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Defence

Volume 475: debated on Monday 28 April 2008

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan

The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. In 2007, the Afghan national army and troops from the 40-nation international security assistance force achieved significant tactical success against the Taliban. This success has geographically restricted the insurgents’ ability to conduct sustained activity. During 2008, NATO figures show that 91 per cent. of insurgent activity has been reported from only 8 per cent. of the districts of Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Taliban carried out a cowardly attack on the mujaheddin victory parade. This attack illustrates perfectly their irrelevance to the future of Afghanistan. While the country celebrated liberation, the Taliban were firing indiscriminately at unarmed civilians. In tactical terms, that will prove to be a disaster for them.

When I was in Helmand province in February, I was surprised to learn that many of the farmers would prefer to grow wheat, which is now highly priced on world markets, rather than poppies. However, they had to grow poppies because of Taliban intimidation. When does the Secretary of State think that we will have the security situation sufficiently under control for Afghan farmers to feed their own people and not feed the habits of people in the west?

That is exactly the case in an increasing number of provinces in Afghanistan—indeed, more are poppy-free than ever before. The greatest concentration of poppy growing happens to be in those provinces where there are the greatest security challenges. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand from his visit why that is the case. Because of the work of our troops in Afghanistan, particularly over the past 18 months, the number of areas under the control of the Afghan Government that are secure enough for farmers to make that transition is increasing. We will find in the outturn of the figures for this year that the Afghan poppy crop has reduced, but there is still a long way to go.

Given that a large proportion of the injuries suffered by members of our armed forces in Afghanistan are from roadside bombs and similar improvised explosive devices, why are we still deploying troops in some of the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan in so-called snatch Land Rovers, when we know that such vehicles offer little or no protection against such devices?

The hon. Gentleman and the House will know, because I have gone to some lengths to keep the House up to date, that we have been increasingly providing our troops with vehicles that offer the highest level of protection. Indeed, through Mastiff and Ridgback, on which we hope to make significant progress over the coming months, we will be providing a total of 400 new vehicles that will offer that level of protection. The hon. Gentleman will know also, because it is reported back here regularly, that Mastiff has proved enormously popular with the troops in saving lives.

My obligation as the Secretary of State is to provide commanders on the ground with a range of vehicles. Our experience in Afghanistan shows us that the issue is not just a need for protected vehicles, in the sense of protected against such explosions; rather, we also need vehicles that give our troops both the necessary flexibility and movement, and a presence on the ground that is specific to the communities in which they are working. I fulfil that obligation. We provide a range of vehicles to the commanders. I do not intend to dictate to our commanders, with a long screwdriver from London, which of those vehicles they should use, but I am conscious of the need continually to develop and to deploy more protected vehicles, subject to that requirement.

Has President Karzai not become a liability? He has demonstrated an inability or an unwillingness to tackle corruption in high-level officialdom and is failing to crack down on drug trafficking. Is there not a lesson to be learned from Pakistan? The President there said that he was the only person to lead the country, but a new civilian Administration now are getting on reasonably well. Is that not the future for Afghanistan? Should Karzai not go?

I am slightly at a loss to understand my hon. Friend’s underlying point, because President Karzai is a civilian. He was freely elected and is the democratic choice of the people of Afghanistan, and has proved to be a very good leader in very difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend addresses an important issue, which is the need to deal with corruption, drug trafficking and the relationship between them in Afghanistan, which permeates a large part of society there, up to the highest levels. President Karzai recognises that; indeed, when he addressed the NATO summit in Bucharest recently, he recommitted himself to dealing with those issues. However, we should not underestimate how difficult that is to do in Afghanistan.

One contribution to security that could be made would be to have more helicopters. Her Majesty’s armed services have 1,451 helicopters, but how many of them are in Afghanistan? At the forthcoming NATO Parliamentary Assembly, some of us would like to make the case for our European partners, including the Turks, to make a greater contribution with the 3,900 helicopters that they have. Will the Secretary of State place in the Library the facts about helicopters in Afghanistan so that hon. Members on both sides of the House can make the case for greater European involvement at that important NATO gathering?

