilian chartered aircraft, which are used during times of peak tasking. We are planning to enhance the RAF’s strategic troop-carrying and air tanker capability, currently provided by the VC10 and Tristar aircraft, with the future strategic tanker aircraft. We are also enhancing tactical troop-carrying capability with the procurement of 25 A400M aircraft.

May I first associate myself with the Minister’s comments with regard to the two very brave men who lost their lives? Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and loved ones.

Is it true that owing to a lack of RAF capacity as regards transport those who are serving on the front line and wish to come home for leave sometimes have to wait days before they can do so? Does it not add insult to injury that those men should have that time deducted from their leave? I should be most grateful for the Minister’s comments.

I would remind the hon. Gentleman that there are men and women. There is an issue relating to the reliability of the operational bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why the RAF tries to make it its highest priority. We regret any disruption that those air bridge difficulties may have caused to the plans of personnel. I was recently in correspondence with one of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, who as a serving Territorial Army officer experienced significant difficulties in Cyprus. We have dealt with that. Today I wrote to respond to all the detailed questions that he raised in his letter. He is not in the House today; I understand that he is in Cyprus with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It would be useful if that correspondence were placed in the Library to make all the details available.

What action is the Minister taking to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability? In particular, given the excellent performance of the Merlin helicopters in Iraq and elsewhere, is he considering the possibility of an early procurement decision to increase the number of Merlin helicopters available in the early part of next year?

I am inclined to say that there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters. The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical. I understand that he may want to get business for his constituency, but we have to listen to what is required on the ground. We have asked for a full review of the situation and we are trying to see whether any remedial action can be taken in sufficient time to deal with any such matters that may have arisen, are arising, or may arise in future. This is all under review, and it is too early to say what the conclusions may be.

The Hercules aircraft based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency is the workhorse of the air bridge with Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Minister knows, one of the conclusions of the Government’s inquiry into the tragic crash of the Hercules in Iraq more than a year ago was that it is vitally important that foam suppressant should be fitted around the wing tanks of the planes so that, were they hit by small arms fire, there would be no repeat of that tragedy. What progress has been made in the fitting of foam suppressant to the remaining Hercules fleet, particularly the five that are currently deployed in Afghanistan?

As ever, when we have to learn lessons, we do. That is the principal purpose of boards of inquiry, although sometimes another examination of events may give us additional information. We have taken on board all the recommendations by the board of inquiry that deals with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The programme to fit explosive-suppressant foam to the aircraft continues as planned, and two aircraft have been fitted so far. We will continue to work through that programme. It takes time because aircraft have to come out of service for fitting to take place, but we are on target to achieve the objectives that he mentions.

Conservative Members join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those who have recently given their lives for our country, showing yet again the bravery of British troops on operations around the world.

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him in March, warning that the lack of

“sufficient, reliable and properly equipped aircraft … was adding to the stress on soldiers and their families and causing tension between the RAF and the other services”.

That point was graphically reinforced six months later by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Does the Minister accept that responsibility for the fiasco lies not with the Royal Air Force but with Ministers, who have cut RAF numbers by 7,500 and require them to operate clapped-out old kit? In his reply in April, the Minister said—

Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is asking a question, which he must not turn into a speech. It is simply not on to quote from a letter.

The Minister gave me an assurance that investment would be made. When can our troops cease to feel let down by the Government and have the kit that they need to do the job that is being asked of them?

I heard one of my hon. Friends say as an aside that the hon. Gentleman is still learning. I thought that he would have learned the valuable lesson that it takes time to procure new equipment.I mentioned the A400M—I know that the hon. Gentleman supports the programme—but it takes time for that aircraft to be procured and put into theatre. The strategic tanker aircraft is also undergoing its final procurement analysis. The complex programme will ensure that we have a long-term solution for many decades to deal with some of the problems. Is he genuinely suggesting that, given that we do not have those aircraft, we should not use our existing aircraft? I think not. If he believes that they are not suitable and fit for purpose, he is wrong. The aircraft that go into the theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan must have appropriate defensive aids suites. So as to ensure that we get the best support, we have to lift them out in troopers and put them on through a mixture of RAF aircraft or hired civilian aircraft. We are now doing that. We understand the associated problems. We regret every incident when we have failed. However, such failures are not through want of effort or, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because of clapped-out old kit.

