The Secretary of State was asked—
The Ministry of Defence has regular discussions with the Ministry of Justice about the management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations. Since last summer, additional assistant coroners have been available to relieve pressure on the Oxfordshire coroner. The use of home coroners for single fatalities has been introduced and, in addition to the existing arrangements for all three services, a dedicated team has been established to support coroners preparing for inquests. As of today, there are five outstanding inquests in respect of operations prior to 1 January 2006, three of which should be heard by the end of July.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, because the point has been made that waiting three or even five years for an inquest is unacceptable to the families concerned. That is sometimes compounded by their having then to travel a long way, perhaps to Wiltshire, for the inquest. Is the Minister considering coroners’ requests for further resources to speed up the process in the light of the additional deaths that have occurred? What progress has been made in considering the proposal put forward by the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) to allow inquests to take place nearer to the homes of the families of the deceased where that would make matters easier for them?
This is a very important issue. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the time taken has been inordinately long, and that has not been helpful. Sometimes there are good reasons for that, because of the very nature of the boards of inquiry by means of which the Ministry of Defence establishes the technical facts, which then help the coroner to come to a conclusion. Sometimes those can take a considerable time to assemble the best information. The reasons behind the amount of time taken by the coroner rest elsewhere, but that is why the Ministry of Justice and ourselves have put more assistant coroners in place. We shall continue to monitor that, and should there be greater demand and need, we would work with our sister Department to find the best solution. On getting inquests carried out nearer to home within England—I make the point that this cannot apply to Scotland because of the nature of the fatal accident inquiry system that applies there—we will always seek to get them carried out close to home. That is how both Departments are seeking to find a solution.
It is good to know that considerable progress has been made, but will my right hon. Friend reassure me by confirming that the Department fully understands the need to give support and advice to families at such a difficult time?
That, too, is an interesting and important question, and we have already established a dedicated team. One of the issues that I am examining is how to ensure that, in terms of our duty of care for our families, all that we do is the best it can be. I am also trying to encourage a more family-friendly approach within the inquest system, and all that work is under way. We have learned valuable lessons, and we shall continue to throw our best resources at this to ensure that the families receive the best advice and support during a difficult time.
I note what the Minister says about resources being thrown at this, but the fact remains that this question has been coming up for at least three years and, as he says, cases are still outstanding from 2005. Will he guarantee that proper dedicated resources will be provided, or would he consider establishing military coroners, who could add to the speed of the process and reduce the grief for the relatives?
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a word of advice. If the MOD were seen to be more closely engaged in what can be seen as highly contentious issues, it would look as if we were somehow interfering with the normal process of the consideration of these matters. Although we should rule nothing out, we would have to take that into account to ensure that there was a proper balance and that the families were certain that justice was being carried out in the inquest. On the allocation of resources, what I have said is that recently we have moved considerably in a short period of time. Some cases are long outstanding, and there are good reasons in respect of all of those. Where we can expedite them we shall, but that rests with the coroner, and not necessarily with the MOD.
Will the Ministry of Defence work with the incoming Scottish Executive to ensure that inquiries can take place under Scots law? After all, that would help to reduce the backlog and to ease the inconvenience to the families.
The answer to that is yes; we will always work with any Administration in any part of the United Kingdom—and long may Scotland remain part of the United Kingdom. My understanding is that there would need to be a change to primary legislation. We need to look into that, but if there is a will to change in Scotland, let us hear the propositions.
Before I ask the Minister my question, may I point out that my hon. Friend the shadow Defence Secretary visited RAF Lyneham last Friday, and that he would like to place on record how impressed he was with the sensitivity and professionalism of all those who deal with the repatriation of our fallen service personnel?