To the extent that placing that information in the public domain is consistent with force security, I will do that. However, as I have said to other hon. Members, if I am not able to put that information in the public domain, I am content that individual Members, or groups of Members, should be given detailed briefings, as long as they respect the briefings. I am sure that they will, as they have in the past.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point about the need for more helicopter support. That has been an issue for our troops for some time, and I am pleased to say that in southern Afghanistan in the past year we have increased available helicopter hours by more than a third. The significant point that my right hon. Friend makes, which is known to the House, is that there is a significant number of helicopters in the world that are not deployable. That is exactly why the Prime Minister announced at Bucharest an initiative in the form of a helicopter trust fund, which is attracting significant support. Between seven and 10 countries have indicated their willingness to contribute to the fund and allow those helicopters to be deployed either by training pilots to fly them in Afghanistan or by fitting them with necessary equipment. I look forward to seeing countries carry out the promises that they have made.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the role played by Nimrod aircraft and their crews over Afghanistan. He also knows that QinetiQ has produced a report with 30 safety recommendations about those aircraft. How many of those recommendations have been complied with?

I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman specific figures, but I shall check them and ensure that he receives the figures and that all hon. Members are able to access the information in the usual fashion. So far as his consistent and welcome concern about the safety of the Nimrod crews and aircraft is concerned, I assure him that I constantly obtain reassurance from those with the necessary technical ability that the aircraft are safe to fly.

Were the events in Kabul over the weekend evidence that the Taliban are changing their tactics? Are we beginning to see an increase in asymmetric warfare? If so, is the Secretary of State going to reassess our whole approach in Afghanistan?

The fact that the Taliban have been forced to change their tactics in that way shows the success of ISAF, particularly the exceptional work that our troops have done in Helmand province in repeatedly facing down the Taliban and over-matching them. The Taliban have been driven to use that asymmetric approach, which is entirely uncharacteristic of the Afghan approach to conflict. That is why the latest assessment shows that the Taliban enjoy support from only about 4 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan. Contrary to the hon. Gentleman’s encouragement that we should change our tactics, we will continue with the tactics and the comprehensive approach that we have been so successful in developing in southern Afghanistan with our allies. We will also continue to support the Afghans in building the capacity to deal with the increasing asymmetric attacks.

Has the Secretary of State noted the recent warning by the Foreign Minister of Turkey—the only Islamic member state of NATO—that unless there are major changes of policy in Afghanistan, public opinion there will increasingly turn against the foreign military forces that are currently fighting the Taliban?

I am acutely aware of the need for ISAF and for the whole international community, including the United Nations, to continue to enjoy the support of the Afghan people. The main focus of everything that we do in Afghanistan is to maintain the support of the Afghan people in achieving the objectives that they share with us. It is welcome that other allies maintain a focus on that, but our measurement of the support that we enjoy from the Afghan people suggests that it is being sustained. However, I am aware of that risk. The only answer is to build on the ability of the Afghans to deliver security and government to their own people. That is the focus of everything that we do.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, despite the picture of stability that he is painting, the burden on our 7,000 service personnel in Afghanistan is very great? Given that the Prime Minister is no longer able to achieve his ambition of scaling down our 4,000 troops in Iraq, does he have any other ideas about how our 7,000 troops in Afghanistan might be reinforced and the burden on them lessened?

The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that when NATO gathered in Riga a year ago, there were 32,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan; when it gathered in Bucharest recently, there were 47,000 such troops there and, in addition, a number of countries—including France and, indeed, the United States of America—made further commitments. Currently, 2,200 American troops are deploying to southern Afghanistan, which will significantly increase our ability to deliver what we are doing in that part of the country. Increasingly, other countries are either taking on a greater share of the burden or increasing their already great share of the burden that they take on.

Iraq

Our forces in Iraq still have a wide-ranging and extremely important job to do. They continue to play a positive role in helping to bring security and stability to Iraq. In Baghdad, we have over 200 senior officers and supporting staff working in the coalition headquarters. In the south, the primary focus of our forces is now on training and mentoring the 14th division of the Iraqi army and enhancing command and control capabilities in Basra, including at the Basra operations command. The 14th division remains some months from becoming fully operational.

We also support more directly the Iraqi security forces in their efforts to ensure the rule of law in Basra. In recent weeks, this has included providing fast jet and helicopter support and surveillance, as well as logistic and medical support. In addition to the focus on the Iraqi army, British forces are heavily involved in mentoring and training the Iraqi navy, supporting the Department of Border Enforcement and helping to protect the oil platforms. Finally, we facilitate economic reconstruction efforts—notably, setting Basra’s international airport on the path to international accreditation.

During a press conference last Friday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff blamed Iran for

“its increasingly lethal and malign influence”

in Iraq. He went on to say how recent operations in Basra had revealed

“just how much and how far Iran is reaching into Iraq to foment instability”.

