The Secretary of State was asked—
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a short statement before answering the question. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending sincere condolences to the family and friends of Lance Corporal James Cartwright, who was killed in Basra, Iraq, on Saturday.
The Ministry of Defence provides a high level of support for serving personnel diagnosed with adverse health conditions, however they arise. That can range from life-saving surgery in our field hospitals, or UK NHS hospitals, to rehabilitation at the world-class defence medical rehabilitation centre, or our regional rehabilitation units, and comprehensive in-patient and community-based treatment for those whose mental health has been affected. For those who have left the forces, health care is provided primarily by the NHS. We work closely with the relevant authorities to enable a seamless transfer for those who are medically discharged from the services.
I add my condolences to those connected with Lance Corporal Cartwright.
The Ministry of Defence is generally quite good at providing medical services for serving soldiers—once the helicopter arrives—but the service is inadequate for the ex-military, especially those with post-traumatic disorders. The fact that hundreds are likely to contract those disorders after coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan has been described as a ticking time-bomb. This is not about NHS or private treatment. However, surely dedicated specialist help needs to be easily accessible to the ex-military with post-traumatic stress disorders? Will the Minister take responsibility for setting that up?
The NHS has always had responsibility for the treatment of veterans. We have worked closely with Combat Stress, which provides a good service and support. We have funded it to the tune of about £2.9 million and will significantly increase its funding this year. I announced last Monday the extension of the medical assessment programme, through which former service personnel who served from 1982 onwards, which includes those involved in the Falklands campaign, will be able to go to St. Thomas’ hospital for a medical assessment that will be carried out by Dr. Ian Palmer, an expert in military psychiatry. I believe that that has been widely welcomed as a positive step forward. We are working with Combat Stress and the health service to determine how we can develop pilot schemes that will enable the NHS to draw on expertise and help as it treats former personnel who might have developed a mental illness as a result of their time in the services.
I recently had the pleasure of welcoming home 2nd Battalion the Rifles after their distinguished tour of duty in Basra. Its members’ concerns were selflessly for their colleagues and comrades who had been injured in service. They asked me to ask the Secretary of State to undertake work to ensure that when such people return to the United Kingdom, their recovery takes place in “observably military circumstances”—a true military facility. Will the Minister consider that, especially in the context of Birmingham?
I am quite convinced that our armed forces personnel who have been injured and wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq are getting world-class treatment and care at Selly Oak. That is provided by our military medical personnel, who include 26 nurses—the number will rise to 39 in the summer—welfare support and liaison officers, and military clinicians. However, the fantastic NHS clinicians and nurses also do an absolutely wonderful job of supporting and working with our injured personnel. We are just about to finish work on a partition to bring about a greater military ethos in the ward. Our personnel are getting world-class treatment, although we can always learn from events and any complaints will be investigated. The chiefs of staff are considering whether to move to a new military ward as part of the new hospital building.
My hon. Friend referred to the “seamless transfer” to the NHS. Will he give the House a guarantee that all patients’ medical records will be available? Surely the MOD has a responsibility to ensure that any injuries collected in service are seen to before the person goes back to a normal state of living. Will he guarantee that the duty of care will be maintained until that point?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that there be a seamless transfer from military medical support and treatment to the NHS, so we are working closely with our NHS colleagues to ensure that that happens. Additionally, we are looking at how we can make further improvements by examining whether there are gaps or improvements that can be addressed by the MOD, the NHS and the service charities that work with injured personnel and those who leave the forces owing to a medical condition. I guarantee my hon. Friend that I will continue to press for further improvements to ensure that our military personnel get the best possible treatment and care.
Will the Minister review the way in which the mental health charity Combat Stress is financed? He is right to say that it has a wonderful record, but the charity can receive money from the Ministry of Defence only for those who are in receipt of a war pension, and many servicemen and women do not show symptoms of stress until up to 14 years after they have been discharged from the services. The problem is therefore going to grow, and a brilliantly cost-effective way of dealing with it would be through that well established charity, which he visited in December and I visited with the Defence Committee last Thursday.
