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Defence

Volume 465: debated on Monday 22 October 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Security Companies (Iraq)

There is no British licensing regime for private military and security companies, so the answer is none. However, for completeness, let me add that the Ministry of Defence does not have any contracts with such companies in Iraq, and we have no plans for any.

Will the Secretary of State update the House on plans for a system of industry regulation, especially as the Government first proposed it five years ago? What discussions has he had with the Americans on taking a common approach, following the Blackwater incident? In such a volatile environment, is he not concerned that the unprofessional and reckless activities of security companies could prove disastrous and endanger the lives of more civilians, and of members of our forces?

First, no private military and security company operating under British Government contract—there are three such companies operating under contract for other Departments—has ever been implicated in the death or injury of any innocent Iraqi civilians as a result of the discharge of weapons; I should make that clear at the outset. As for the follow-up to the 2002 Green Paper, when the Lord Chancellor was Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs he commissioned a review of policy options for private military and security companies. As I think hon. Members know, the review was completed in 2005, and it raised a number of complex issues that officials are considering in detail. I hope that we can work our way through those complexities shortly. Of course, when a conclusion is reached, Parliament will be informed of the detail. Hon. Members can be reassured that I discuss all aspects of our policy, and United States policy, on Iraq with my counterpart, the Secretary of Defence.

May I tell the Secretary of State that we did not know that there was a report within Government in 2005? The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has been asking for and expecting a response to the representations that it made some eight years ago, following the Sandline inquiry and the problems arising from the fact that London is one of the world recruitment capitals for security firms. There is a problem with the interface and relationship between those firms and United Kingdom armed forces, and it needs to be addressed with greater expedition.

I think that my hon. Friend’s question betrays the complexity of the issues involved. The problem is defining the activities that should be regulated, and how any regulation of overseas activities might be enforced. That is not an easy matter to resolve. Indeed, the Blackwater incident and its aftermath shows that the United States of America is struggling to do so, given that the regulation of such companies in Iraq currently depends on a coalition provisional authority memorandum. There are a number of complexities with the issue. I am anxious that they be resolved, and that we can come to the House in good time to explain how we will proceed on that area of policy.

The Secretary of State sounds reluctant to grasp the nettle on the issue so ably raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Surely there are two problems: that the companies are doing things that the British armed forces would traditionally have done themselves, were it not for overstretch, and that the attraction of some of the companies is such that they pull people out of our armed services to go and work for them at much higher wages. That in itself contributes to overstretch.

The hon. Gentleman only adds to the complexity of the issues with that qualification. It is not true to suggest that those companies, which are not all, by any stretch of the imagination, within the Government’s control, do work that the British Army would otherwise do were it not for overstretch. In fact, in Iraq, the Departments that contract those companies do so to provide security for civilian operators. It is by no means correct that the Army would provide that security in any event or that other military forces would do so. There is no lack of willingness on my part or energy to work our way through the difficulties, but they are significant, and we want to try to get them right before we announce the detailed policy to the House.

Operational Deployments

2. For what period of time operational deployments are expected to require annual expenditure from the reserve. (159394)

The additional costs of operational deployments will be funded from the Treasury reserve for as long as the operational deployments continue.

Given that 7,700 troops are on deployment in Afghanistan—it is rumoured in NATO that Britain will contribute more troops—and given that our ambassador in Afghanistan has spoken of a commitment that might last three decades, it is simply not reasonable to expect the armed forces to have to budget year on year, on the basis of an indefinite commitment. That money should be structured into the defence budget, and the armed forces should not have to come back to the Treasury, year in, year out for a commitment that is going to last decades.

If the money for operations was built into the budget, that is exactly what the armed forces would have to do: they would have to budget within that structure. At present, the armed forces are funded to provide the capability required—operations are funded from the reserve—so that they are not put into that position. May I take the opportunity to scotch the rumour on which the hon. Gentleman drew? Unfortunately, the NATO spokesman, Colonel Appathurai—I hope that I have pronounced his name properly—made an error yesterday. I will not read the detail of the document I have received, but I am happy to place it in the Library. Today, however, he gave a clear explanation in a press conference, in which he admitted that he had inadvertently misled the media yesterday, and that there were no such plans to increase the UK contingent.