Does the Defence Secretary agree with that assessment, and what is being done by British forces to counter the threat Iran poses to Iraqi stability?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right—and, of course, the Admiral is quite right, as he is in possession of a significant amount of the available information. Evidence suggests that a significant proportion of the equipment and armaments being used by insurgents in Iraq is of Iranian origin or has been transited through Iran. Any Iranian links to armed groups in Iraq outside the political process—either through the supply of weapons or through training and funding—is unacceptable. With our allies, we are seeking to challenge that in a number of ways. Through our support for the Department of Border Enforcement, we seek to interdict the transfer of any such weaponry from Iran into southern Iraq; and through supporting the searches conducted by Iraqi security forces, we have discovered, seized and destroyed a large amount of weaponry that appears to have been sourced from Iran. By seeking to influence the Iranian Government diplomatically in a number of ways, including involving other influential countries in the region, we are trying to get it across to Iran that it is not in its long-term interests to have instability in southern Iraq or any part of Iraq at all. We are also endeavouring to deal with the insurgent and other groups that the Iranians seek to support in Iraq—and we have done so very successfully recently.

Whatever our overall view of the presence of British forces in Iraq, clearly their safety and well-being should be a paramount consideration of the House of Commons. Following on from my right hon. Friend’s written statement to the House on Thursday, should we assume that the Government are planning on force levels of about 4,000 at least until the autumn?

My written statement was not intended to encourage the House to draw that inference. I have always made it clear that we keep our troop numbers under review. As I made clear when I made my oral statement, and it was reinforced in my written statement, we have decided to maintain our troop numbers in southern Iraq at about 4,000 while the Iraqi-led operations to enforce the rule of law in Basra continue. We are working with our coalition partners to define the support that the Iraqis will need over the coming months. It remains our clear intention to reduce troop numbers in Iraq as and when conditions allow, but while the situation on the ground continues to evolve rapidly, as it does, and while military commanders continue to assess that the changing environment in Iraq requires the prudent decision to take time to consider any further reductions, I will stick with that decision.

But does the Secretary of State agree that his Minister of State was absolutely correct, as he often is, when last summer he told the Select Committee on Defence that the minimum viable military force in Basra was about 5,000? Can the Secretary of State explain how it was that he ever came to be persuaded that the figure of 2,500 was anything other than completely meaningless?

We have about 4,000 troops in Iraq. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to read the letter from the Chief of the General Staff, which was circulated down through the chain of command and put on the MOD website following his recent visit to Iraq. I think that I shall arrange for a copy of that letter to be placed in the Library of the House so that everyone can have access to it if they are not IT literate and cannot get it off the MOD website.

The letter goes into some detail to set out why our current troop levels can and continue to make a significant contribution to a substantial operation that is taking place in Iraq. The point that I am making to the right hon. Gentleman—I cannot make it any simpler than this—is that this is classic overwatch. The figure that we have is, in the assessment of this country’s leading soldier, whose reputation is worldwide, the right one.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Navy and its role. Will he say a little more about what the Navy is doing to support the work of the Iraqi navy and the importance he attaches to that?

I attach a great deal of importance to it. On a recent trip to Iraq, I visited the Navy. It is training marines and the Iraqi navy, which is comparatively small but developing towards the objective of it being able to take over responsibility for security, or at least to make a significant contribution to it, in the northern Arabian gulf.

With other allies, we provide security for those important oil platforms on which the whole Iraqi economy and its income depend. It is the ambition of the Iraqi navy that it will be able progressively to develop to be able to take over or add significantly to that security. It has made enormous strides and is shortly to take delivery of new ships in order to do that. At Umm Qasr, we have been continuing that training for some time—quite quietly, without much comment publicly, but very successfully.

When the Secretary of State made his statement to the House on 1 April, he said that it was too early to assess the effectiveness of last month’s Basra Operation Charge of the Knights, against the Sadr militia, of which we were given just 48 hours’ notice. Can the Secretary of State now provide the House with such an assessment, and also tell us what arrangements he has put in place to ensure that British military commanders have a full and timely say in any future operations in which our armed forces may be required to assist?

In view of what the Secretary of State has just said about troop numbers, will he also tell us whether the call at the weekend by Moqtada al-Sadr to his militia to limit their attacks on British and US forces will have any implication for the number of British troops deployed in southern Iraq?

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman’s questions in reverse order.

The latest outpourings from Moqtada al-Sadr merely add to the confusion that has emanated from his leadership of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia and his own political organisation. We do not rely on such statements, and I have always taken the view that our troops are at risk of attack from that source, so my answer to the hon. Gentleman is that that statement will have no significant effect on our assessment of the risk to our troops.