The latest information in the ministerial statement made at the end of March by the Minister’s colleague the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), was that there were still 91 military inquests outstanding, 25 of which dated from before May 2006. It sounds as if there has been a little progress since then, but progress in dealing with the backlog has been painfully slow. Given that Ministers expect the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to transfer jurisdiction to the next of kin’s local coroner wherever possible, how confident is the Minister that all coroners will have the expertise to deal adequately with military inquests—and if that is the right solution, why on earth was it not put in place four years ago, so that we could avoid the delays and anguish suffered by bereaved families?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about those who will carry out a daunting task at Lyneham with the same high level of professionalism as is found at Brize Norton. Considerable progress has been made; there is no question about that—and as I said in an earlier answer, lessons have been learned. At the end of the day, this is not just a Ministry of Defence issue. I again make the point that some of the delays were occasioned by the requirement for boards of inquiry to be thorough and exhaustive, so that we can best learn lessons. In the main, coroners await the outcome of the BOI. They do not need to, but I think that they benefit from it. On the point about assistance for the coroners system, we now have a dedicated team, and we will give the best technical and support assistance to coroners if they require it. Experience tells us that they would welcome all that, because a difficult and complex set of circumstances, which coroners may be encountering for the very first time, is involved. Progress has been made, and we can only seek to improve on that, but we have to take into account all the mitigating circumstances, some of which are outwith the control of the agencies and organisations involved.
Service Personnel (Health Care)
We regularly assess the medical support for service personnel to ensure that it is among the best in the world. That support can range from life-saving surgery in the UK’s NHS hospitals and the excellent facilities at the Defence medical rehabilitation centre, to the treatment of routine ailments on a daily basis.
General Dannatt has made it clear that he wants a dedicated military ward for our service personnel, but the Prime Minister will only support a military-managed ward, which is not good enough as a long-term solution to the problems. Will the Under-Secretary look again at the issue, because a number of our service personnel feel that they are being let down?
May I quote what General Sir Richard Dannatt actually said about Selly Oak?
“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine than that hospital in Selly Oak, that’s why our people are there.”
We are moving to a fully military-managed ward during the summer. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that work commenced on the partition in the ward today. We are increasing the number of military nurses there, and there is also welfare support and psychiatric support. As part of the examination of the new hospital building, a military ward is being considered under the new private finance initiative scheme at Birmingham. Obviously, we will take that into consideration in the next few months.
Although military personnel who are critically ill or injured must of course have the best treatment available anywhere, wherever that may be, does the Under-Secretary accept that there are overwhelming reasons why, for psychological and morale reasons, military personnel should be treated in a military environment? Other nations, and military personnel themselves, are incredulous that the Royal hospital Haslar, which is just such a military environment, should be closed.
I listen very carefully not just to the experts in the Ministry of Defence but to the clinicians and nurses who carry out their duties in places such as Selly Oak and in our field hospitals in the operational theatre, and no one whom I have come across so far believes that we can go back to military hospitals. There are not enough patients to ensure the training and care experience that our clinicians and nurses need if they are to provide the world-class care and treatment that they currently do.
However, as I said in response to the previous question, we recognise that the military environment is important, which is why we are moving to a military-managed ward at Selly Oak. That includes at least 26 military nurses—the number will be increased to 39 in the summer—military medical consultants, clinicians, welfare support and psychiatric support. There are also liaison officers in the ward, who liaise with the units of the injured service personnel. We recognise the importance of the military ethos, but it is important to ensure, too, that we use the best NHS skills and support within the NHS to ensure that our injured service people receive the best possible treatment and care.
The Minister’s remarks are welcome, as resources have at last been made available to our recovering servicemen. However, does he not understand the distinction between a military-managed ward and all that that means, which he described, and a ward on which only military people are treated, so that service personnel can recover surrounded by their comrades, and not find themselves, as in one recently reported case, waking up with elderly ladies on either side, one of whom said, “What happened to you, lad?” People recover faster when they recover among their own kind.
It is clear that a military-managed ward is the stage to which we are moving. With partitions, it will allow a much better military environment, with the involvement of many more military and medical personnel, plus welfare support, as I have already said. The new hospital being built at Birmingham offers us an opportunity to improve on that by providing a better military environment, and we will consider whether we can provide a full military ward. That is something that we are examining, and the decision will be made in the coming months.
Iran (Seizure of British Equipment)
We continue to press by all diplomatic means the Government of Iran to return the boats and equipment seized illegally in both 2004 and 2007.
Can the Secretary of State tell us—apart from the iPod—what radio and cipher cards were seized, the standing operational procedures for which are destruction prior to capture?