The Secretary of State must be the only person in the House who does not understand that the armed forces are overstretched and under-resourced for the commitments that they have undertaken. When is he going to face up to the fact? If the military has to cancel 10 per cent. of its training every year, the resources are clearly not available for it to do the job and be trained for the job that it is meant to do?

Statistics show that the number of training events is increasing every year. For the year 2004-05, the total of planned training events was 379; for 2005-06, it was 533; and for 2006-07, it was 699. I accept that some of those events were cancelled, but the percentage of cancellations has decreased. I accept, too—I have said so at the Dispatch Box—that we are asking the military to do a significant amount, which has an effect. I have also explained time and again what we plan to do to reduce that pressure.

Have not the Government failed in their attempts since 2004 to produce a defence-specific inflation index? They keep trumpeting the fact that they have given the armed forces 1.5 per cent. more than the general level of inflation, but the Royal United Services Institute calculates that defence equipment projects run at 5 to 10 per cent. above the general level of inflation. Does that not mean that the Government’s claim that they are spending more on defence in real terms is simply a load of hogwash?

It is not a load of hogwash. I have given the figures, and the Opposition spokesmen must accept, however reluctantly, that there have been real- terms increases. The Opposition face a problem, as there is a £6 billion hole in their spending plans. In our policy debate last Tuesday, I invited the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to say from the Dispatch Box whether he would match or improve our spending plans. Given that he said he was prepared for an election a couple of weeks ago, the Opposition face a challenge—will they spend more than us and, if so, on what will they spend less?

Afghanistan

The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. The Afghan national army and the international forces are helping to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan, although there remains a threat from suicide attacks and local ambushes.

Do the Government still believe that the Taliban do not constitute a strategic threat? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why 2.7 million rounds of ammunition were used between June 2006 and September 2007?

There is no correlation between those two issues. Yes, I believe that the Taliban do not pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. They are able to carry out some forms of attack, in particular asymmetric attacks, as they are called—suicide bombings and others—that are difficult to defend against. They know that, and those attacks generate a degree of threat that we are trying to deal with, albeit with some difficulty. Otherwise, every time the Taliban have faced up to the forces of the international security assistance force—ISAF—they have been overmatched and defeated. That has happened for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have been prepared to use a significant amount of ammunition against them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are facing a huge threat and that day in, day out UK forces have to face the threat in Afghanistan that should be shared among our NATO partners, to ensure that they take more of the weight? Does he agree that it is time for them to stand up and be counted?

I agree that NATO needs to live up to its collective commitment. My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise the subject when we speak to our partners. It will continue to be raised to ensure that increasingly they live up to those commitments, and there has been some movement on the part of some of our allies.

NATO’s own statement of requirements says that we need thousands more troops on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does the Secretary of State accept that we cannot be as effective as we would like to be without those extra troops? Does he agree that there is a risk that, over the next few months, we might find ourselves losing the ground that we have already taken and have to fight to get it back again later on?

The right hon. Gentleman properly raises an issue that the commander of ISAF raised in a recent interview. It is a concern that if we are unable to hold on to the ground that we have managed to secure, we will have to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says. However, like most hon. Members, he knows that our ability to secure and hold that ground is mostly a function of our ability to train and mentor Afghan security forces, both the army and the police, to do that. Unless we can make the Afghan security forces capable of holding on to that ground, we will find ourselves repeatedly in that situation, although I do not think we will do so because we are making progress in mentoring and training.

Security issues in respect of the Afghan-Pakistan border feature significantly in our dialogue in NATO and with Pakistan. I recognise that additional forces are needed for that part of the country, but the security will have to be effective on both sides of the border, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.