As the hon. Gentleman says, the charity Combat Stress does excellent work and I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to see exactly what it does. As I said, we fund the charity to the tune of £2.9 million and we are going to give it a significant increase in funding. Perhaps I did not make this clear in my previous answer, but we are considering setting up pilot schemes around the country to enable the NHS, Combat Stress and the MOD to see how we can improve the support for former service personnel who suffer mental illness as a result of their service, and part of that work will cover commissioning. That has been welcomed by Combat Stress, but there is more work to be done. I hope that we will be able to make an announcement on those pilot schemes in the not-too-distant future.
Will my hon. Friend say a little more about the support available to those who serve in the Territorial Army? I recently met a young man who is soon to go to Afghanistan for a year. My hon. Friend will have seen the criticism of the support on their return for those who serve in the Territorial Army. Will he reassure me that he is looking as closely at the support available to our territorial soldiers as he is at the support available to regular servicemen and women?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. A study by King’s college London showed that there were more reservists than regulars suffering from mental health problems. Although the difference was not significant, it was large enough for us to examine the issue to see what more we could do. Often, such people do not go back as formed units or to friends back at a barracks or base; they go back to communities around the country.
Last year, we announced the reservist mental health assessment scheme, which we run from Chilwell in Nottingham, where reservists who served from 2003 can go for a full mental health medical assessment and for treatment, if that is needed. Of course, we will work closely with their GPs and any other commissioners. I believe that that has been a successful step forward, but we always keep open our options to do more.
The Minister may be aware that the funding of a number of the mental health trusts across the country is threadbare. When someone is transferred from military care to NHS care, we must ensure that funding is available within the area where that person wishes to reside. Will the Minister discuss the matter with the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that funding is provided for those mental health trusts?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. My hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) made a similar point about transfer and the importance of making sure that there are links between the military medical services and the NHS. Of course we speak to our colleagues at the Department for Health—for example, my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Defence had a meeting a few months ago to discuss how to continue to co-ordinate and improve medical support for armed forces or ex-armed forces personnel. The pilot schemes I mentioned earlier are important in providing the NHS with expert help to determine the best way to care for and treat those who have developed a mental health condition as a result of their time in the armed forces.
First, I associate the Conservative party with the condolences in relation to those who have lost their lives on operations overseas or here at home.
I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who is returning with the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), from the Falklands, where he attended the commemorative services. I also apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is also on a defence visit.
With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I also say “well done” to the Government for the events they staged to commemorate the Falklands conflict? They were a fitting tribute to those who fell retaking the islands.
The Under-Secretary mentioned the medical assessment programme, which the Ministry of Defence described in a press release last week as being “vastly expanded”. In that area of policy, it is important that service personnel are able to have confidence in what the Ministry says. Describing a programme as “vastly expanded” when the increase in the number of medical personnel consists of one doctor being transferred from working part time to working full time is an example of the Government being guilty of spin. Does the Under-Secretary think that such an increase in the number of personnel really is a vast expansion of that service?
First of all, may I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments about the Falklands commemorations, and the Opposition parties for their support in developing the commemorative event? I believe that I am right in saying that the veterans thought that it was a great event that did them justice, and that they thought that it was in the right tone, so I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he says.
Dr. Ian Palmer is a widely respected consultant psychiatrist who has vast experience and has served in the armed forces. Of course, he has much experience from the military medical point of view. We are increasing his hours from one day a week to five days a week. That is a significant increase in the resources that we are making available, and we will make further resources available if that is needed. I might just make the point that in the end we did not have to use all the resources that we provided for the reservist mental health scheme. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept, we are not sure about the numbers of people who will use the service. The key thing is to get it off the ground, and to ensure that our veterans know that it is available and that they can use it to get their mental health assessment and medical assessment. That service was not there before, and it is a major step forward.
Naval Base Review
That complex review is progressing well, but further work is required before final conclusions can be reached. It is important that the naval base review is allowed to run its course and that all relevant issues are considered, so that the right decision can be made.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware of the concern in Plymouth that BAE Systems is exerting undue pressure on the Ministry of Defence to ensure its preferred outcome to the naval base review as part of its negotiations on the future carrier. Does he agree that that is totally inappropriate, and that it would not be in the interests of the MOD to distort the cost base and the outcome of the naval base review, which should be the subject of separate analysis?