I am not in a position to give the House that sort of detail in relation to operations, for good operational reasons. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, that all issues relating to operations, particularly the operations in March 2007 when boats and equipment were seized, will be looked into by the inquiry ordered by the Chief of the Defence Staff, which will be led by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, and will report to the Select Committee on Defence.
Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Iranians need to keep that equipment? It was taken in international waters. Is there a motive that we do not know about, and what discussions are under way to get it back?
I can see no reason why the Iranians would want to hold on to that equipment, as they took it illegally and in law should return it. The embassy in Tehran, as one would expect, takes the lead in these matters, and continues to press at every opportunity for the return of the boats and equipment.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to allow the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to look at the results of the Fulton inquiry, and to reach a conclusion. In the meantime, may I invite him to consider how we are going to move from the present situation to a dialogue with those in Iran who would have a dialogue with the rest of the world? I appreciate that there is every opportunity to take offence at things that the Iranian Government are doing, not least to our own forces, but how are we to resolve the question of Iran unless we are in dialogue with those who would be in dialogue with us?
Order. The question is a bit more specific, as it is about the recovery of the materials.
In relation to the materials, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that dialogue is indeed taking place between Ministers and officials, particularly officials in London who represent Iran? He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took advantage of the recent meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to speak to her Iranian counterpart.
May I ask the Secretary of State why there are different rules of engagement for British and for American service personnel working in the Shatt al-Arab waterway?
Rules of engagement are entirely a matter for the assessment made by the command in relation to the tasks that those in their care face. To the extent that they are different, that is because we hold on to the relevant distinction that we should be able to make rules of engagement for the protection and care of our own troops.
Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), may I say that it would be extremely strange if highly sensitive cipher cards were indeed in the possession of a boarding party, given the duties that it has to perform? May I also ask the Minister why a ministerial written answer on 24 April said that we had not at any stage sought the support of the United Nations in recovering the boats, even though both in 2004 and in 2007 the boats were captured while carrying out a mandated mission supported by the United Nations? Why are we making only bilateral approaches, when the right hon. Gentleman said in his answer that all diplomatic approaches were being made?
The judgment as to the most effective way of approaching the Iranians in relation to the matter entails a complicated assessment of what will be to best advantage in the wider circumstances of our relations with Iran and our other interests in that part of the region.
Good progress continues to be made in developing the capability of the Iraqi security forces. To date, more than 143,000 Iraqi armed forces have been trained and equipped by the multinational forces.
I welcome the progress that has been made in numbers. Can my right hon. Friend also report to us the progress that has been made in training the Iraqi armed forces in skills and operational capabilities?
We are continually looking to improve the effectiveness. As for numbers, we are getting towards the figure that was set as the target for recruitment. The emphasis is now on building the Iraqi security forces’ capability, particularly in leadership, command and control, intelligence and logistics. If the House wishes for evidence of the improvement in capability, I point to the conduct of the Iraqi security forces, especially the Iraqi army, in Amarah last October, their contribution to Operation Sinbad at the turn of the year, and the contribution of the 10th Division of the Iraqi army, which the United Kingdom has mentored in relation to the Baghdad security plan. In the assessment of others, including some hard-nosed American generals, they were among the best Iraqi troops deployed in Baghdad.
Just over a year ago when I and other Members visited HMS Bulwark in the Shatt al-Arab, we were advised that the Iraqi navy had been fully trained to carry out boarding, and the only reason why it could not do so was its lack of boats. Bearing in mind recent events, can the Minister confirm that the Iraqi navy is indeed fully trained to undertake boarding, and can he tell the House what efforts have been made to provide it with the necessary boats so that it can carry out those duties?
Better than that, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that about two weeks ago when I visited Umm Qasr, where the Iraqi navy is based, I saw for myself that not only was it fully trained to carry out boarding, but it was doing so, although that was further up the river than the area where the incident involving our Marines took place in March. With reference to equipment, within months the Iraqi navy will receive the first of 21 new boats, all of which have been specifically designed for it to carry out such work. In the meantime, it has boats, provided by the Italians, from which it is able to carry out boarding.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that many Iraqi officers have been trained in Brecon, and to an extremely high standard?