At a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly earlier this month, MPs from the Netherlands and Canada reported that their Parliaments would reconsider their countries’ commitments to ISAF, and particularly to deploying to more dangerous regions of Afghanistan because of fears about unequal burden-sharing. The Secretary of State has already said that he shares that concern. What discussions has the North Atlantic Council had about burden-sharing, and how does he think policies could be changed so that it is more even?

It is a question not of changing policy but of NATO allies living up to the collective commitments to which they have signed up. I am well aware that the Netherlands and Canada must go through parliamentary processes that their Governments promised their Parliaments in order to consider extending their commitments beyond certain dates—I cannot remember the specific dates, but they are in 2008 or 2009. I am confident that they will get the support from other allies that will allow them to get through that political process. While I am at the Dispatch Box, I want to pay tribute to both those countries, which have made a significant contribution in difficult circumstances to securing the southern part of Afghanistan. That issue is constantly discussed both in the NAC and when Ministers meet, as NATO Ministers will at an informal session later this week.

Security in Afghanistan will clearly improve if reconstruction work is progressed. It is believed that the MOD report on Operation Herrick was very critical of construction work. Both the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee have requested copies of that report to allow them to scrutinise in detail what is going on in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State make the report available to those Committees?

I will consider the request from the hon. Gentleman, and I would consider such a request from the Committee, if I were to receive one.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that security in Afghanistan is a result of not only the number of troops, but their operational capability? Will he outline improvements for troops in terms of vehicles and other equipment to improve their operational capability?

Recently, significant improvements have been made in the protected vehicles that are available to our troops. We have not quite got the numbers of vehicles into the operational theatre that we plan to, but we are making significant progress. Last week, I went to see Brigadier Lorimer and representatives from 12th Mechanised Brigade, which has just returned from Afghanistan, and they spoke very highly of those vehicles and of the Mastiff vehicle in particular. Hon. Members will be aware that the Prime Minister’s recent announcement about the procurement of Mastiff vehicles means that we expect to deliver more than 400 of them over the next two years. The majority of them will go to Afghanistan, but some will be used for pre-deployment training.

The MOD is to be congratulated on the deployment of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle to Helmand province, which is proving to be a great success. Will the Secretary of State ensure as a matter of urgency that more of those vehicles are deployed throughout the theatre in support of the infantry?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for recognising that improvement in force protection and the effectiveness of our troops. I discussed that very issue with Brigadier Lorimer on Friday, because it was on his recommendation that we first considered deploying Warriors. No request has been made for additional Warriors from commanders or the military, but if a request is made—Brigadier Lorimer agrees with the hon. Lady and suspects that a request will be made—I will consider it in the same way as I considered the first request.

My right hon. Friend has mentioned the work that is being done to train Afghanistan’s own security forces. Are there enough trainers in the country at the present time, and, if not, what can be done to supply more?

There are not enough trainers in the country. For example, there are about 1,800 police trainers in Kosovo, which is about the size of Wales. The EU commitment to Afghanistan for police training on the civil side amounts to some 160 trainers, of whom 60 have been deployed. At a recent informal meeting of EU Ministers, I described that as a flea on the back of an elephant. If we are to match up to the challenge that we have generated for ourselves in the international community, we need to do much better on police trainers.

Will the Secretary of State give careful thought to the thesis that the longer foreign troops unavailingly remain in southern Afghanistan, the greater the likelihood that Pakistan will turn into a fundamentalist, Islamic, hostile state, with the result that it will be a more immediately potent nuclear threat than even Iran?

To my surprise, the hon. Gentleman asks me to look forwards and not back, and I am grateful for his invitation to do so. The longer our troops in Afghanistan stay in their present configuration, doing what they need to do, the more testing it will become for them to sustain the support of the local people. I accept and understand that. All the military commanders and everybody who knows about insurgencies understand that the support of the local community is very important.

There are serious concerns about developments in Pakistan. Only last week, there was evidence of the reach of insurgents and extremists in the country, and of their ability to overcome significant security. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not agree that our presence in southern Afghanistan is generating the dangers that emanate from Pakistan. The environment is complex, and we would all do well to make our best contribution to try to stabilise Pakistan.