In almost every area for which I have responsibility, rumours abound—but they seldom turn out to be true, although sometimes there is a degree of accuracy to them. On the rumour that my hon. Friend mentions, I have no knowledge of any such pressure being imposed by BAE Systems, but I would just say that the basing of the future carrier is of course a consideration in the naval base review, as are the facilities at Devonport, which cannot be replicated elsewhere. She is shortly to meet my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, and I am sure that she will then have the opportunity to make the case for Plymouth and Devonport, as she has already done eloquently.
In considering the future of the Portsmouth naval base, does the Secretary of State agree that, among the issues to be considered, two are important? One is the viability of the future joint venture between VT and BAE Systems. Another is the difficulty of persuading naval personnel to move away from the home of the Royal Navy, as their spouses may well be deeply ensconced in their own careers in the Portsmouth area.
The right hon. Gentleman makes two good points in support of Portsmouth that will be need to be taken into account in the naval base review, but as far as Devonport and Faslane are concerned, their strong historical naval links and the fact that families have spouses or partners employed in the naval bases there are serious considerations, too. Of course the joint venture is a consideration in the naval base review, as is Babcock’s intended purchase of DML.
May I add my voice to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy), and emphasise just how crucial the future of the naval base is for the wider south-west, not just Plymouth? Cornwall is an objective 1 area, Plymouth has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and Bristol is about to lose some air base defence jobs and skills. Will my right hon. Friend, along with colleagues from other Departments, consider fully the wider socio-economic impact, given the peripherality of the south-west compared with the overheated south-east?
I assure my hon. Friend that we are fully engaged with a number of stakeholders, including other Government Departments and regional development agencies, in jointly working up the cost implications of different naval base review options. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently met ministerial colleagues from other Departments to discuss that very issue.
There have been numerous reports in recent weeks about a possible collaboration with the French on the construction of two new aircraft carriers, including one today that suggested that Rosyth could either lose out or even be the base for those new carriers. Would the Secretary of State care to comment on the collaboration with the French, whether any conclusions have been reached, how UK dockyards would be affected, and whether Rosyth would benefit from being the base for the aircraft carriers?
We need to be careful lest we increase the proliferation of rumours, but I accept that every rumour detrimental to my job is an opportunity for a Back Bencher. All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that our co-operation on the carriers with the French is very productive, as they have made a significant contribution. We continue to work with them. The new President and Government who have been elected still support the venture, and I look forward to continued co-operation. As for conclusions, the hon. Gentleman will just have to wait with everyone else for the outcome.
May I support the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), as well as the powerful financial and industrial arguments in favour of Portsmouth remaining the main base? Does the Secretary of State agree that there are very important points, too, relating to the retention of senior staff—men and women who are usually family people—who, for years, have made their home in south Hampshire, where the training and basing of ships is focused? Does he accept that that is important to the retention of Portsmouth?
I am very conscious of that, and I assure everyone in the House that those parts of the country with strong links to the Royal Navy will have those links taken into account in our considerations. It is too early to say, because I have not yet received any recommendations about one naval base or the other, but the hon. Gentleman and his constituents can be reassured that everything that is relevant to the eventual difficult decisions that have to be made has been taken into account.
I think that the answer is yes.
Is not the real reason why the naval base review has been undertaken at all the fact that the Government have slashed the size of the surface fleet, and the admirals fear that if they do not reduce their base capacity, another six frigates and destroyers will go, on top of the 10 already lost? Does the Secretary of State at least accept that over the very long term, the sort of threats that we face may change and any reduction in naval base capacity should be reversible, whereas the closure of either Portsmouth or Devonport would be irreversible? Is not the answer flexibility, rather than closure?
Like the previous Government, who reduced the size of the Royal Navy significantly because of the review that they undertook, the Government have made sure that the Navy’s capabilities reflect our assessment of the threats that we face and those that we are likely face, as well as the comprehensive review that took place at the beginning of our term of office. I am satisfied that we have a Navy that is fit for the strategic circumstances in which we live. The Navy is doing more across the world than it ever did before, and as we will no doubt hear in response to questions if we come to them during this Question Time, it can look forward to being equipped over the next 10 or 20 years with the best modern ships that the world has seen.