Afghanistan

The Afghan provincial government under the leadership of Governor Daud has made progress in engaging with local community leaders in Helmand. He sought and gained backing for his negotiations from President Karzai and, as part of the process, UK forces handed over security in Musa Qaleh to provincially raised forces. Such engagement has strengthened the governor’s position and he continues to develop relations throughout Helmand.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. There is no doubt that UK forces are second to none in carrying out their duties wherever they are required. Is there any aspect of that engagement with the local populace that he would wish to be improved and strengthened?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about our troops. I am sure that all hon. Members share his view. He asks whether I would like any aspects of the engagement with the communities in Helmand province to be improved. I would like the processes to be built upon. The key to that is to let Governor Daud, whom I met last week when I was in Helmand province, continue with the process that he has already started in Musa Qaleh—where he has proper political control—in other parts of northern Helmand, including the Sangin valley and other communities. The process is difficult, but ultimately, Afghan solutions to Afghan problems will deliver the answers for the Afghan people. We should support their properly constituted and elected government in achieving those solutions.

Notwithstanding the excellent work of our troops in tough conditions in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State seen the reports in The Times today that say that, where our troops are pulled back, the Taliban have moved straight back in? Would he like to comment on that?

I read those comments, which are attributed to a man called Khan, whom I do not recognise as a spokesman for the community of Musa Qaleh. All morning, I have heard PGHQ in Helmand province inquiring as to who the spokesperson actually is. I am mindful of the fact that I have repeatedly had comments quoted to me from alleged spokespeople from Helmand who turn out to be members of the Taliban. Only last week, I spoke to the commanding officer of the British forces and the head of the Helmand taskforce who told me that they were keeping the situation in Musa Qaleh under daily observation. In his view, the deal done with the local community—between the governor and the local community—was being sustained. Of course it is a very delicate situation and we can only observe. There are associated risks, but unless we take them, the people of that part of Afghanistan will not secure the improvement that we are deployed there to achieve.

Can my right hon. Friend shed any light on reports that up to 60 Afghan civilians were killed in a NATO bombing at the end of last week? Can he say what help, if any, NATO is making available to survivors? Does he agree that, if we make mistakes like that, there is not the slightest chance of our winning hearts and minds in Helmand or anywhere else?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have followed the story as it developed last week. Only over the weekend we had reports—public, open reports in the media, which I read—that General Jim Jones, who is known as SACEUR, theSupreme Allied Commander in Europe, apologised to President Karzai for the inadvertent casualties created. As he explained it, the Taliban had been using these individuals as a human shield. He clearly put the responsibility on the Taliban and I have heard from our own troops of circumstances in which the Taliban have used innocent individuals as a human shield—indeed, specifically lining up women and children in front of paratroopers on one occasion, not long after we were deployed in Helmand province. They do that because of the effect that my hon. Friend identifies: if there is accidental injury or death caused to innocent civilians, the Taliban will play that out. We are mindful of that fact, which is why we take the greatest care to ensure that there are no civilian casualties.

With 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain coming from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the interests of our young people, our armed forces should be fully supported in Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend identifies one of the reasons why it is important that the world, not just the UK or the developed world, which is specifically represented in Afghanistan, sees through the support and development of the Afghan economy so that the people of Afghanistan will not be exploited, as they have been by drug dealers and others in the past and forced to grow poppies for opium. It is a long-term problem and those who understand how it has been dealt with in other countries will realise that we have to build governance, build the rule of law and security and build economic prosperity. Only in that context will very poor people be dissuaded from growing poppy when they are in many cases being forced into it by violence.

Rather than trying to find Mr. Khan’s identity, would we not do better to recognise the evidence of our own officers and soldiers, particularly those who have been in discussions with village elders about arrangements in the villages. They have identified among those village elders potential supporters of the Taliban who they believe have been giving them the once over during the course of the negotiation. Should we not recognise the truth of the situation—that the Taliban are very much stronger six months after we started our deployment in Helmand than they were before?

I do not accept that the Taliban are much stronger now than they were before. I believe that they were significantly present in those communities. We also saw, as I mentioned in response to the previous question, a significant increase in the growing of poppy in the year before we deployed into Helmand province. That, among other indications such as the beheading of teachers and closure of schools because they were teaching girls, suggests exactly what they were doing. There was much evidence that the Taliban were in those communities. The fact that we deployed into those communities brought them out very quickly, as it did in northern Helmand.

The essence of the hon. Gentleman's question is that I should pay regard to what the commanders on the ground tell me, and that is exactly what I do. It will be instructive for him to know that we have accepted, and indeed Governor Daud has entered into, only one agreement, although there are discussions going on across northern Helmand. He is bravely holding out to ensure that, as in Musa Qaleh, he deals with people who properly represent the community, and not the Taliban.