It is woefully disappointing that some of our allies are not pulling their full weight in Afghanistan. Moreover, there is the question of the unfair funding mechanism, through NATO, under which not only does Britain carry a disproportionate military burden, but our taxpayers carry a disproportionate financial burden. In the expectation that that unacceptable situation will continue, if the Government have not begun planning, or developed plans, for more British troops to be sent to Afghanistan, how do they think that the NATO gap will be filled—and by whom and in what time scale?

The hon. Gentleman and I largely agree on the issue of NATO living up to its commitments. As far as the NATO alliance is concerned, my priority is to get it to accept that it should live up to its commitments. I continually discuss with the Secretary-General, the Secretary of Defence and other allies present in the south how we can get other countries to increase their presence. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had some success. Solving the issue through changing the funding mechanism would bring other challenges, which the hon. Gentleman will understand; if we move from the position of the costs lying where they fall, we might find ourselves having to encourage countries to increase their investment in their own capability as well. All such decisions have a cost.

Our intention to get the necessary force levels in Afghanistan involves a combination of sustaining our level of commitment to the country and encouraging our allies to increase theirs; principally, however, it involves training Afghan forces to be able to take over responsibility in their own country. We are doing that at quite a pace.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House will know of the widespread speculation that substantial numbers of Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles, or EFPs—the most lethal form of roadside bomb—have been supplied to the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is unbelievable that the Iranian Government would not know about those consignments. What is being done locally and internationally to stop such murderous attacks emanating from Iran on our armed forces?

I will not share all the relevant information with the House, but if the hon. Gentleman wants further briefing on the issue I shall be happy to give it to him on the appropriate basis. He knows exactly what we are doing to try to stop that dreadful, deadly traffic. He knows the degree of success that we have had; on some occasions, we have made that success public for obvious reasons.

The hon. Gentleman is right about that equipment; indeed, there is also training of insurgents deployed into Afghanistan by the Iranians. I agree with him: I do not for a moment accept that all that is not known. If it is not known, I still think that the Iranian Government have to take responsibility because they have created a complexity of circumstances in which there is deniability.

We must apply pressure on all levels, including diplomatic pressure—particularly in the region, where significant pressure on Iran is most effective. The Afghan Government themselves are giving that message to Iran. The irony is that although Iran does those things, it also does many positive things in Afghanistan. Like its relationship with Iraq, its relationship with Afghanistan is complex. The House can rest assured that the issue is uppermost in my mind and those of my ministerial colleagues.

Military Covenant

We are fully committed to meeting our responsibilities for serving personnel, veterans and their families. Over time, we have made improvements to service pay, accommodation, health and welfare provision, force protection and personal equipment. However, we recognise that more can be done.

The Royal British Legion says:

“we believe that certain aspects of the Military Covenant are not being delivered and that the Nation must now bring about change to ensure that our Service people and their families get the support they deserve.”

One of the things that it pinpoints is the armed forces compensation scheme, which it says will make

“receiving compensation for death, injury or illness caused by Service significantly more difficult.”

Does the Minister agree?

I do not agree. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has had several meetings with the legion and has asked it to provide instances of where claiming compensation has been made difficult so that we can consider them. The burden of proof is at an acceptable level, and there is no evidence that there are difficulties. The level of compensation has been increased and improved by the introduction of the up-front payment to supplement the pension, which was not available at all until a year or so ago.

Why has the burden of proof for compensation been shifted from the Secretary of State to the wounded soldier?

The burden of proof is on the balance of probabilities. That is the same level of proof that is required under other schemes run by the Government, and it is not onerous, in my opinion. As I said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has asked the legion to identify cases where people had difficulty in claiming compensation, and if they can show that they had difficulty we will address the matter. We are not going to walk away from this. We do not believe that the burden of proof presents a problem, but if evidence shows that it does, we will look at that evidence.