Last Monday I visited Iraq and discussed the coalition’s counter-insurgency operations with General Petraeus and others. The military part of the counter-insurgency strategy has a number of strands, including targeted operations and restriction of freedom of movement. The political and economic regeneration efforts are key components, and it is the Iraqi Government who must deliver for the people. If they do not, the insurgents will seek to fill the gap. When I met the Iraqi Prime Minister and the presidency council with the Chancellor, we pressed this point.
A couple of weeks ago the Defence Committee was in Washington and there was considerable interest in what the Prime Minister-elect might do about Iraq. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Prime Minister-elect about the future of British troops there?
I have discussions with a number of people about the future of the British troops in Iraq, but the hon. Gentleman can be reassured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is, as we know, shortly to be Prime Minister, supports entirely the strategy in which we are engaged with our allies in Iraq, and supports the process of transition of the Iraqi Government and Iraqi forces to providing security. That is exactly the message that my right hon. Friend gave the Iraqi Government, and which I gave to those whom I met when I was in Washington recently myself. I am sure that that is the message that the hon. Gentleman was able to give his interlocutors when he was in Washington.
Has the counter-insurgency programme revealed more about the origins of small arms used against coalition forces, ordnance used against them, and explosives used against both coalition forces and the people of Iraq, and whether those bear the fingerprints of Iran or have emanated from Iran? Can my right hon. Friend update the House about what his Ministry knows about the routes from Iran of the weapons being used against us and the people of Iraq?
My hon. Friend is aware that there is evidence to suggest that armaments and, in particular, improvised explosive devices—roadside bombs, for want of another way of describing them—are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq, and that they have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have UK forces deployed along the border in Maysan and why we continue to train and mentor the Iraqi Department of Border Enforcement, which has ultimate responsibility for border issues. It is also one of the reasons why the coalition and the Iraqi security forces conduct boarding operations in Iraqi territorial waters and the northern Gulf.
Whatever the effects of new counter-insurgency measures in Iraq, does the Secretary of State agree that our forces are suffering high numbers of casualties in southern Iraq? The battalion referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, recently returned having suffered 50 wounded, as well as the three killed. The 4th Battalion the Rifles in its first 48 hours suffered 15 casualties, plus one killed. Does the Secretary of State agree that the number of wounded from Iraq is becoming one of the best-kept secrets in this country? If the public were made aware of the numbers, they might be able to give more support to our returning soldiers and understand the problems that they are going through.
There is nothing secret at all about the number of wounded in Iraq. Indeed, the figures are on the MOD’s website. Since I have become the Secretary of State, we have been updating that information fortnightly to ensure that it is current, because there were complaints when we were updating it monthly that it was being held back for too long. We are able to update it fortnightly, so there is no question of the information being kept secret. From my point of view as Secretary of State, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Just as yesterday and over the past week the knowledge of the sacrifice that our services made in relation to the Falklands was part of the country’s appreciation of their contribution, the people of this country should know exactly the sacrifices that our young men and women are making for our freedoms when they are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I am very conscious of the level of casualties and our need to do everything we can to reduce that casualty rate to a minimum. I am pleased to say that through our counter-insurgency strategy we have seen some progress in that regard, in relation to how we deal with indirect fire in southern Iraq.
To return to the Iranian influence mentioned by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to welcome the talks between the United States and Iran on the general security situation in Iraq. However, given that, as he says, it is British forces in southern Iraq who are facing the insurgency, as are British forces on the border with Iran, what involvement did the UK have in those discussions? Was a British general present at that meeting between the United States and Iran, and if not, why not? As our armed forces are involved, surely we should be part of those discussions.