I welcome the agreements with village elders that have been struck in various parts of Helmand province, but will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of how well he thinks they are working on the ground? To what extent has the combination of Ramadan and the poppy-planting season contributed to a lull in activity? What impact has the air strike last week had on relations with the Afghan population? What can he tell us about the longer-term future of the security elements that the village elders have been able to summon to the cause? What prospects are there for integrating them eventually in the Afghan auxiliary police?

The first point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there are no agreements—there is one agreement. That is the point that I was making in response to the previous question. There is one agreement thus far. There are negotiations going on in Sangin, in the Kajaki area and in other parts of northern Helmand. Those are being conducted in a canny and expert way by Governor Daud, who is ensuring that he deals with the appropriate people in those communities. It was only when he identified that he was dealing with the appropriate people in Musa Qaleh and those who represented the community, and not the Taliban, that he struck the deal.

The second point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the incident involving the inadvertent loss of life—it was not as much as people are reporting—did not happen in Helmand province. It happened in Kandahar in the Peshwar valley. That can have an effect on Helmand, but it will not have a direct effect. The blunt answer to his question is that the view of those on the ground who know is that the Musa Qaleh agreement is holding and that, if it holds and spreads in Helmand, that will be to the good of the people of Helmand, whatever other activities they may have been involved in. If we establish the strength of the local communities and they can hold out the Taliban, that is exactly what we went there to do.

Are there not two threats to our relationship with the Afghan people? Governor Daud said last week of British help:

“Promises to get projects up and running have not been kept and there hasn’t been a DFID representative in Helmand for2 months.”

Secondly, politicians abroad have been calling for more action to destroy poppy crops. Do not the failure of DFID and the intention to destroy poppy crops in the short term—the only income for subsistence farmers— risk pushing the local population into the arms of the Taliban and undermining the efforts of our armed forces?

In the first place, Governor Daud is a man who represents his community and consistently asks for more, as indeed almost every hon. Member probably does in relation to their own constituents at one stage or another. It is not surprising therefore that he should focus on what more he wants for his community and not necessarily on what has already been achieved, and a significant amount has been achieved in Helmand province in road building, in other significant reconstruction work, in health and in schools. Indeed, we plan to do much more work, particularly in Musa Qaleh and in other parts of the north, in order to reinforce the deal that has already been struck in that part of the country.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was wrong about the absence of a DFID representative in Helmand. Last week, I was in Lashkar Gar, where I met and spoke to a DFID representative present on the ground. The challenge is whether the security in the part of the province where we want to do the reconstruction work first is sufficient for us to deploy into those areas people who are not soldiers or troops, for the purposes of reconstruction work. That is a difficult judgment to make. Consequently, we need to reconfigure the way in which we do the construction or reconstruction work, and that is exactly what we have been doing across government. That is why in July I announced the deployment of 300 engineers into Helmand province, and we are beginning to see the work that they can do across the province. That work will build further security. We will then, on that basis, encourage non-governmental organisations and others to build their representation in Helmand, or to come back into the province to do what we went out there to do in the first place. We have, in my view, a programme now in place, principally as a consequence of the work that the Paratroopers did while they were there in regularly overmatching the Taliban.

Eurofighter Typhoon

The United Kingdom has to date contracted for 144 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft for the Royal Air Force. A decision on the third production buy of the aircraft, known as tranche 3, has still to be taken and is not required until at least 2007.

I thank the Minister for the update on those numbers. I remind him that the Government have remained consistent to a commitment to buy 232 Eurofighter Typhoons. Given that 72 of those aircraft have already been sold, on a Government-to-Government basis, to Saudi Arabia, may I conclude that the number that the RAF will eventually be given is 160?

The Saudi Arabian export order is completely separate from the UK’s commitments under the international memorandum of understanding signed by the Typhoon partner nations. The answer I gave to the right hon. Gentleman’s original question still stands.

My right hon. Friend is aware of how important the orders are to the north-west and its skills base. Can he ensure that we will look for the third tranche? I know that it is earlier than he expects, but some argue that joint strike fighter technology transfer may not go ahead, so will he be aware that we may have to use Typhoons off the carriers?

I know that there are those who argue for the marinisation of the Typhoon, but there are no plans to do so. Sometimes that is promoted by those in industry, and their spokespersons elsewhere, as plan B. I wish to make it clear, with regard to our intentions for the carriers, that plan A remains plan A. Those who campaign for plan B usually want it to be plan A, if the House understands me—[Hon. Members: “We don’t.”] Well, hon. Members should read Hansard. This is an important issue. We have a major investment commitment across the whole defence sector. The defence industrial strategy sharpens that and gives us a better approach to look forward, with industry, to ensuring that all our procurement requirements can be met within the resources that are allocated to us. That applies to Typhoon as it does to every other procurement buy. We have an ambitious programme and we hope to meet all those ambitions.