I think that the Minister is in denial. There are 775 outstanding cases of injury compensation and 63,000 outstanding claims under the war pensions scheme. Does he honestly believe that those figures paint a picture of a Government who are committed to the military covenant?

Thousands of claims have to be processed each year. Some of them are relatively simple and straightforward and can be dealt with in a short period; others relate to people with enormously complex injuries, and that inevitably lead to delays in making an assessment. We have to do the maximum that we can to deal with these claims as quickly as we can, but they must be dealt with properly and thoroughly; I would have thought that that is what the hon. Lady wanted.

One of the areas where there is significant scope for improvement in honouring the covenant is mental health services. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that that happens?

We have increased the funding that we offer to Combat Stress, which is an organisation that helps us in this respect. We have introduced assessments for all people who go into and out of theatre to try to ensure that we improve the assessment of the mental health of those who are faced with these circumstances. We are also introducing, through pilots in the first instance, across-the-board mental health facilities to cover all the regions of the United Kingdom to ensure that we pick up mental health issues as and when they arise and that we know exactly what problems face our ex-military personnel in the years to come.

I congratulate the Royal British Legion on its campaign, because there is always more that can be done to support our veterans. I thank the Minister for the increased funding for Combat Stress, and especially for Hollybush house in my constituency. Will he join me in congratulating Hollybush house on the opening of its new wing last week? Along with the extra funding, that will greatly increase its capacity to support veterans who have mental health problems as a result of serving their country.

I thank my hon. Friend for the support she gives to Combat Stress, which I know is based in her constituency. I welcome her comments on the Legion’s campaign. We, too, welcome it; we have no problem with the Legion using its power and influence to raise such issues throughout the country. It is sad, however, if people want to use its campaign for party political purposes. We ought to be working together to raise such issues, which are perfectly legitimate, in the country as a whole.

One of the most-cited elements of the covenant is the way in which the country deals with those wounded in action. Despite the unfair criticism of Selly Oak hospital by Opposition Front Benchers in last week’s defence debate, I am sure that the Minister will agree with the Chief of the Defence Staff, who said in March 2007:

“There is nowhere better in the country, nowhere more expert at polytrauma medicine than the hospital in Selly Oak, that’s why our people are there.”

That is exactly right. That is the opinion of the Chief of the General Staff and, overwhelmingly, of people who visit the facilities at Selly Oak. The comments made during the debate the other day were unfortunate, and they have not yet been withdrawn. Off the back of an individual case, the details of which were inaccurate, a slur was effectively cast on the people who work there.

Does the Minister regard looking after the bereaved families of fallen servicemen and women as part of the military covenant? If he does, can he explain why it is still the case that no payment is made to bereaved families to enable them to be legally represented at inquests?

I accept that that is part of the military covenant. We must ensure that we give all appropriate support to the bereaved relatives of our service personnel, and we do. However, coroner’s court appearances are not of such a nature that people should expect to be represented legally. The system is an inquisitorial one designed to get to the facts. It is not a system in which people automatically clash with the views of the Ministry of Defence at the hearings.

My right hon. Friend recognises that the covenant is between the armed forces and the people of our countries. The Government are a part of that contract. Does he believe it is enhanced by politicians in this House and outside using the military as a political football by misquoting military leaders to score cheap party political points?

No, I do not. If people begin to use this debate in that way, they will detract from what we ought to be doing. All Members of this House, irrespective of party, should join this debate and help to facilitate what is needed: the maximum connection between our armed forces personnel, who are doing a tremendous job on behalf of this country, and the nation as a whole, many of whom do not understand and appreciate the full extent of the sacrifice and the service that is being given.

A disproportionately large number of our homeless on the streets of London and other cities in the United Kingdom are former servicemen and women. I commend the work of the Sir Oswald Stoll Foundation and Veterans Aid—two marvellous charities that are helping with that. Is the Minister aware of the growing campaign for a national veterans centre in London to act as a one-stop shop, whether simply for veterans to make links with their old regiments or for the homeless to go and try to find somewhere to stay for the night? Is he prepared to meet representatives of the charities to push forward the campaign?