The reason why there was no British general present at the meeting between the US ambassador to Iraq and the Iranian ambassador to Iraq is that no military people were present at that meeting at all. It was a meeting between the ambassadors of those respective countries. We should of course welcome that development in terms of the engagement between these two countries, which have not had such a level of engagement for some decades. The hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House can rest assured that we take every opportunity that we can to impress on the Iranians the need for them to counter the flow of weaponry, support and training that we believe is coming into southern Iraq and other parts of Iraq. It is not in the interests of Iran, which will continue to have close relations with Iraq in the future, to destabilise that part of Iraq. We make that very clear to them and take every opportunity we can to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that the only way to bear down on this is through direct talks with the Iranians, and indeed the Syrians, to make it clear that if they are in any way supporting the insurrectionists’ activities in Iraq, we will take a dim—or even stronger—view of that? I wonder what attempts he is making to talk to the Iranians and the Syrians.
I cannot make it any clearer to my hon. Friend or to anyone else that we take every opportunity we can to get that message across to the Iranian Government. In our view, the most effective interlocutors and the best carriers of the message are those who represent Governments in the region, particularly the Iraqi Government. On a recent trip to the Gulf states, I made it perfectly clear to those who regularly engage with the Iranian Government that they should give that Government the clear message that they are potentially destabilising southern Iraq and that, in the long term, they are undermining their own interests by their behaviour—not to mention the view that we take of their supported attacks by proxies on our own soldiers.
One other aspect of this issue is that if the counter-insurgency operations are successful in southern Iraq and in Baghdad, particularly those supported by Iran, there is a risk that Iranian-supported insurgents may simply move their operations and start to operate against our forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of that risk?
There is already emerging evidence that weaponry which has its provenance in Iran is crossing the border into Afghanistan, as I have said from the Dispatch Box before. We are taking steps to try to stop that traffic and to get the message back directly—on this occasion, directly by conversations between, among others, our respective ambassadors in Afghanistan, in order to get the message across to the Iranians. I think that the House knows that Iraq is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a significant number of countries in the region—[Hon. Members: “Iran!”] Sorry; Iran is already meddling in a detrimental way in the affairs of a number of countries in the region, and in my view, to repeat what I have said previously, it presents a strategic threat to the security of the region.
The Helmand provincial reconstruction team has implemented more than 120 projects to provide tangible benefits to local Afghans. Examples include the building or refurbishing of 12 schools, improvements and repairs to roads and three bridges, six projects improving local health care facilities, and five projects improving the rivers and irrigation canals that enable local farmers to earn a living. We have also constructed a bus station near a major market, which is one of two that have been upgraded with UK funding.
I remind my right hon. Friend of the statement by UNICEF:
“When one woman is abused, exploited or denied, all of humanity is debased.”
I remind the House that the Taliban have banned education for all women, and tyrannised them and their families lest they attempt to enter the process. What is being done to change that?
Among the better indicators of success in Afghanistan, where there are still significant challenges, is the fact that about 6 million children are now in school, 37 per cent. of whom are girls. The Taliban did not educate girls at all. It seems to me that that is exactly what we are doing to address the issue.
It is unrealistic to expect my Royal Engineers colleagues to deliver reconstruction and development in Helmand. The very best that they can do is deliver stability. When does the Secretary of State expect sufficient stability to be provided to enable non-governmental organisations to return in numbers to the province?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of what is happening in Afghanistan and, in particular, in Helmand province. He will know that there are NGOs operating there, but not in the numbers that we should hope and expect. In my view, the most important development would be getting the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan to open an office in Helmand province. If the United Nations were present that would indicate to NGOs across the world that Helmand province was a place where they could do their business. When I was at the United Nations recently in New York, I spoke about this with the Secretary-General and, indeed, with the person responsible for the security of its people, and I hope that we shall soon be able to make some progress in that regard.
We are now almost half way through the Helmand mission, which was presented as one of reconstruction. The hope was expressed that not a shot would be fired, but 500,000 rounds have been discharged, and we have lost 54 of our courageous soldiers there. It is clear that without the co-operation of the NGOs, who will not operate there because it is too dangerous, very little construction can continue. Is it not time to re-examine the purpose of the Helmand mission so that we can concentrate on attainable objectives that will reduce the number of casualties among civilian Afghans and British soldiers?