May I say, in the nicest possible way, that the Minister did his reputation for straight speaking less than his usual justice in the answer that he just gave to the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle)? Let me give the Minister a second chance. Will he guarantee that however many of the Typhoons eventually come to the United Kingdom, none of them will be used fromthe two aircraft carriers that one assumes he and the Government will eventually get round to ordering?

I have given two very straight answers, and I do not think that I have anything to add to them. I talked about the Saudi Arabian export order, which has still to be concluded, and the way in which thatis separate from our own memorandum of understanding. I have indicated our plans in regard to the two aircraft carriers and what will fly off those two platforms. The hon. Gentleman fully understood the point that I made about plans A and B, and I assume that he supports that.

Regiments (Yorkshire)

4. If he will take steps to ensure that the merger of Army regiments will preserve historic links with Yorkshire towns and cities. (97412)

Connections with Yorkshire will be maintained through the presence of a permanent regimental headquarters in York, with outstations in Richmond and Halifax. In order to carry forward the historic links of the antecedent regiments with the towns and cities of Yorkshire, the Yorkshire regiment undertook a series of marches through the county over the summer.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I congratulate the Government on retaining the name of the Halifax regiment, may I press my right hon. Friend to confirm that the links will continue by giving a funding boost to the Army’s Bankfield museum in Halifax? That will ensure that the historic links with the town are maintained.

I am not aware that there is an issue with the museum. My understanding was that museums would continue, but I shall certainly look into the specific point that my hon. Friend raised. On behalf of the new Yorkshire regiment, I ask her to work in the county and in her constituency to ensure that the regiment is fully recognised and supported by all the community.

Does the Minister agree that old regiments, such as the Green Howards and many others, had recognised historical links with cities such as York and towns such as Thirsk and Bedale, which helped with recruitment? He must ensure that those links are recognised under the new set-up; otherwise this Government and the next Government will have enormous problems with recruitment and retention.

I agree that trying to maintain recruitment is an issue across the whole Army, although, as it happens, recruitment in Yorkshire is strong and we do not believe that it has been affected by the formation of the new regiment. As of today, recruitment figures are actually better than they were for the previous two years, which tends to go against some of the views that have been expressed, but we have to maintain that activity to ensure that we retain that high level of recruitment. That is why recruiting activities will continue throughout Yorkshire; and I know that the hon. Lady will be supportive and will make sure that people interested in an Army career choose the Yorkshire regiment, as other Members will want to do for regiments in their constituencies. We are conscious of the issue, although we have not seen the adverse effect that the hon. Lady seemed to imply, and we shall continue all our efforts to maintain recruitment.

Is the Minister aware that the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, which was merged just over four years ago into the Light Infantry, is to be merged in February into the Rifles? Will he assure the House that his Department will do everything it can to maintain the historic links with significant historical regiments, such as those for Yorkshire, which are so important for recruitment, and to encourage the regimental associations, when the mergers take place in February, to keep alive that distinguished history?

We are very conscious of the golden thread, as it is called. It is for the Army itself, as well as the regimental associations, to keep that light burning. Throughout its history, the British Army has undergone many, many changes, with regiments amalgamated and some disbanded, yet it is still revered as among the best, if not the best, in the world today. If we do not adapt to change and continue to make sure that our people have the best structure and the best support, that golden thread will be challenged, but we have it very much in mind.

Although many predicted a doomsday scenario when amalgamations took place, is not it the case that because of the historic links, especially with Scottish regiments, recruitment is up?

Recruitment is doing well, although there are good and less good areas, but a lot of effort goes into maintaining it. There was cataclysmic phraseology around, to the effect that the process would be the end of the British Army as we know it, but that has simply not been the case. I am conscious, too, of the fact that 100,000 people marched through Glasgow in 1957 campaigning against the amalgamation of the Highland Light Infantry, yet the then Conservative Government proceeded with the amalgamation and the British Army is still strong. That amalgamation and subsequent ones proved successful. We have to make sure that this is as successful and I have every confidence that it will be.

Cluster Munitions

5. What assessment he has made of the effect of the proliferation of cluster munitions and their use by non-state actors. (97413)

We constantly assess threats to our deployed forces, including the security environment in which they operate. To date, that has not required specific assessments of the effects of the proliferation of cluster munitions and their use by non-state actors.