I can, of course, confirm that. Significantly, that has been the case for some time now, not just in this phase of the development of the Iraqi army. It is amazing the number of very senior and older officers whom I meet when I go to Iraq who were trained in Britain, or in the British way in defence colleges elsewhere, perhaps in Pakistan or India.
Does the Secretary of State now accept that the Iraqi army would be in much better shape, and the security situation in Iraq would be more stable, if we had not expelled all Ba’athists from the army—and will he accept that a very bad mistake was made, and lessons had not been learned from what happened in Germany in 1945?
Retrospection always lends clarity to people’s opinions. I know from my conversations with Iraqis, and in particular with Iraqi politicians, that de-Ba’athification is still a contentious issue. I was not involved in the particular decisions that were being made at the time, but I understand their complexity. They were finely balanced decisions, and the balance may have fallen on the wrong side.
We welcome the progress made with regard to the training and deployment of Iraqi troops, but can my right hon. Friend give us an estimate of when he expects Iraqi troops to be of sufficient numbers and ability to take over all of the British sector in the south? What confidence does he have that the Iraqi forces will be able to monitor and control the border between Iraq and Iran?
When the balance between the level of threat in the remaining part of the south-east of Iraq—Basra province and Basra city—and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deal with that threat is right, we will be able to hand over. We are in that transition phase at the moment. In Basra city we have successfully handed over two of our operating bases and we have substantially handed over the Shaibah logistics base. We plan to consider the handing over of Basra palace within a matter of months, and around that time we will be able to assess whether the Iraqi security forces, in particular the 10th Division of the army, have reached a level of capability to face down the threat, as they have been able to do in the provinces that we have already handed over.
Over the next 20 years we expect to contract for, or build, more than 20 major warships, including nuclear attack submarines, new aircraft carriers and more air defence destroyers, and to begin a new class of fleet escorts. Numerous Royal Navy support ships will also come into service over this period.
There has been some exploration of the possibility of working with the French in a joint venture on the two super-carriers. It is probably welcome that we should share costs by joint working on design and other aspects, but will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out any option that includes building the ships in French yards, and guarantee that our carriers will be built entirely and wholly in British yards?
I would like to think that we could bid for the French ship to be built in British yards as well—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would see that as a major success, but would still say that the converse would somehow be wrong. We have a deep and growing relationship with the French on this, and their contribution to the cost has been welcome. We are working to get common design, which again we welcome in terms of our relationship over the decades ahead with the French as a major ally. Let us take this a step at a time. At present our plan is to build those ships in British yards, and that is what we seek to do. That is what the maritime industrial strategy is all about, and every encouragement should be given to it.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is good news not only for the Navy but for the UK defence industry? Will he join me in congratulating organisations such as Northern Defence Industries, which is working hard to ensure that medium-sized and small enterprises access the supply chain for these contracts, not only in the north-east but throughout the north of England?
Yes, I can say “Hear, hear” to that. It is important that the areas that have that expertise, and have had it for a good number of years, see this as a major opportunity. The more small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain see that opportunity—and, more importantly, seize it—the better it is for our industrial base overall. We have a strong supply chain, and support not only for the maritime industry but across the range of defence industries. I give every encouragement to those organisations, including the particular one mentioned by my hon. Friend, to work hard to ensure that they maximise the opportunities available to them.
To what extent does the Minister agree that there is no point in having aircraft carriers if we do not have the aircraft to fly off them? In the event that the joint strike fighter project fails, what discussions is the Minister, or his officials, having with the French about the possibility of flying Rafale aircraft from our aircraft carriers?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating that; I suspect not. We have said that we intend the joint strike fighter project to succeed, and every effort has been put into that. I thank everyone who lends weight to that argument in their visits to the United States and impresses on people there the importance of our engagement and our relationship with them. There is a plan B, but as I have already said, we want to succeed with plan A. I do not think that plan B should be ventilated at this stage, but it is not along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Can my right hon. Friend update us on the Type 45s, two of which are sitting in my constituency being fitted out, with a third to join them before the end of the year? What is happening with ships Nos. 7 and 8 in particular, as we know that four are required to defend each aircraft carrier? [Interruption.]