The loss of any life is a tragedy and British forces take exceptional care to avoid such incidents as generate civilian casualties. I discussed this recently with my NATO colleagues and raised it with the UN Secretary-General. All agree that avoiding civilian casualties is a matter of the highest priority. This week, of course, showed that the Taliban had no such concerns when they exploded a bomb in the centre of Kabul. That is part of the problem. I know precisely what my hon. Friend is asking me to do, but if he wants me to posture our troops in such a way in Helmand that we hand over the province to people capable of that level of atrocity and brutality, I am not prepared to do so.
The Secretary of State recently said—and not before time—that greater emphasis should be laid on winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Why, then, was I told in a written answer of 15 March that only one British Army officer serving in Helmand province has passed the speaking exam in Pashto? Has the Secretary of State been told that in the first three Anglo-Afghan wars, if British officers serving there were to qualify for promotion, they had to be able to speak the local language, although to no avail?
It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman was given that answer on 15 March because it was the right answer to the question that he asked. I accept that there is a challenge for us in the UK to have more native speakers engaged in that area. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that in my own experience of visiting that area on a number of occasions since I took on my present responsibilities—as with almost all the other parts of the world I visit—a lot more people speak English now than did in those days.
Counter-narcotics is, of course, a significant challenge. Although progress has been made in some parts of Afghanistan where security has been improved to a particular level, the production of opium has increased in other parts, including the province of Helmand where we have responsibility. The answer is to develop infrastructure and, in particular, alternative livelihoods for peasant farmers so that we can encourage them to move away from growing poppy, which they are often pressurised into doing by insurgents—and, increasingly, by the Taliban themselves. We are constantly working to improve governance across Helmand province and the south of Afghanistan and to improve the opportunities for local people to generate their livelihoods in an alternative manner.
Troops preparing for combat operations in Iraq were trained before deployment in operating and surviving in a chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear environment, and undertook further training in theatre. Armed forces personnel involved at the start of combat operations in Iraq were provided with individual nuclear, biological and chemical clothing and detection equipment.
I am grateful for that answer. It is absolutely right for our troops to be given the best possible protection against any threat that they might face, but as the Secretary of State knows, there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Indeed, the defence and intelligence services appeared to know that when Ministers were telling us that there were plenty of them. On what date was it therefore decided that those precautions and that equipment could be safely withdrawn from our troops?
No such decision has been made. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that insurgents in Iraq are deploying chlorine bombs, which fit into the category of chemical attacks, so we need to keep our guard up against that sort of development. Over and above that, of course, we have occasionally encountered stocks, albeit pre-1991 stocks, of Saddam Hussein’s weapons. They also pose a continuing danger if we come across them, so we have taken no decision such as the hon. Gentleman mentions.
Theatre-specific tactical awareness training sessions were supposed to be mandatory for forces imminently to be deployed in Iraq, but over the four years of this conflict, there have been exemptions. Will the Secretary of State tell us what those exemptions were and whether the decisions about them were taken at command level or ministerial level?
I am afraid that I shall have to write to my hon. Friend about that. I cannot deal with such specificity of questioning in terms of the brief in front of me, but I shall get back to him and ensure that the whole House is made aware of the answer.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains stable, if fragile in places. UK forces, as part of the wider ISAF—international security assistance force—mission, are engaged in operations to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan across Helmand province and southern Afghanistan.
Notwithstanding the Secretary of State’s previous answers, and given the escalation of fighting in Helmand province, the casualties among our forces and last week’s report by the Red Cross, indicating that more and more civilians were being displaced from their homes and becoming casualties, too, will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what steps he is taking, first, to strengthen support for our troops and, secondly, to ensure that our allies give much greater support to the activities required in the region? What measures can he ensure are taken to win the hearts and minds of people so that they believe that reconstruction and development will happen rather than escalating war?
Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman should know that as a result of the series of announcements I made about our force levels in Afghanistan, numbers have gone up to slightly less than 7,000 and will increase to 7,700 by the summer. That force, which is based around the Helmand taskforce, equipped with attack and support helicopters, armour and artillery and endorsed by the Chiefs of Staff, is my response to the challenge we face. I am pleased to say that although NATO has not yet been able to meet the force requirement of the commander, there have been improvements in the number of troops deployed in our support in the south and across Afghanistan by several of our allies.