Lots of charities are working on the matter and doing a fantastic job, and we should do everything we can to encourage them in their work. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary meets them regularly. I am more than happy not only to meet the people concerned but to consider any ideas. We are prepared to consider any suggestions for assisting our former service personnel.

Does the Minister agree that one of the obligations that we owe our servicemen is confidence that when they serve on the front line, their families are being adequately housed and looked after at home? Does he recall that in 2001 the defence housing executive was aiming to get all family accommodation up to standard 1 by November 2005? That date has been and gone, and we now have a 10-year programme, which, according to the Secretary of State, would necessitate £50 million a year being spent on family accommodation. Does the Minister realise that in the 12 months to April this year, only £16 million was spent? At the rate that things are happening, rather than being talked about, it could take 50 years to bring service family accommodation up to scratch. Given that the Government have sold £2.2 billion of assets since 1999, would not it be an idea for a guaranteed proportion of those capital asset sales to be ring-fenced in future for reinvesting in the Ministry’s estate of houses?

The hon. Gentleman is right that a big job continues to be necessary on the estate for service family accommodation and single living accommodation. However, he should not undervalue the amount of work being done, the amount of money being spent and the size of the continuing building programme. In the past year alone, £700 million was spent. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, there is a plan for £5 billion to be spent in the next 10 years. However, we will not put right decades of neglect overnight. The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) points at Conservative Members, and during their reign practically no investment was made in service living accommodation. The matter is being addressed, but it will not be sorted out overnight.

My right hon. Friend knows, because he visited Portsmouth naval base a couple of weeks ago, that we have made an excellent investment in single living accommodation in Portsmouth. Will he confirm that this Government did not sell off MOD housing stock at a knock-down price, or leave the MOD to pick up the maintenance costs?

Part of the problem is that we are living with the Annington Homes contract to this date. That adds complexity to dealing with family living accommodation. We are getting on with the rebuilding programme for single living accommodation and making improvements in service family accommodation, but the Annington contract has been a big part of the problem.

In Iraq 7.4 Americans are wounded for each fatality, whereas the official UK figure is 1.6. What explanation of that gross disparity can the Minister offer other than the obvious one, which is a failure by the Ministry fully to reflect the casualty burden that our armed forces sustain?

Since I have been in this post, I have heard repeated allegations that somehow injured service personnel are not adequately reflected in the figures. I have heard all sorts of scurrilous things, such as that we are deliberately trying to hide the extent of our injured service personnel. I have seen no evidence of that. I continue to be prepared to examine anything that anyone has said. If anyone can provide evidence that we are under-reporting—[Interruption.] I heard the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) make scurrilous claims last time he was at the Dispatch Box, and I do not know whether he wants to do that again—

I will try to do that, Mr. Speaker, at your direction.

I say to the hon. Gentleman in all seriousness that if he or anyone else has evidence that there is a problem with the reporting mechanism, let us have it. We will look at that evidence and see whether we can put the problem right. Looking at what is needed for the purpose of treating our injured service personnel must be the priority. I see no evidence for the many claims that are made—indeed, continuing right up to this morning—and which have been quite adequately dealt with by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary.

Afghanistan

The UK armed forces in Helmand continue to defeat the Taliban tactically, while supporting Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development programmes to improve governance and provide reconstruction. UK armed forces continue to provide mentoring and assist in the development of the Afghan security forces, as part of our long-term goal to ensure that the Afghans can take responsibility for their own security.

Of course there have been successes in Helmand, but there have been dreadful failures, too. The main one is the totally unexpected scale of the deaths of our valiant soldiers—18 died during the parliamentary recess—as well as the deaths of Afghan civilians. Those are uncounted, and are mostly women and children killed by American bombs. The result of that is that we are losing the crucial battle for hearts and minds, to the extent that many of the Afghans who welcomed us in 2001 and were glad to see the Taliban out of their country are now preparing to welcome the Taliban back, because they do not want to live in a country that is at war without end.