I am being asked to give a short answer—I do not think that that will be the case, but I shall do my best.
We are concluding our negotiations on ships Nos. 4 to 6, and until those issues are resolved we cannot move on to the next development, which would be that of ships Nos. 7 and 8. I have said this to my hon. Friend before, because he constantly asks this question—and rightly so, because he represents the interests of his constituents and those shipyards extremely well. No doubt he will be the first to ask the question again as we get closer to a final decision.
I welcome what the Minister has said about the carriers, which enjoy support across the House. Will he give us some indication of how the Ministry’s thinking is developing on future procurements, given the need for the Navy to play a part in rapid responses in conflict and humanitarian situations? In particular, what response does he have to those who argue in defence journals and elsewhere that too much of our naval capability is geared up to anti-submarine warfare, and that we need more multi-purpose ships and small, faster, more versatile craft for the future?
First, I do not think that there is universal acceptance on both sides of the House that we need the aircraft carriers; I am sure that some would argue that we do not. It is up to them to articulate that, but if they do say so they will be wrong. In terms of anti-submarine warfare, some of the recent changes in defence have been because of our understanding of the changing nature of the submarine threat. We cannot make a complete exit, because we do not know when things could change. We need to keep a number of options open, not only in terms of the surface fleet and the submarine fleet but across the range of personnel who give essential protection from the air and elsewhere. All those issues have to be taken into account. The planned expenditure on the Royal Navy over 20 years is £14 billion. Clearly, if the threat changes within that time scale the need to procure different types of vessels will be taken fully into account, based on the military assessment at that time.
What are the implications for the future naval building programme if existing warships can be used more intensively by, for example, having two alternate crews?
We are trialling that approach to keep the ships at sea for longer. That is one issue about the size of the Navy versus its capability. The more capable the ships, the longer there should be between refit and maintenance work. The ships can thus be kept at sea and closer to the point of deployment. It is then a case of working out how best to use the Navy personnel who serve on those ships. Trials are under way, and the Navy will take account at all times of any adverse impact on the naval personnel involved in such a process. Let us wait and see how it works. However, I would have thought that my hon. Friend would welcome the opportunity to deploy ships at sea for longer than at present, when they have to return to base port or home port and are therefore not in action.
The Minister boasts about the order book, but I understand that, in the past five years, the Government have ordered only one ship—an offshore patrol vessel. Is not it the case that, by selling off perfectly serviceable Type 23 frigates, mothballing six ships out of a surface fleet that has already been cut from 35 to 25 and relentlessly reducing orders for Type 45 destroyers and attack submarines, the Government have demoralised the once proud Royal Navy, all at the behest of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who does not understand Britain’s armed forces?
That was a bit of a rant, which does not relate to reality. The Navy is not being mothballed. Ships are in different states of readiness—it has never been the case that all ships are maintained at a high state of readiness at all times. Ships have to go into refit and undergo modification, with new equipment being fitted to them. That means that they fulfil a different role.
We are considering a development programme of £14 billion, and I have listed the ships that are in the process of being contracted for or built. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are inaccurate. I suggest that he read my parliamentary answer about what has been procured under the Government. That will help educate him.
Does the Minister understand that small and medium-sized enterprises have grave concerns about the aircraft carrier? They put the delay down to the involvement of the French. Can he allay their fears?
As far as I know, the French are not causing the delay. If anything, the delay is about ensuring that we have the best fit for the building capacity in the yards. That is where the ongoing, progressive and helpful discussions between Vosper Thornycroft and BAE Systems are leading. All that will be greatly beneficial. As I said in response to an earlier question, there are great opportunities, and industry should be getting itself best placed in its planning to maximise the time when it can make a bid for different aspects of that programme. Matters are complicated by the fact that the programme is not signed off and the steel cutting is therefore not under way. Once that happens, the pace will quicken and the enterprises should be assured that there is a good future ahead for them.