In answering the hon. Gentleman’s principal question, let me direct him to the Chief of the General Staff’s assessment—which is very fresh, as he returned from Basra only days ago. While there was some criticism of the planning of the first phase of the operation, we have been involved in the planning and support of the later phases, and they have been extremely successful. The information that I have suggests that there are clear and encouraging signs that Basra is springing back to life, and that the firm action taken by the Iraqi security forces has extended their control to most of the city. I have many pieces of information from citizens of Basra that show how relaxed they are in the new Basra, as they see it.

All those developments are very positive, but the situation is fragile. We must ensure that we see the operation through, and that we can enable the 14th division of the Iraqi army in particular to sustain the security that it has created.

Injured Service Personnel (Compensation)

The armed forces compensation scheme was introduced in 2005 for personnel who are injured as a result of service in the armed forces. For the first time, our personnel can claim compensation while they are still serving, by way of a tax-free lump sum for illness or injury, up to a maximum of £285,000. Those more seriously injured will, in addition to a lump-sum payment, receive a tax-free, inflation-proof guaranteed income payment which is paid on discharge and monthly thereafter for the rest of their lives. The payment is not capped and may, over a lifetime, be worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

I can also inform the House that in January this year I ordered a further review of the armed forces compensation scheme, and that Ministers expect to receive a report in May.

I thank the Minister for his response and, in particular, for the information about the review that he is conducting. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, asked:

“What on earth are we to make of a system where the secretary who gets a wrist injury typing the orders receives more compensation than the soldier who loses his legs following the orders?”

Can the Minister justify that appalling imbalance, regardless of the fact that the serviceman receives a continuing pension and the civilian does not? I hope that it will be taken into account for the purposes of his review.

The hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. This is a no-fault scheme, and the claim to which he refers was a negligence claim. Armed forces personnel can claim against the Department for negligence, but the key point is that, for the first time ever, armed forces personnel can be paid, while they are still serving, a sizeable lump sum in addition to any lump sum that they could claim under the war pension scheme after leaving the service. Moreover, the lifelong guaranteed income payment for those most seriously injured is worth many hundreds of thousands of pounds. This is a significant improvement on the previous scheme.

What support is the Minister giving the families of service personnel undergoing extensive long-term hospital and medical treatment? How are those families managing financially?

There is support enabling the families of injured personnel returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to stay at Selly Oak and to receive expenses. We have also been working with the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association to provide improved accommodation at both Selly Oak and Headley Court.

Financial compensation is, of course, extremely important, but so are the recovery and rehabilitation of injured servicemen and women before they receive that compensation. Is the Minister not rather ashamed that, apparently, the swimming pool, physiotherapy centre and relatives’ accommodation at Headley Court must wait for a charity pop concert rather than being provided by the Ministry of Defence now?

I am certainly not ashamed. Headley Court is a world-class establishment, and has been recognised as such by the Select Committee on Defence. We pay for treatment and facilities at Headley Court, which already has a number of gyms and a rehabilitation pool. We welcome the idea of people being able to raise additional resources to complement what we provide. We do so for a number of reasons, not least because it gives the British public a chance to show their support for the armed forces.

We will continue to invest in Headley Court and in medical facilities. Only last year, I opened a new ward at Headley Court.

Before the Armed Forces (Pensions and Compensation) Act 2004, there were no lump sum payments in the 18 years in which the Conservative party was in power. When the Act came before the House—I was on the Bill Committee— not once were the objections now being raised by the Conservative party brought up. The only thing that was raised in the Select Committee was the objection by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) to my amendment to extend these benefits to unmarried partners.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When the statutory instrument was laid to set out the new compensation scheme, the Opposition parties did not object and did not pray against it. It is a bit rich for them, this far down the road, suddenly to start to criticise a scheme that they did not object to at the time.

Are the comments attributed to General Sir David Richards—that payments to injured soldiers will rise threefold—in yesterday’s The Sunday Telegraph correct? When does he expect this to happen and when does he expect our serving personnel to receive similar compensation to that of civilian personnel?

The House would not expect me to say at this stage because we have not yet received the report, which we expect to receive in May. We will consider its recommendations and information before we make any further announcements.

In the light of the welcome comments by Commander in Chief, Land, over the weekend, the Minister might like to express his regrets for the inadequacies of the 2005 armed forces compensation scheme that General Richards has found so wanting, and as the current review implies. Meanwhile, the Adjutant General continues to push private insurance schemes such as Pax that cost the private soldier a month’s pay to cover risks run on our behalf in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans. Why does this month’s gimmick—the armed forces benefits calculator, designed to convince service men that they have never had it so good—completely ignore the disbenefit of having to take out personal insurance to cover occupational risk?