I thank the Minister for his reply. As the conflict in Lebanon shows, cluster munitions have a widespread and damaging impact on innocent civilians, both during and after conflict, so why are the Government refusing to support an international ban on the use of those manifestly indiscriminate weapons?

There was, of course, evidence that Hezbollah used such weapons. Clearly, the Israelis did as well, and we have raised that with the Israeli Government. Why are we opposed to a ban? This subject has been looked at across the range of nations that have an interest in it. If properly used, such weapons are consistent with international humanitarian law. The matter is constantly reviewed. The hon. Gentleman is saying that we should take a capability out of the hands of our forces which could result in a situation in which, if they were deployed, British soldiers’ lives could be lost. If that is what he is advocating and we ban such weapons, what is the next thing that he will want us to ban? Will he want our soldiers to have no weapons at all?

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report by Human Rights Watch that condemned the use of cluster bombs against Jews in Israel as a war crime? Has he further seen the Amnesty International report that said that the indiscriminate use of rockets and their bombs on, again, Jews in northern Israel was also a war crime? Does he share the assessment of those two organisations that the actions of Hezbollah, with regard to cluster bombs and the indiscriminate rocket attacks on Jews in Israel, constitute a war crime?

It is not for me to judge what is, and what is not, a war crime; that is best left to those who have judicial responsibility for such matters. I know that my right hon. Friend is only too well aware of the role of non-state actors and how ruthless they are—of what global terrorism does. There are no controls on such actors. They do not need to observe any law—international or any other—and they have total disregard for the lives of civilians. That is not the case in respect of the United Kingdom. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that, when we deploy forces and they are in conflict situations, every effort is made to minimise civilian casualties, if that is possible. That is not the case with regard to non-state actors, and I think that we shall see more brutal use of weapons of very evil choice by global terrorists in the years ahead. They are the ones whom we should be targeting it is they whom we are trying to deal with in Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever else they might manifest themselves.

Armed Forces (Resourcing)

6. What assessment he has made of the extent to which the armed forces have sufficient resources to meet their commitments; and if he will make a statement. (97414)

As Members are aware, we have two major commitments—those in Iraq and Afghanistan—plus significant enduring commitments in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and elsewhere. We accept those challenges because we cannot afford not to. The job that our forces are doing, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, is vital, and I am grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman’s party for both of those missions. We continually review our force levels in each theatre, and I assure the House that the current levels are manageable, and that they give our commanders what they need to do the job.

Although we have supported the Secretary of State in those two missions, ever since the publication of the strategic defence review before the millennium, when Lord Guthrie went to see the Prime Minister to complain about underfunding of the armed forces, we have consistently pointed out and complained about overstretch and underfunding, and this Government’s failure to match the commitments that they have taken on with the necessary resources to meet those commitments. If the Prime Minister is continually to say, “Whatever the commanders on the ground want, we will give them”, whose fault is it if he cannot deliver what they want, such as more helicopters and armoured vehicles?

The hon. Gentleman can point to no example where the Prime Minister or any Secretary of State for Defence, or the Ministry of Defence, in this Government has failed to deliver what our troops on the ground want and need. Of course, we are able to do that because, in cash terms, the annual budget for defence has increased by £5 billion in the past five years. We should compare and contrast that with the cuts of £2.5 billion in the last five years of the previous Government. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to make assertions about investment in our armed forces, he ought to do so on a proper, comparative basis.

Resources, of course, can mean people as well as equipment, and if we are to maintain our defence capability, recruitment remains a challenge. I, and doubtless Members in all parts of the House, want more young people to learn about service in the forces, so that they might choose it as their career. Will my right hon. Friend therefore give the House a progress report on the pilot scheme to extend the combined cadet forces into state schools, and does he have any proposals to encourage more young people in state schools to join the cadets?

The pilot schemes are due to roll out shortly. Because they are still in the planning and negotiating stages with the individual schools concerned, I am not in a position to give him from the Dispatch Box the report that he would like, but I will write to him with the details of those discussions. However, we intend to ensure that the pilots are successful, so that they can be a forerunner of the development of cadet forces across the country.

On resources and the recent tragic loss of an RAF Nimrod in Afghanistan, the Secretary of State wrote to me today in detail, saying that the investigation

“will include consideration of the concerns raised about the age and management of the Nimrod fleet”,

which I welcome. Can he tell the House today how quickly he expects the board of inquiry to conclude its investigations?