I assume that there was a question in there at some point, Mr. Speaker, so I will treat it as if it had a question mark at the end of it. My hon. Friend is consistent in his opposition to our deployment in Helmand province. We have debated the issue on numerous occasions. We will have to agree to disagree about it, although I think that we can agree that he ought to report accurately the success of our troops in Helmand province.

As I have told the House already this afternoon, I spent a good part of Friday with a fair representation of 12th Mechanised Brigade, which has achieved a considerable amount over the period to which my hon. Friend referred. Those soldiers, their commanders and their commanding officer, Brigadier Lorimer, are in no doubt that they left a large part of Helmand province in a much better state, in terms of security and reconstruction, than they found it six months ago. I will not have people in the House categorising that as failure. It is not failure; it is significant success.

Given the number of deaths in Helmand province that result in the repatriation of bodies to Wiltshire—cases that it falls to the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to pursue—may I say how grateful Wiltshire is that the budget has been addressed, and that a greater effort is being made by the Ministry of Justice? However, will the Secretary of State say whether the forthcoming coroners Bill will contain any proposals to address the extraordinary anomaly whereby servicemen who, unfortunately, die overseas must have an inquest in England but not in Scotland? Should there not be special provision for military deaths to be treated either with a special military coroner—perhaps at the Bulford centre—or in another way that gives more consideration to the families of the bereaved than we are able to give at present?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and his sustained interest in this issue. I also thank him for his recognition of the importance of the additional resources that both the MOD and the Ministry of Justice are providing to support the coroner in Wiltshire. I am confident that those resources, as well as the increased resources in Oxford, will help him to address the increased burden of work that he currently faces as a result of the repatriation of bodies.

The hon. Gentleman addresses an issue that we have known about for some time, a resolution to which we have been discussing with the Scottish Executive. The fact of the matter is that there is no jurisdiction in Scotland for the investigation of deaths abroad. I noted recently that in answer to questions about fatal accident inquiries—the Scottish equivalent of coroner’s inquests—the minority Government Justice Minister in Scotland said that he had no intention of changing the law in relation to them. I hope that he did not really mean that, and that his answer was perhaps just a line that an official had given him, which he had not thought about. We certainly continue to discuss the issue, because we are anxious that families based in Scotland will have the opportunity, in such terribly unfortunate circumstances, to have inquiries conducted near to their homes, as can happen in England and Wales.

Will the Minister outline any potential difficulties that the increase in internal problems in Pakistan might cause for troop deployment to Helmand province, given Britain’s commitment to driving out the Taliban?

As I said earlier, I do not accept that there is necessarily a correlation between our deployment in Afghanistan and the troubles that are internal to Pakistan. I have no doubt that some of the same actors in the insurgency are involved on both sides of the border, and since I first took responsibility for our deployment in Afghanistan as Secretary of State for Defence, I have been in no doubt that there is cross-border traffic from Iran that causes some of the difficulties related to the insurgency. We need to see stable government, progressing towards a democratic Government, and Pakistan is capable of addressing the issue of extremism in that country. However, we should not underestimate the scale and nature of that challenge, and some of the things that we have seen on our television screens over the past week have shown just how difficult it is going to be.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to review the comments made last week by the German Defence Minister, Mr. Franz Josef Jung, in which he criticised the British policy of holding talks with supporters of the Taliban in Musa Qala? When the Secretary of State meets Mr. Jung at the NATO conference, will he point out that if Germany had its troops on the front line in Helmand rather than in the relatively peaceful north, he would appreciate, just as British military commanders do, that this strategy of engagement is essential if we are to have any long-term hope of resolving the conflict?