As I said, that is a bit rich from the Conservative party, which, let us be clear, supported the armed forces compensation scheme. This is the first time that compensation of this scale—up to £285,000—is payable while serving. That is a significant step forward. The guaranteed income payment is index-linked, tax-free and paid for life. Unlike the previous war pension scheme, it is not capped, changed or withdrawn if the injured serviceman or woman improves at some point. The Conservative party did not introduce any such scheme during its 18 years in power. The scheme should be kept under continual review, which is why we made the changes last year in terms of motor injuries and why we are reviewing it now in the light of experience.

Iraq

4. What recent assessment he has made of levels of morale of British troops in Iraq; and if he will make a statement. (201529)

Ministers visit Iraq on a regular basis. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited most recently and was encouraged by the good spirits and professionalism of our troops. Equally, two of the Chiefs of Staff have been in theatre recently and similarly report that morale among our forces is good and that we are working effectively alongside our coalition partners and the Iraqi security forces in Basra.

I welcome the Government’s policy of holding an inquiry after troops are withdrawn from theatre. An inquiry while they are still in action would put them in more danger and damage their morale. Will he always put the safety of our troops uppermost and resist opportunistic attempts to turn our troops into a political football?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. When we discussed the matter a few weeks ago it was clear that people wanted an inquiry for purely party political purposes and that there was no precedent for holding such an inquiry while our troops were still in theatre and in danger. That is why we rejected the call for an inquiry at this time.

As my right hon. Friend knows, today is workers memorial day, when we remember those killed at work, including soldiers. Has my—

There is no prouder body of men and women than the British Army. What is it supposed to do for their morale when they read the unfair and uncomplimentary remarks about allowing the Americans to do our dirty work for us in the recent operation in Basra in Iraq? Would it not be better for their morale either to let them get stuck in or to get them out of that country, rather than chain them up in the airport against all the traditions of the fighting British Army?

From the discussions I have had with our armed forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan, I know that broadly speaking they ignore what they read in the media and know what the facts are. The fact with regard to Basra is that our forces are involved in a very similar way to the American forces. The American forces came down to Basra with the additional Iraqi forces. Our own forces are in Basra assisting the Iraqi 14th division, which they helped to give the capability that it is now showing in its success in Basra town. Although we should not overstate our own role, the Iraqis would not be capable of doing what they are now doing in Basra if it had not, in part, been for the contribution that the British forces have made and continue to make. We should not run them down just because the press do.

Service Personnel (Active Service)

As at 23 April 2008, the endorsed force levels for southern Iraq and Afghanistan are 4,000 and 7,800 respectively. The precise number of personnel in theatre at any one time fluctuates on a daily basis for a variety of reasons, including mid-tour rest and recuperation, temporary absence for training, evacuation for medical reasons and the roulement of forces.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Will he join me in paying tribute to those from RAF Leeming who are currently serving, and those from RAF Linton-on-Ouse, Dishforth airfield and Alanbrooke barracks, Topcliffe? Will he also have regard to the fact that the numbers serving and the length of tours is having a tremendous impact on overstretch and morale? How can we ensure that morale is not affected by the long tours and the short time those serving have at home with their families in between?

I am very happy to do as the hon. Lady asks by paying tribute to those forces, and to all our forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. However, I must say to her that despite the fact that our armed forces are stretched—we recognise that that is the case—and working hard, the morale of our forces in theatre is good. When I go out to theatre, I find that not only is it good, but that those forces at the sharp end on the front line who are in the most austere of circumstances have the best morale. They are soldiering—they are achieving and doing what they wanted and trained to do. Their morale is good, and they are doing an excellent job and they deserve the support of the House.

The Government argue that our troops are stretched but not overstretched, yet the drawdown from Iraq has been postponed and serious recruitment difficulties cannot be entirely masked by a massive increase in recruitment from the Commonwealth. For how much longer can we operate beyond defence planning assumptions without doing damage to our future capabilities? Do we really have the spare capacity to undertake further commitments—in Kosovo, for example—and if we do, what lessons have we learned from Iraq and Afghanistan about making it clear that we are going in for a time-limited shift and not taking on another open-ended commitment?

There is no untime-limited commitment open to us in Kosovo. There is a commitment we will have to deal with and respond to, but it is a time-limited commitment to provide forces to Kosovo. Of course we must be mindful of the hard work we are asking of our armed forces. We must keep that under assessment at all times, and we do so. We take advice from the military chain of command on what is feasible and what is acceptable, and we must ensure that we stay on top of that and do not ask too much of our armed forces, because they are working hard. We are asking an awful lot of them and they deserve our support. They are doing an excellent job, and I am satisfied that they are capable of continuing to do so.