Government policy is to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to employ private military and security companies, which already have a significant role in Iraq. For example, much of the progress in building civilian security capacity has been achieved through the work of the UK civilian policing mission to Iraq, including trainers and mentors who are employed by ArmorGroup. A review of private military and security policy is under way.
The Secretary of State knows that War on Want estimates that 48,000 employees who work for almost 200 different companies are now in Iraq, making them the second-largest occupying force after the United States. He may also know that there have been allegations of human rights abuses by some of those companies. Why have not the Government’s intentions, which are stated in the 2002 Green Paper, to introduce legislation to control those companies, been implemented? We have waited five years for that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the significant contribution that private military and security companies make, particularly in Iraq, where they are ever present. Given the nature of the conflict in Iraq, even the green zone could be considered part of the battle space and those companies are there in significant numbers, and therein lies the answer to his second question. That was not the case in 2002, but since then, the proliferation of private military and security companies—not contracted by this Government, I should say, but by many other Governments—into the battle space where we deploy in coalition has greatly complicated the circumstances. We are presently looking at the nature of any regulation that we might need to bring in, which was anticipated in the Green Paper and subsequent discussion. It is a complex issue, so when we legislate, we will need to get it right. Consideration is going on across the relevant Departments at the moment.
How much has the Department spent on private security companies in Iraq over the past four financial years?
I refer the hon. Gentleman to an answer given to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on 19 March 2007, in which the House was told that one contract had been awarded by the MOD not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, and that the value was approximately £35,000.
Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of the amounts going to private security companies in Iraq are in respect of past or present advisers to, or members of, Bush Administration companies?
I will have to write to my hon. Friend to answer that. I am sorry that my brief does not have that specific information. I know that a significant number of other Government Departments have contracts with private military security companies, which were detailed in another answer to the hon. Member for Lewes on 20 March. The detail is set out there if anyone wants to look at it. The contracts went substantially to a firm called ArmorGroup, of which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is the non-executive chairman.
UK armed forces are deployed in Iraq in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1723. We continue to make progress in creating the conditions required to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqi authorities by helping to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces and by conducting joint security and counter-terrorist operations with them. Last month, Maysan province—the third of the four provinces in our area of operations—was handed over to Iraqi security control.
Given that the whole House is united in the conviction that so long as our troops are there, they must have the best equipment, will the Secretary of State tell us the current assessment of the timetable for the deployment into Iraq of the Mastiffs that were earmarked to go this summer? Will the anticipated reduction in the number of troops have any consequences for the number of Mastiffs to be put in theatre?
Our current plans are to have 100 Mastiffs in theatre in Iraq by the end of the summer. They will be complemented by 100 Bulldogs and, if I remember correctly—I am relying on memory—160 Vector or advanced protection vehicles. Whether we meet that target precisely will depend on a number of factors. I say that because, in recent months, in order to advance our ability to get protected vehicles into theatre, we have gone for a solution that allows those vehicles to go into theatre and for those who use them to tell us how the next batch can be improved. I ask the House not to hold me to any specific day, but we have been able to meet the challenge in this procurement that the procurement process has not been able to meet before. Indeed, when I was in Iraq a couple of days ago, I was privileged to be shown the presently deployed vehicles by the people who use them and I can say that they were singing their praises highly.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the number of troops will be reduced and that those who have served will not go back into theatre as quickly, but will get the proper rest and full training that they need before being redeployed?
I have already announced to the House our intention to reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq, down to about the 5,000 figure, by the autumn of this year or thereabouts. One of the consequences of that reduction will be our ability to rest, train and recuperate our troops better than we can currently, because of the tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is certainly part of the plan.
With the Secretary of State’s recent visit in mind, I am sure that he will have met members of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles in Basra, and will therefore be aware of the splendid service that they have performed and the injuries and fatalities that they have suffered. The regiment is now coming to the conclusion of its tour of duty. I seek the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Ministry of Defence will be in touch with the commanding officer of the regiment to ensure not only that its troops are properly debriefed and that lessons are learned from their tour of duty, but that every assistance is given as the regiment adjusts back to life in the United Kingdom.