On hearts and minds, the most important part of the challenge is to ensure that the writ of the Government of Afghanistan runs across the province of Helmand, which it did not before we arrived. It now does so in a large part of the province, particularly the area around Lashkar Gar where we are able to do a significant amount of work, enabling Governor Wafa to communicate to his people the message that the Afghan Government of President Karzai want to give them about the support we are providing for their future.
In my view, we should measure our success by continuing to make progress. We have made significant progress since last year when we faced a difficult challenge in the response from the Taliban as we deployed in Afghanistan. Those who look carefully at such issues and take into account the degree of propaganda generated by the Taliban will know that the Taliban have not met their propaganda about a spring offensive this year. We have had a much better year in terms of our ability to extend security across the province. There are still significant challenges, but we are making progress.
The hon. Gentleman asked about time. It would be speculative for me to set a date, but I have constantly said that we shall have to be with the Afghan Government and the people of Afghanistan for a significant time to enable them to come out of decades of violence during which 2 million of them lost their lives seeking the freedom they currently enjoy.
Members on both sides of the House will have been alarmed at reports that shortages of helicopters in Afghanistan have been responsible for delays in removing the wounded to hospital and that increased numbers of road journeys have to be undertaken because of insufficient transport helicopters, thus making troops more vulnerable to roadside bombs. How are the Government delivering on their pledge that our troops in Afghanistan will have enough attack and transport helicopters for the purposes for which they are needed?
In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the surgeon general, who has responsibility for the area, made it clear that he believes we provide a service that is second to none in Afghanistan for those wounded in action. There is no evidence to suggest that anybody has lost their life, or has not been properly treated, because of a lack of helicopter support. Indeed, given the distances involved in Afghanistan, we now deploy consultant-led teams on helicopters to ensure that people have appropriate support when the helicopter reaches them.
I have announced an increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan and increased the number of helicopter hours, and am satisfied that I have met the demands for helicopters made by the chain of command. More widely, of course, we have taken decisions to invest £230 million in 14 more helicopters so that they can be available for deployment if necessary.
Some people might think that if someone is trapped and wounded in a minefield for six hours, the helicopter that comes should at least have a winch on it, but let us move to the question of winning hearts and minds.
Is it not the case that one way of not winning hearts and minds is to be obsessed, as our American allies sadly are, with the eradication of the poppy crop, even though a huge proportion of Afghanistan’s citizens are still dependent on it? What opportunities have our service chiefs had to take up directly with the American strategists their concerns that pursuing a policy of poppy eradication is counter-productive and works against the principles of counter-insurgency, which must be to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as is humanly possible?
I shall deal with the eradication of poppies in a moment, but I do not want it to be thought that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s gloss on what was already a gloss on a very difficult incident in which, sadly, one of our troops lost his life and others were seriously injured. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of that incident. It is much more complicated, and it does not serve either those who fly helicopters to support those on the ground or those who were undertaking that dangerous mission on the ground for it to be used in the way in which the hon. Gentleman used it. In due course, there will be a full inquiry into the incident, and I ask him and other hon. Members to wait for the outcome of that inquiry rather than speculating for the purposes of making political points.
Eradication plays a part in any proper counter-narcotics strategy—the hon. Gentleman knows my view—if it is appropriate in certain circumstances. One of the most important of those circumstances is when peasant farmers have an alternative livelihood at their disposal so that we do not condemn them to a level of poverty that will inevitably mean they will engage in violence.
The hon. Gentleman should rest assured that as our senior military are integrated positively into the command of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, they have their say and are heard in all conversations on all aspects of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Government constantly discuss such issues. He will have noticed, of course, that, on eradication, at the end of the day President Karzai’s decision in relation to Helmand province last year was consistent with the military’s view about where and when it should be conducted.
Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces announced on 6 June 2007, we have decided to proceed with a private finance initiative deal with AirTanker Limited to meet the future strategic tanker aircraft requirement. We aim to finalise the financial and contractual arrangements as soon as possible.