Military Inquests

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Justice on reducing the number of pending military inquests. (201531)

My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and I have held frequent meetings on this subject with Ministry of Justice Ministers. We make regular statements to the House about progress on reducing the number of outstanding inquests. We are strongly committed to minimising delays, and we will consult regularly about management of, and support to, inquests relating to deaths on operations.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have received a number of letters from constituents who are concerned that the Scottish National party Administration in Scotland are dragging their heels on this matter. Does he think they are doing everything they can to expedite a solution?

My hon. Friend knows that the situation in Scotland is different from that in England and Wales. We have been trying to deal with the matter for some time. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), wrote to Kenny MacAskill MSP in June last year raising this issue, I have tried to meet Scottish Executive Members and the Secretary of State wrote again to Mr. MacAskill in March setting out what needs to be done, so the ball is now firmly in the hands of the Scottish Executive.

I am sure the Minister will join me in paying particular tribute to David Masters, the Wiltshire coroner, who is doing an outstanding job wrestling with the complexities of the inquest into the deaths of the 10 people killed when a Hercules came down in Iraq. Can the Minister confirm that in no circumstances will he or anybody else in the Ministry of Defence attempt to interfere with the investigations or with the outcome of any such inquests, even if those inquests were to be critical of Ministers or of the MOD?

Not only would we not attempt to interfere with such an inquest, but we welcome the input that we get from the independent coronial system. It throws up issues and findings of immense importance, which we must examine and know about, so of course I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that no attempt will be—or has been—made to interfere with coroners’ decisions.

May I encourage the Minister to keep trying with the Scottish Government as far as the holding of fatal accident inquiries for Scottish-domiciled soldiers is concerned? Such inquiries would not only take some pressure off the English inquests system, but would mean a great deal to the families of serving soldiers who were domiciled in Scotland at the time of their death.

We believe that it is important not to oblige families to travel the distances that they are required to travel to attend inquests in the south of England when they are based in Scotland and their loved ones who have died came from parts of Scotland. That is why we have been pursuing the matter with the Scottish Executive and will continue to do so. As I have said, we have made representations over time, and we hope that a solution to the problem will be found because that would be in the interests of Scottish families.

Afghanistan

7. What role the armed forces are playing in providing humanitarian relief in southern Afghanistan. (201532)

The primary focus of the international security assistance force mission is to assist the Government of Afghanistan in the maintenance and extension of security. Practical support for reconstruction and development efforts is one of ISAF’s key supporting tasks.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Given the situation in southern Afghanistan and the Taliban’s cowardly attacks on the international aid agencies working in that area, when does he think the situation might sufficiently improve to allow aid agencies to return and re-establish their vital work?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important that the work that the Afghan Government do is supported by non-governmental organisations. More important is the presence of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in southern Afghanistan. I am confident that under the leadership of Kai Eide, who has recently been appointed to the co-ordination role, we will see an early presence for the mission in Helmand province. That will be a sign to many organisations that they can come and work with us, but we should not ignore those organisations that are doing good work there now, many of which are Afghan-based NGOs.

Iraq

The security situation in southern Iraq is stable, but has a fragility. Recent operations by the Iraqi security forces, supported by UK forces and coalition partners, who are deployed with those forces in Basra city, have been successful in helping the Iraqi Government consolidate control over Basra and all key routes into and out of the city. There are encouraging signs that conditions in the city are improving and we will continue to work with our coalition partners and the Iraqi authorities to help sustain this positive trend.

When Ministers have a strategically weak argument, they have a disagreeable habit of hiding behind the arguments of generals who have a responsibility down the chain of command to support the morale of the troops of whom they are in charge. The Secretary of State has done that this afternoon. The fact is that the strategic situation in Basra with the British forces is an example of dither, and it is damaging the reputation of the United Kingdom and the morale and capacity of our armed forces. When will the Government resolve that?

The current situation in Basra and southern Iraq is nothing of the sort. The plan was clear: we would progressively hand over the provinces of southern Iraq to provincial Iraqi control. When we came out of central Basra and handed over to provincial Iraqi control in December, it was clear that the criminal and militia elements in the city could be dealt with only by Iraqi security forces. We went into overwatch and I made it clear that that was the plan. The Iraqi security forces are now doing that task, and our troops are deployed with them, mentoring them in the city as they do so, as are US troops who have come with the divisions that they mentor. There are some 14,000 plus Iraqi troops in Basra and about 800 American troops in the south. Those numbers are a proportion of the numbers of troops that we have. All those troops are engaged in doing exactly what we described they would do, and they are doing it very successfully. It ill behoves the hon. Gentleman to describe what they are doing in such a way.