I can give the right hon. Gentleman all the assurances that he seeks. From the moment those troops who have served in the operational theatre board the aircraft to come out, the process begins of rehabilitating them, debriefing them and allowing them to decompress. That process is uppermost in the minds of those who look after them. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution that the 2nd Battalion the Rifles has made. He is right: I saw with my own eyes the brave and professional work that those troops are doing, but they are not alone. All the troops we have deployed into Iraq have made a significant contribution and are doing splendid work.
I have asked the Secretary of State on a number of previous occasions about Iranian involvement in arming insurgents. It is becoming increasingly clear that factory-grade weapons are crossing to Iraq from Iran. They include explosively formed projectiles capable of piercing armoured vehicles, and killing and maiming our troops. What is being done to secure the border and how will that task be handled during the withdrawal of forces from Basra? It is essential that we minimise the risk of such weapons being used against coalition forces throughout Iraq.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is evidence to suggest that armaments, and in particular improvised explosive devices, are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq that have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have deployed our forces along the border in Maysan. During my recent visit to Iraq, I spoke to those who were deployed in that area. I commend them on the work that they are doing and the intelligence that they are able to build up in that area. That is one of the reasons why we conduct the boarding operations along the Shatt al-Arab waterway that we have already discussed today.
Over and above that, we seek through the Iraqi Government and their engagement with the Iranian Government to send the Iranians the strong message that, apart from anything else, it is not in their interests to have a destabilised southern part of Iraq. We seek every other opportunity that we have, including the increasing opportunities that we now seem to have, to speak to the Iranians and get the message across to them.
The Mahdi army has been behind some of the worst atrocities in Iraq and some of the most lethal attacks on British forces. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House and to our troops what the Government’s current position is with regard to Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army? Do the Government regard him as a political figure or a terrorist?
The fact of the matter is that Moqtada al-Sadr is, in terms of Iraq, both. He is a man who plays a significant political role—there is no question about that. It is not for me to define who is a political figure and who is not, and he undoubtedly plays a significant political role. It is also clear that elements of the Mahdi army behave as if they were insurgents, or indeed terrorists. There is no doubt about that, either. What is not entirely clear, however, is which parts of the Mahdi army are under his control and which are not. In the south of Iraq, where we have forces deployed, a competition is going on—including, among others, the militia of the Mahdi army—for influence. That fact that we stand between them and the effect that they could have on the people of that part of Iraq, especially in the city of Basra, causes them to attack us so frequently. That is why we treat them as we do, and we have had significant successes over the past month or so in dealing with them in that community That is not to say, however, that they are not still a significant bad presence.
Selly Oak Hospital
Selly Oak hospital provides first-class treatment and care for military patients. The military-managed ward there reached initial operating capability before Christmas. There are now military managers involved at every level and a total of 26 military nurses, which is double the number in August 2006. As I mentioned earlier, that number will increase to a total of 39 by this summer, when the ward will reach its full operating capability.
As military-managed wards require specialist support, will the Minister indicate what staffing changes have been made on that ward? After all, we are seeking the best possible care for our soldiers and service personnel, whether that is provided by military or national health service personnel.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue about the way it is operating. Clearly, we have a number of military medical personnel, as I mentioned in answer to previous questions. The increase in the number of nurses and other clinicians to 39 is significant. Our partnership with the NHS is also important. I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to Selly Oak hospital and those from the NHS who have been caring for our military personnel, who have received outstanding, world-class treatment and operations. Again, it is not just about meeting clinical needs, but about providing welfare and psychiatric support, as well as excellent family accommodation, which has been developed with the help of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which I also thank. A range of support services is provided for our personnel at Selly Oak.
I am pleased that the Minister, for whom I have a high regard, has mentioned the psychiatric care available to our service personnel, both men and women, who return from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering, in many cases, from trauma as a result of their horrific experiences in operational areas. Is he satisfied with the level of psychiatric and psychological care available to our service personnel when they return from areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He will know that psychiatric support is also available on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are always looking to improve psychiatric support. As I have mentioned, Selly Oak has two psychiatric nurses, and there is also support at Hedley Court and in defence community mental health care provision based in different parts of the country. The mental health care provided has improved tremendously, and gives the support that our service personnel expect. We are also trying to improve the provision for veterans.