I have very productive discussions with the German Defence Minister, who is committed to the support of NATO operations in Afghanistan. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of the electoral method that generated the coalition that is governing Germany, and I must point out that the Defence Minister’s need to operate within that coalition often makes it quite difficult to achieve all that he wants to achieve on the basis of his own politics. Also, with all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, and while I hear what he is saying, the approach that he suggests might not be as successful as he thinks. He is a great loss to the diplomatic corps if he thinks that it would benefit our troops in Afghanistan to approach the German Government in that fashion. Finally, Musa Qala has not turned out to be a success because it was unsustainable by the Afghan Government, but in my view, that kind of local agreement, which allows the Government to take care of their own areas, has to be the basis for moving forward. I am sure that there will be circumstances in the future in which we will make progress and then see it fall away; we will need to learn to cope with that.

Merchant Navy

The main defence role of the merchant fleet is to support and supplement the naval fleet and to participate in reinforcement and resupply operations. To this end, certain British ships, including roll-on/roll-off vessels, product tankers and passenger vessels, are designated as strategic ships.

Is the Minister aware that in the past 30 years the number of British-registered merchant ships over 500 tonnes has been reduced from 1,600 to 300, and the number of British-registered merchant seamen has been reduced from 90,000 to 16,000? Given the importance of the merchant navy to defence, does he share my concern about that? Is he having discussions with any other arm of government on reversing those bad results?

I do not know exactly what my hon. Friend is saying. My figures are certainly different from his, so perhaps we should talk further about this matter afterwards. In my recollection, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made some changes in the legal arrangements, which I know he is proud of. It is widely acknowledged within the merchant fleet that that did a lot to increase the amount of tonnage under British flags. My figures show an increase of 148 per cent. in flagged British ships since the year 2000. I also have a different set of figures for merchant seafarers, according to which there are 27,000, rather than the number suggested by my hon. Friend. Perhaps he and I should get together to ensure that we are talking about the same thing, by cross-referencing our information.

Reserve Forces

9. How many reservists there were in the armed forces in 1997; and how many there were on the most recent date for which figures are available. (159402)

As of 1 April 1997, there were a total of 322,100 regular and volunteer reservists; and as of 1 April 2007, there were approximately 206,200. Those numbers are made up of volunteer reservists, such as the Royal Naval Reserve and the Territorial Army, and regular reservists—ex-regular personnel who retain a reserve liability.

The residents of Bermondsey and Walworth are, like me, proud of the Royal Marines and the Army reservists who are based in our communities. Colleagues around the country will feel the same. Is it policy or accident that the number of reservists has gone down by a quarter during the period of the Labour Government, and the number in the Territorial Army by more than a third? We heard the other day that, because of defence cuts, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers have been told that they cannot recruit any more reservists, so can the Minister confirm that no other regiment or unit is being held back from recruitment? Many people want to contribute to the country in this way, which has the potential hugely to enhance our capacity at home and abroad.

The hon. Gentleman’s question throws up a couple of points. Back in the late 1990s, the strategic defence review did call for a decrease in the number of reservists, because the nature of defence and defence jobs was changing quite substantially. The 1997 figures were distorted by the fact that in the preceding years there had been big cuts in the regular Army, which led to a residual reserve capacity in 1997 that has obviously changed with time. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to encourage more people to get involved with the reserves. There is currently under-recruitment there, which we need to continue to redress. We all need to work within our communities to ensure that we do the maximum we can to reap the benefit from the huge willingness of so many people to participate in the various branches of the reserves.

Earlier this year, the Chief of the General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, in an internal Ministry of Defence note, expressed the following concern:

“Our reserves to meet the unexpected (as well as for current operations) are now almost non-existent…We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected”.

Is that not a shocking indictment of this Government’s stewardship of our armed forces?

It is not the view of the chiefs of the defence staff that we are asking more than is possible of our armed forces. We, as Ministers, share the concern that our armed forces are extremely busy and that there is not a great residue of capacity left aside. We all know that we have two current operations going on. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying that all our armed forces are working extremely hard. No one is trying to hide that at all, but we are dealing with the situation, and our armed forces are dealing with it in an exemplary fashion.