Topical Questions

As Secretary of State for Defence, my departmental responsibilities are to make and execute defence policy, to provide the armed forces with the capabilities they need to achieve success in the military tasks on which they are engaged at home and abroad, and to ensure that they are ready to respond to the tasks that might arise in future.

When will the contract for the new carriers be signed, and will there be one carrier or, as rumoured, a second shared with the French?

I have made it clear to the House that we are committed to the building of these carriers—

In that case, I do not need to tell him. When we have achieved the necessary alignment of the work schedule, the commercial arrangements and other related matters, we will set the date for signing the manufacturer contract.

T2. Can the Secretary of State advise me whether the Atomic Weapons Establishment is carrying out live nuclear work at Burghfield and what safety issues were raised by the nuclear installations inspectorate? (201517)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for notice of that specific question. I am grateful for the opportunity to answer it and to displace some misinformation in the public domain about the AWE at Burghfield. The AWE is able to carry out live nuclear work at Burghfield. The nuclear installations inspectorate has provided constructive criticism about areas where safety can be improved or where there are shortfalls in the processes or systems. That is a normal part of its regulatory role and does not mean that there are serious concerns about the safety of the AWE at Burghfield. If the inspectorate had serious concerns, it could use its enforcement powers to stop work there and it has never done so.

It has been reported that by mid-May British forces might be deployed to Kosovo in support of NATO’s KFOR. The House would like to know whether the reports are true. Clearly, if we have a commitment we should fulfil it, but the last time the UK deployed its spearhead land element, as part of NATO’s operational reserve force in 2004, it required more than 30 C-130 Hercules sorties and five C-17 sorties. That was before we had nearly 8,000 troops in Afghanistan as well as the air bridge that they need for logistical support. Where on earth will we find the extra lift capability for Kosovo without undermining our efforts in Afghanistan?

We have had a request, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to supply the strategic reserve for Kosovo. When he talks about equipment and where we will find it, he needs to be aware that we made contingency plans some time ago, as we were aware of that commitment. Equipment was moved into theatre some months ago so that it would be there, ready and waiting, if we were called on to supply the reserve. We will respond to the request imminently and we will, of course, inform the House of our response.

Given that the equipment that is supposed to be available in Afghanistan is often not available, many in this House and the armed forces will find that answer a touch complacent. It is a bit pathetic that we are even considering the difficulties of deploying a small force to another part of Europe. This all arises because of the mismatch between funding and commitments for the armed forces under the Government. The Treasury is failing properly to fund Iraq and Afghanistan. The urgent operational requirements system means that equipment might be procured, but through-life costs are falling on the core MOD budget. The tempo of activity means that equipment is worn out prematurely and no extra funds are being made available to compensate. Again, the core budget is under pressure, which creates a serious crisis for the military and industry. Is that why MOD individuals are describing the Department in this morning’s papers as “unfit for purpose”, or are there other reasons, too?

The hon. Gentleman knows that there has been a year-on-year increase in the defence budget and that the additional resources provided by the Treasury for operational requirements are over and above the defence budget. He says that it is quite disgraceful that we are trying to conduct these commitments with the moneys that we have, but he needs to reconcile that with the fact that his leader, not a few months ago, refused not only to give any commitment to an uplift in the defence budget but refused—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman knows this. I know that it upset him, but he knows that his leader refused to give a commitment to spend at the current level of defence spending. If the hon. Gentleman is going to criticise the level of defence spending in the country, he needs to say that his party would—

T4. It is reported that Prime Minister al-Maliki saw a US tin star general but shut the door on a British one who was accompanying him. Will the Government make it clear to him that the UK will not be goaded into fighting his sectarian civil war for him? Will the Minister also say whether his Department has made plans for British troops to leave Iraq by the end of the year, when the UN mandate runs out? (201519)

I shall just repeat the answer that I have given my hon. Friend on the many occasions on which he has asked for a date on which British troops will leave Iraq. We will draw down our troops in relation to developing conditions in Iraq, and if the operation in Basra continues to be as successful as its first four phases, and if it continues to be welcomed by the Basrawis, and if there is the sort of change in Basrawis’ lifestyle that has been reported, for example, in The Times by an independent reporter after a visit last week, those are all indications that conditions are moving in a direction that allows us to reduce troop numbers. May I reassure my hon. Friend that senior officers, our ambassador, and senior representatives in Iraq continue to meet Prime Minister al-Maliki regularly and work with him to take forward that operation?