The VC10 aircraft that are going to be replaced were purchased second hand in the 1980s. No other airline or air force flies them. They need urgent repair, and one RAF source said that they are held together with rubber bands and sticky tape. Is that not another example of the Government doing too little, too late for the brave men and women of our armed forces?
The FSTA was designed to enter service in such a way that it meets the out-of-service dates for both the VC10 and the TriStar fleets. They are inextricably linked, and always have been. The calendar age of an aircraft is not an indicator of its operational utility or its remaining service life. Indeed, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman flies on aircraft that are of a considerable age in the fleets of many air carriers around the world.
Officials at the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Communities and Local Government continue to work together to ensure that servicemen and women are fairly treated in terms of access to social housing, and we hope to make an announcement about that in due course.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. A constituent of mine, however, who had served his country in Afghanistan, was uncertain of being able to get social housing when he left the Royal Marines, and for a time was warned that he might have to take his family into a hostel. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable? Will he consider reviewing the tri-service regulations, so as to recognise the debt of honour that society owes to members of our armed forces, and to give them priority access to social housing to avoid such problems?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are hoping to make an announcement in due course about that issue, which he mentions in a local connection. A joint housing advice office helps service personnel and their families, and there are various projects around the country that work with ex-service personnel, including Compass in London, the Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the Ex-Services in Catterick, and Galleries in North Yorkshire. Help with housing is part of the leaving package for service personnel, and the key worker scheme is also available. I urge Members of Parliament to help by contacting their local authorities to see what priority they give to service personnel.
One of the announcements made last year was on the key worker scheme in London and the south-east, which is an important step forward for service personnel. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have committed ourselves to considering what more can be done to help service personnel to buy, or buy equity in, a home. The strategic remuneration review is also considering how armed forces personnel can get into the housing market.
One excellent organisation that helps our servicemen when they leave the armed forces is the Royal British Legion. Sadly, it does not get information from Her Majesty’s armed forces when servicemen leave. Is there any way to increase communication with the Royal British Legion so that it knows when servicemen are leaving, as it did when I left, and can help them with benefits and housing when they arrive?
We are working with five key charities to provide information about service leavers, and we want to do more. Recently, a welfare conference, which involved all the service charities, the single services, the Ministry of Defence and others, considered how best to fill the gaps for service leavers. Our resettlement package is widely renowned for its excellence and provides a significant amount of advice. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with service charities, and are considering what more we can do to improve the help and support that he rightly highlights.
We should not provide only social housing to our ex-service personnel. Veterans day is next week, and on Sunday I shall hand out 70 badges to armed forces veterans who served as recently as 1984. One of those veterans flew 32 bombing missions to Germany, and ended up as Field Marshall Montgomery’s driver. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to pay tribute to those veterans. Can he tell us how many badges have been handed out by his Department, and what it is doing to publicise that wonderful initiative?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents, to the particular constituent he mentions, who is clearly a remarkable man, and to veterans as a whole, who are remarkable people who contribute greatly to society and their communities. Veterans day is therefore important, as it recognises their contribution. We have now handed out more than 400,000 veterans badges, and we expect 500,000 to have been presented by late autumn—
I welcome the engagement of Defence Ministers with Housing Ministers to address the issues. Will the Minister stress to Housing Ministers the need to look at some of the anomalies in legislation, in particular the Housing Act 1996, whereby an armed forces family with children who are happily settled in a school and a spouse who is working in the community are not deemed to have a local connection simply because they were posted there? Local authorities cannot even begin to plan to provide accommodation for armed forces families while they are still in accommodation, and they could spend anything up to a couple of years in temporary accommodation. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is not the best start for our armed servicemen when they begin their civilian life.
When I left school, we either went into the collieries, the textile industry or the Army. Surely the least that we can expect for our armed forces when they come back is a housing policy in every county, as there is in Midlothian, which gives them priority. It is accepted in the community, and it always has been, that they get priority.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. As I said, we are looking at the local connection. Members of Parliament can do a good job on behalf of the armed forces by checking whether local authorities give priority and help to ex-service personnel and their families.