As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, the board of inquiry, which was set up to deal with such matters, is not in my control and nor is it accountable to me. It is entirely independent and its conduct is entirely a matter for itself, but it is inconceivable that it would not deal with the very issues that he raised with me in correspondence. For the very reason that it is independent, I am not in a position to say when I expect it to report, but I anticipate that it will do so as quickly as possible, in line with the thorough investigation of the circumstances surrounding the incident.

Experience of the armed forces parliamentary scheme suggests that the British armed forces will do their level best to meet every commitment that we throw at them. Although I disagree with the view that our armed forces are at overstretch, it seems clear that they are at stretch and have been for some considerable time. Would it not ease matters if we drew down our remaining troops in Bosnia, now that the majority of that task is complete, and if some of our European allies took a more forthright role—in particular, if German troops took on a combat role?

On Bosnia, we are looking at that very possibility in the context of EUFOR—the European force that is there—and its command and control. I am confident that, in or about next spring, we will be able to do just what he is urging upon me.

Has the right hon. Gentleman noted General Lord Guthrie’s description of the British Government’s military intervention in Afghanistan as “cuckoo”, which he gave for exactly the reasons that I have repeatedly put to the right hon. Gentleman and his two predecessors as Secretary of State for Defence?

I indeed noted the interview that Lord Guthrie gave, but it must have been only partly reported in the newspaper that claimed to have that interview. Although I could see the assertion that the deployment of our troops into Afghanistan and the operation there were “cuckoo”, I was unable to glean from the interview as reported exactly what the reasoning behind that assertion was, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that the assertion was made for the reasons that he has articulated, because that allows me to repeat that those reasons are wrong. The hon. Gentleman repeatedly misunderstands, as do others in the House, what we are doing in Afghanistan. We are not doing what the Soviets or anybody else sought to do, or even the British Army before them. We are there in partnership with the Government of Afghanistan, and in excess of 30,000 Afghan troops are now fighting with us in Afghanistan.

As the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) correctly said, the ultimate resource for our armed forces is manpower, which is dependent on morale and motivation. The Secretary of State told us that he did not know about the planned changes to the separation allowance, which will mean cuts to the income of many of our front-line combat troops, when he announced the recent bonus payment. Can he now confirm that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have decided that those cuts will go ahead? That is a clear case yet again of this Government giving with one hand and taking with the other, and—what is worse—undermining the morale and motivation of our troops, to boot.

The hon. Gentleman repeatedly draws conclusions from facts that he does not understand, into which he does not inquire, or which he misrepresents. On this occasion, he is making suggestions about the reconfiguration of the separation allowance—an issue that was reported in the media. I confess that I did not know the detail of the subject, but given that the decision was made three years ago, and was agreed by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, it is not surprising that it was not at the forefront of my mind. If he had made even the most cursory inquiry into the matter, he would have discovered that the reconfiguration of the allowances does not take one penny away from anybody or from the armed forces. It makes sure that the allowances are paid fairly across all the services. Money is not being taken away from anybody. Indeed, the operational allowance that I announced in the House two weeks ago is significant additional money for our armed forces. The total effect of the operational and the separation allowance is to give significant additional money to the armed forces, and, interestingly, it will result in more money for the lowest paid, which his proposal of a tax cut would not have achieved.

Hospital Facilities

By the end of this year, there will be a military managed ward at Selly Oak hospital. It will provide an enhanced military care environment for patients returning from an operational theatre, if it is clinically appropriate for them to be brought together in one ward. There has also been an increase in military nurse numbers at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, which is the primary reception hospital for operation casualties.

What thought has gone into the provision of the best possible trauma care for our servicemen and women?

Decades of thought have gone into providing the best possible trauma care for our injured servicemen and women. Indeed, the previous Government started the process when they sought to close our military hospitals. As the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) said when he visited Selly Oak on 25 October 2006:

“you cannot keep a military hospital open with that level of throughput”

that those military hospitals have.

I see that the hon. Gentleman assents. He has been trying to explain that across the country for some time, and I welcome his support. The way to improve care for trauma victims is to ensure that they are treated in theatre, in the best possible hospitals. We do that by providing them with world-class hospitals there and by ensuring that they are treated in world-class hospitals when they return. We have chosen to centre our care for those people in Selly Oak hospital in the west midlands because it is a world-renowned centre of trauma care.