T10. A year ago, a National Audit Office report stated that 40 per cent. of Ministry of Defence housing was substandard. Given that those criticisms continue to be made, will the Minister update the House on the progress of the modernisation of stock, particularly as the MOD budget is in crisis? (201525)

We have said that we will spend about £8.4 billion over the next 10 years on housing in this country and abroad. There have been decades of neglect by your party, and we accept our responsibility—[Interruption.]and others.

Let me make it perfectly clear that we have spent sizeable amounts of money on refurbishing, modernising and upgrading properties around the country. Last week, I not only saw housing upgrades required to meet standard 1 but improvements such as new boilers, kitchens and bathrooms. Of course, we have a lot more to do, but the hon. Gentleman should reflect on the fact that part of the problem is the deal that the Conservative party made with Annington Homes, which we have to live with today.

T5. Will my hon. Friend the Minister update us on plans for Veterans day? Given that the theme this year is “Honour and unite all who served”, will a place be found in the events plan for recipients of Women’s Land Army badges and Bevin Boy badges as well as recipients of Veterans day badges? (201520)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight Veterans day, and it is right that we get as many people as possible to support it. We have not finalised the programme, but I can tell her that more than 40 towns and cities across the country are hosting major Veterans day events, and hundreds of small towns and villages are developing their own events. The national event will take place in Blackpool, and its proposals are excellent and outstanding. Given the high focus on the armed forces, the work that has taken place on the Command Paper that the Secretary of State has ordered and the recognition study, there will be a great deal more focus this year on Veterans day and celebrating what our veterans have done.

The way in which the British Army works in theatre depends heavily on the Lynx helicopter, and if it does not have Lynxes in future, there will be implications not just for the Army but for the Navy and the Air Force. When will the decision be made on the contract for the future Lynx programme, and is the Secretary of State aware of the damage that will be caused by the delay both to the nation’s strategic ability to produce such a helicopter and, above all, to the way in which the armed forces operate?

I am well aware of the value of the Lynx helicopter and, indeed, helicopters to modern warfare. As in previous years, capability is under review, and when we undertake such a process there is a lot of speculation. I shall not be drawn into commenting on speculation: when there is anything to announce to the House, we will make it very clear.

T8. I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the campaign by Dr. Bob Meaders in the USA to improve the quality of helmets, particularly against roadside blasts and bomb blasts. Can he assure me that the Mark 6A helmet, which is used in Iraq and Afghanistan, is sufficient, and provides maximum protection for our brave young men and women? (201523)

No item of protective clothing or equipment can guarantee protection against every kind of attack or accident, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the helmet offers the highest level of protection compared with the combat helmets of many other nations. It is very well thought of by our troops, and it is fitted with shock-absorbing pads—the substance of the campaign that she raised, which, of course, we are well aware of.

Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent statement by Robert Gates, the United States Defence Secretary, referring to our recent involvement in various theatres, when he said:

“For those missions that still require manned missions, we have to think hard about whether we have the right platforms, whether for example, low cost, low tech alternatives exist to do basic reconnaissance and close air support…where we have total control of the skies.”?

The US Defence Secretary is to set up a taskforce. Does the Secretary of State agree with his sentiments, and will he do the same?

I know that the hon. Lady keeps abreast of all the issues concerning the changes in the operational environment and the challenges that those generate for equipment, particularly the platforms that we use. I also know that she is well aware that we have, particularly during the last two years, made some great progress in investment in such platforms, which provide the maximum protection to our troops. The point that the US Defence Secretary has been making repeatedly to his own armed forces concerns whether there is a need for manned aerial vehicles in particular to sustain the operational awareness that is necessary above modern battle spaces. We in the Ministry of Defence are acutely aware of that, and work is going on in that regard, as it is in the United States, and we are in close contact with the United States in relation to that. In particular, the hon. Lady will know that the Defence Secretary challenged the US air force about allegedly living in the past in that regard. I do not make the same criticism of the RAF.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House of Commons what procedures exist whereby complaints of serious misconduct by British nationals or British military/security firms operating in Iraq and Afghanistan are investigated, and whether there is a deficiency in our law that does not give extraterritorial extent to our police and investigatory authorities about the wrongdoing of individuals who are employed by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office or the Department for International Development?

With respect, I do not understand my hon. Friend’s concern in relation to this. For those whom we deploy into operational theatre, we retain the right to investigate any allegations that are made against them. We do that through the military police force.