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Volume 454: debated on Monday 11 December 2006

I regularly receive representations on military equipment in Afghanistan from a wide range of sources, including hon. and right hon. Members of this House. We keep our deployment in Afghanistan under constant review to ensure that our armed forces have the equipment that they need.

The current Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, his immediate predecessor, Sir Mike Jackson, and Brigadier John Lorimer, who is due to take up command in Afghanistan next year, have all said that the Government are not providing sufficient armoured vehicles and helicopters for the operations in Helmand province. Those grave concerns have been dismissed by Ministers. I have constituents who have sons and daughters in Afghanistan. Whom should they trust—senior soldiers who have been in the military all their lives and who understand leadership, or Ministers, who know very little about the military and even less about leadership?

The hon. Gentleman’s constituents should trust a process that reviews not only the force strength but the equipment that our soldiers have in theatre. It has served this country well for decades. All senior members of the military, including all those who were and are Chiefs of the Defence Staff, make a contribution to and are involved in the decision-making process.

On the specifics of the hon. Gentleman’s question, Brigadier Lorimer has made it publicly clear that he has not made any request for any equipment for Afghanistan that has been turned down. He and others know that a process is ongoing to review our deployment, force strength and equipment in Afghanistan. It is not yet concluded, and no decisions have yet been made.

The Secretary of State should know that these processes can be hurried up—they should be hurried up—and that there is a serious shortage of helicopter load and personnel carrying capacity in Afghanistan and Iraq. Will he take steps immediately to find out what helicopters could be leased at short notice from the Americans, who have plenty of them and would be glad to let us have them?

We have already increased the size of the support helicopter force in Afghanistan, sending another two Chinooks since July, and we have increased flying hours. I have met the current commander of the UK taskforce, Brigadier Jerry Thomas, twice in recent months and he has confirmed to me that he has sufficient helicopter availability.

Speaking as a Conservative Member, let me tell the Secretary of State that we understand the difficulty and sensitivity of these matters. However, will he give the House an assurance this afternoon that there will be adequate armoured personnel carrying equipment in Afghanistan? I believe that we are asking our forces to put their lives at risk travelling in some of the vehicles that are currently used. Will he give the undertaking that I have requested to protect the lives of our personnel?

The hon. Gentleman knows that I directed an urgent review of the protected patrol vehicles in response to concerns relating to the evolving threat in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will recollect that on 24 July I announced that we were to invest more than £70 million additional resources in approximately 270 new vehicles for both theatres; they are all on track to be delivered as I announced. They include Vector vehicles, which are Pinzgauer vehicles; Mastiff vehicles, which are Cougar vehicles specially purchased from the United States of America; and Bulldog vehicles. I can give the hon. Gentleman an unequivocal assurance that if the process, properly staffed up, as the phrase is, comes to me with a recommendation for additional armoured vehicles in Iraq or Afghanistan, I will respond to that request.

Is the Secretary of State seriously saying that senior officers, both those deploying imminently to Afghanistan and those in deployments to come, are not complaining about the lack of helicopter assets?

What I am saying to the House is that I have spoken twice to the current commander of our forces in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan about that very issue and twice put the question directly to him, and he has given me that assurance. I have no knowledge of the view on helicopter lift of any prospective commander of those forces. If such a prospective commander wants additional helicopters, he will, no doubt, make that request properly through the chain of command and it will come to me.

That is a most inadequate answer. As General Jackson put it last week,

“There is a mismatch between what we do and the resources we are given with which to do it”.

Today, the Secretary of State has hidden behind his commanders who say that they do not need anything, but he must know otherwise from speaking to people in the field. Today, I spoke to somebody who tells me that there are not adequate Apache spares. When will the Secretary of State invite the armed forces not to trust the process, but to trust him to deliver that which they need to do the job that the Prime Minister has given them?

In his speech, General Sir Mike Jackson used the adjective “Kafka-esque”. What is Kafka-esque about this situation is that the hon. Gentleman comes to the Dispatch Box against the background of having supported a Government who cut support to our armed forces in real terms by £500 million a year, but then complains that a Government who have provided £1 billion a year more progressively over their time in office are providing inadequate support to our troops. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] On the hon. Gentleman’s specific question, he knows that if he wants a specific matter to be dealt with, there is a way to do that. I have no knowledge of the matter that he has raised today having, he says, spoken to someone this morning. If he provides me with detailed information, I shall correct the inadequacy.