The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. In Baghdad and surrounding areas, violence perpetrated by sectarian and insurgent groups remains a very serious problem. Recent action by Iraqi and coalition forces as part of the Baghdad security plan has led to a reduction in murders by the militia death squads. But the terrorist groups continue to use suicide bombings to inflame the sectarian divide.
Outside Baghdad and its environs—which account for around 80 per cent. of the violence in Iraq—the security situation is better, particularly in the north and south of the country. But there are still security challenges in both parts.
Everyone knows that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month’s time, a year’s time or two years’ time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target—the magnet—for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?
Order. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State is honest with the House.
I understand why the hon. Gentleman put his question in that way, although his vocabulary was slightly extravagant at one stage. I have always sought to be straightforward with the House about the complexity of the challenge that we face, and the nature of the challenge that we ask our troops to face, in southern Iraq. I have always said that the transition process is a condition-based process, and I have evidence that that is exactly how we have dealt with it in the three provinces that we have already handed over.
I am not suggesting, and have never suggested, that those areas are perfect places in which to live. I am merely describing the evidence in respect of transition and provincial Iraqi control there. I was told, not only in the House but elsewhere, that there would be meltdown and mayhem within weeks, but in all three provinces the Iraqi security forces have been able to maintain some stability—although not complete stability—with the help of the politicians.
That is our objective for the city of Basra and the Basra province, and I will not take my eye from it, although the fact that we stand between the militia in southern Iraq and what they want to do to the people of southern Iraq makes us a target in the meantime. We have a duty to those people to stay with them, while maintaining the balance of which I have spoken in the past. We also have a duty to members of our forces who have lost their lives or sustained injuries in trying to achieve that objective to see it through.
One of the biggest challenges in Iraq remains the lack of helicopter lift. It was announced recently that the six Merlin helicopters that had been delivered to Denmark would be returned to the United Kingdom, but they are fitted for search and rescue, a fitting that is wholly unsuitable for service on operations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that funds will be found to fit those helicopters appropriately?
When I announced not only that the Danish Government had agreed to send us the six Merlin helicopters on the basis of their contract, but that the eight Chinook helicopters previously fitted for mark 3 performance but unable to fly would be refitted for mark 2 performance, I announced in the same statement funds to ensure that all the helicopters would be capable of deployment in the operational theatre. We will indeed ensure that funds are available to fit them appropriately. It is unthinkable that we would fly helicopters in the operational theatre that were not protected in the way in which all the helicopters we currently fly are protected.
For 18 months, military commanders have been advising that the mere presence of British troops is provoking violence. How much provocation do our troops have to give before the Secretary of State will bring them home?
Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort. I have already explained twice to the House that what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that.
We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.
The Joint Helicopter Command was formed in 1999 with the specific purpose of delivering integrated battlefield helicopter and air assault capability provided by all three services. Other helicopters operated solely by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force may also be called upon for cross-service support. This integrated approach means that it is common for an aircraft from one service to support one or more of the other services’ personnel, equipment and aircraft. RAF Chinooks, Merlins and Pumas that combine to form the support helicopter force within the Joint Helicopter Command are frequently employed in transporting troops and equipment from the Army or Royal Marines. Attack helicopters from the Army Air Corps can provide defensive cover for RAF Chinooks in operational theatres.
I thank the Minister for that full and comprehensive reply, but what plans does he have to replace the current Gazelle fleet, and will he consider the purchase of light assault helicopters to fill the capability gap, bearing it in mind that the 40 Future Lynx aircraft that are due to come into service in 2014 will replace more than 200 aircraft from the current Gazelle and Lynx fleets? Does he acknowledge that there will be a huge future shortage of capacity, and what will the Government do to fill that?
Clearly, we must define what that future shortage is; it must be well defined. We then have to define what the procurement strategy should be to fill that gap and make sure that that which we procure has durability and utility over the longer period. The reason why I am giving that answer is because procurement is not simply about saying, “Let’s take it off the shelf and stick it out into theatre.” I know that the hon. Lady understands that. I will provide her with a written response to the detailed points she has raised so that she can have the best understanding of how these matters are progressing.