The House is aware that a decreasing number of hon. Members have had any meaningful experience of the armed services. I regret that, and I certainly commend the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Does the Secretary of State accept that those of us who have had some experience and have benefited from British military hospitals, which have been centres of excellence, are deeply concerned—nay, angry—at the way in which we have provided medical services for those wounded while fighting for this country, and for peace and freedom in various parts of the world? I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that I regret the closure of British military hospitals, because we need to treat our soldiers in special places, where they can be with their colleagues, as that is helpful to their recovery.

The hon. Gentleman’s last point was his most important point, and that is indeed why we are moving towards a military managed ward. If necessary—if the numbers justify it—we will move beyond that to military managed wards, to provide an appropriate environment for those who are recovering. However, I will do some research to ascertain whether, when the process of closing the hospitals was embarked on, he was just as vociferous from the Back Benches. [Hon. Members: “He was.”] I am sure that he was, but I suspect that his was, if not a lone voice, a very lonely voice. I say to him, with respect, that on many occasions he may be a lonely voice but a right voice, but on this occasion he is a lonely voice but a wrong voice. In terms of clinical governance and proper support for our troops, those military hospitals would not have provided the level of care that we want for those who are prepared to make the sacrifices that our troops are prepared to make.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his commitment to the provision of a military managed ward within the excellent care of the NHS. Our hard-working NHS doctors and nurses do not just operate here in the UK, but risk their lives in theatre as reservists and members of the Territorial Army. Does he agree that to denigrate NHS care for military personnel, as several Opposition Members have done, is an insult—

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the level of care that is being received by our forces in theatre. Last week, when I was in Helmand province, at Camp Bastion, I visited the military hospital in theatre. It is excellent and is excellently staffed by people of the highest calibre. Opposition Members have to square the circle with the people of this country when their leader suggests that his policy can be summed up in the word, “NHS”—

Order. I hope that we can at least manage to get to Question 10. We will have to step the pace up. I want to hear how the Grenadier Guards are getting on.

Iraq

8. What assessment he has made of the prevalence of mental illness among servicemen returning from combat duty in Iraq; and if he will make a statement. (97416)

The Ministry of Defence sponsored research by King’s college to gain further understanding of the extent of mental health problems by those who have served on Operation Telic. We welcome the study’s confirmation in May 2006 that the overwhelming majority of our servicemen and women are returning from operations in Iraq in good health and that there has been no significant difference between the mental health of regulars who deployed to Iraq and those who did not.

In response to the study’s findings that higher percentages of reservists who served on Telic 1 displayed symptoms of common mental health problems and post-traumatic stress disorder than reservists who did not deploy, we announced our intention to create an enhanced post-operational mental health care programme for recently demobilised reservists. That will be launched before the end of the year.

I pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives and their health in this conflict, includingthe 2,000 ex-servicemen—60 a month—who have succumbed to mental health problems following the conflict in Iraq. What is the Department’s long-term commitment to that group of causalities, bearing it in mind that the conditions are often long-term and manifest themselves some time after the event?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, there is excellent care for those on operations and those coming back from operations. Excellent care is provided by Combat Stress and the Priory Group, as well. As I have just mentioned, for post-operational purposes, for reservists, we are looking at providing additional mental health care. We are also looking at the possibility of pilots, working with the NHS and some charities, for other veterans who may need further support. For instance, that may mean some sort of involvement from military mental health care professionals.

May I commend to the Minister the work of Hollybush house in my constituency, which provides specialist mental health services, residentially and in the community, as part of the Combat Stress network? Its already limited resources are being stretched by increased referrals from veterans recently back from Iraq and it also has concerns about support for reservists who have been recently deployed. Can I expect the Minister to announce, as part of his strategy, increased funding for Combat Stress by the end of year?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in this matter. She mentioned Hollybush house and Combat Stress in her constituency. We work closely with them. As I said, in terms of the overall strategy, it is important to consider support when on operations and when coming back from operations. It is also important to look again at how we can improve post-operational support. We are looking at a particular scheme to give that support to reservists. We will continue to look at ways in which we can improve and get more assistance to those who need it.

The Minister referred to a statement made by his predecessor in May, which said that a Minister was going to come to the Dispatch Box a few months later to clarify the details of the announcement. Five months later, the Minister has simply repeated chunks of May’s statement, so it appears that the Department has made little or no progress. When will our reservists, some of whom have significant mental heath issues, as was acknowledged in May’s statement, finally get to hear about the treatment package to which they will be entitled? When will the Department pull its finger out and make that announcement?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my earlier answers. I make it clear again that it is important that we get this right and that we provide the best possible service. We intend to make an announcement on the issue before the end of the year.

Hospital Facilities

9. What plans he has for hospital treatment of injured service personnel; and if he will make a statement. (97417)

While on operational deployment, service personnel receive excellent medical care in field hospitals and other deployed medical facilities. In Afghanistan, we are upgrading the hospital facility and we already have an upgraded facility in Iraq. In addition, the £690 million Birmingham new hospital project will see our military casualties being treated in the largest and most modern critical care unit in Europe, as well as offering our medical personnel excellent training and research facilities.

With Defence Medical Services standing at only 50 per cent. of its target staffing level, what can the Secretary of State do to reassure us that he is trying to increase the number of staff?

The hon. Gentleman identifies a challenge that we face. In response, we have to offer those who wish to practise medicine in the armed forces the best possible environment in which to do so, with the promise that they will be able to train and build their skills in a way that will allow them to advance in the profession. The investment that I outlined in the hospital that is presently called Selly Oak will provide that environment.

While I will not accept any criticism of the quality of medical treatment that our servicemen and women receive from the NHS when they return injured, may I suggest to the Secretary of State that sometimes when our soldiers are treated in mixed wards, some of their special needs, such as where to store their kit bags and how they access visitors, are not quite understood? Further talks might be beneficial so that the two services understand each other better.

I have been to Selly Oak hospital, which has been the focus of all this attention, twice in the past six weeks. I spoke at length to patients on both occasions, and the group of patients whom I met only a couple of weeks ago were unstinting in their praise of the care that they received in the hospital. I will bow to no one in defending that hospital, which is providing the highest level of care. Of course, we can always improve our ability to generate the environment in which to recover that will be the best for those for whom we care. We will continually examine the situation, including the points that my hon. Friend raises.

Grenadier Guards

10. What the tour interval over the last three years will have been for the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards when deployed to Afghanistan in 2007. (97418)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last updated the House on units deploying to Afghanistan on 10 October 2006. Army units are generally given advance notice of a possible deployment to allow them to plan ahead. The next major routine roulement of regular UK forces is due to take place next spring. The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards has been given prior warning that it may form part of that deployment. An announcement regarding the next roulement will be made in due course, once the details have been finalised. If the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards was to deploy to Afghanistan in spring, its average tour interval for the three-year period between April 2004 and April 2007 would be 10.75 months.

Of course, that is way out of the harmony guidelines. The 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards will have been deployed on operational tour for 19 out of 36 months by spring next year. Does the Minister not recognise the massive effect that that has on family life, promotion and retention? Such a pathetic tour interval will lead only to fewer soldiers, not more. In light of those statistics, will the Minister review the dreadful decision taken by the Ministry of Defence in July 2004 to cut four infantry battalions? Will he recognise that to give soldiers what they need, perhaps more soldiers are required?

The hon. Gentleman raised two points. Yes, we fully recognise the impact that such short tour intervals have on all serving personnel and their families, and we do all we can to work against that. Looking across the average, we are not that far out in terms of our overall commitment, but there are certain units that come under great pressure.

The hon. Gentleman talks a lot of nonsense about the restructuring of the Army under the future infantry structure. Let me tell him why. Under the arms plot which we have had for too long and which successive Governments refused to tackle, anything up to seven battalions were not available because of re-roleing or relocating. The restructuring that we are undertaking and the reinvestment of 3,000 posts through the future Army structure will allow the British Army and the British armed forces to live up to the high accolade that we give them—that they are the best in the world. That will take time to deliver, but at least we are now on track. Previous Governments failed to achieve that.

Hospital Facilities

Military patients are getting the very best treatment available. The Birmingham NHS hospitals that are the primary reception hospitals for operational casualties are among the best in the country. They offer specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience, treating civilian and military patients alike. That is why many of our armed forces doctors, surgeons and nurses work there—to help develop the skills needed for front-line missions.

Is it not the case that the treatment received by all our armed forces—soldiers, Navy, Air Force or anybody else associated with our armed forces—is second to none? I pay tribute to Headley Court for the rehabilitation work that it does. Will my hon. Friend confirm that war pensioners are entitled to priority treatment on the NHS for injuries that they have received, which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to treating our personnel with the respect that they deserve?

I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the excellent, close working relationship between the military and NHS medical staff. When I visited Selly Oak, I saw the excellent relationship that has developed there, allowing the best possible treatment to be provided. Injured soldiers to whom I spoke there were clear in their congratulations and appreciation for the care and treatment that they had been given. My hon. Friend is right that war pensioners who suffered injuries are entitled to priority treatment on the NHS. Periodically we remind the NHS of that, and I shall continue to do that in future.