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Volume 488: debated on Monday 23 February 2009

The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan (Troop Deployment)

1. What forecast he has made of levels of troop deployment to Afghanistan in the next two years; and if he will make a statement. (257879)

Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing profound condolences to the families and friends of Marine Darren Smith of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed on active service in Helmand province on 14 February, and Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott of 1 Battalion The Rifles, who was also killed on active service in Afghanistan on 16 February, and to the family and friends of Private Ryan Wrathall of the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, who died in Iraq on Thursday 12 February. They all died in the service of our country, and we will always remember their bravery, courage and devotion to duty.

In December 2008, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a temporary uplift in UK force levels in Afghanistan to bring our deployment to around 8,300 troops. We are currently working closely with the new US Administration on their ongoing policy review. Her Majesty’s Government will continue to ensure that our commanders have the troops and the capabilities that they need to do their tasks safely and effectively.

The whole House will join the Secretary of State in his tribute to those of our brave soldiers who have recently died in Afghanistan and elsewhere. More troops from my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, will shortly be going to Afghanistan, adding to the United Kingdom’s already significant contribution to the NATO force in that country. Does the Secretary of State understand the real anger in this House, and throughout the country, at the fact that other NATO countries are not shouldering their fair share of responsibility? What is he going to do about it, given that so many British lives are at stake?

I understand that the regiment to which the hon. Gentleman referred is shortly due to go to Afghanistan as part of 19 Brigade, and we wish it well.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I have tried, since becoming the Secretary of State for Defence, to give expression to them in this country and, more importantly, when I have discussions with my NATO counterparts. I will continue to do that. UK forces are in Afghanistan because it is vitally necessary for them to be there as a part of securing our homeland defence against the risk of international terrorism. I hope that all parties would accept that our commitment properly reflects the priority that we should attach to succeeding in our mission in Afghanistan.

Has the Secretary of State reflected on the fact that there has never been a specific mandate from this House for the deployment of our armed forces and service personnel in Helmand? The Prime Minister always promised us that, if there were a significant deployment, it would have such a mandate. There is a serious democratic deficit in this case, and the Secretary of State needs to tell his NATO colleagues that he is under pressure in the House about it.

It is now time that we took stock. When we deployed in Helmand, there was a ministerial statement. I confessed to the House that I had never heard of Helmand before, and I suspect that there were an awful lot of other people like me. It is now time for this matter to be put to a vote in the House of Commons, to see whether there is an endorsement of this ongoing mission creep. We are putting more and more of our armed forces into Helmand, but NATO is not fulfilling its obligations.

When it comes to the business of the House, it is for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and others to determine such matters. We have made regular statements in this place on UK force levels and on deployment in Afghanistan, and I have a strong sense of a cross-party consensus in support of that mission. As I said, it is not for me to determine which procedures or matters are put before this House.

I would strongly rebuke—not rebuke; I would never rebuke my hon. Friend. But I would disagree with him very strongly when he talks about mission creep in Afghanistan. There has not been any mission creep in Afghanistan. We are there to support the NATO mission at the request of the Afghan Government, and force levels reflect the nature of the tasks that need to be completed. I repeat that there has not been mission creep in Afghanistan.

I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a cross-party consensus in this House on the need to be in Afghanistan, but what can he do to inspire the country to believe that this is our battle, and something in which we must succeed? At the moment, that battle of communication is not being won.

I accept that we have to respond positively to that issue. Since I have been Secretary of State, I have made it a priority to make it clear why UK forces are in Afghanistan. They are there to ensure the homeland security of the United Kingdom and our friends and allies. The threat of international terrorism is real, and we fool ourselves if we think that we can somehow wish it away—we cannot.

I agree with the view, which is shared by the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks sensibly and sanely on these matters, that we cannot succeed in our mission in Afghanistan purely by the use of military force. But nor can we succeed without it, and the responsibility that rests on me and others is to ensure that, in the discharge of that role, which is vital for UK national security, we have the right balance of forces with the right equipment to allow the men and women who serve this country so bravely in Afghanistan the best prospect of succeeding in what we all accept is an arduous and difficult campaign.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the circumstances in which we would contemplate sending more British troops? Last week, the Foreign Secretary referred to a “strategic stalemate” that appeared to rule out any more British troops going. From the beginning, rather a small number of western troops have been trying to overcome a large country and stabilise a large population. Is it not rather odd to congratulate the Americans and urge Europeans to send more troops but seemingly rule out any more British troops going? Are there any circumstances in which we would send more, or are we driving a hard bargain? If it is the latter, will the Secretary of State build on the statements made by him and others that military action needs to be accompanied by a political plan?

I do not think that the problem in Afghanistan has been the lack of a plan. There is a carefully set out strategic plan for succeeding in the counter-insurgency campaign. It has a military and security component, to which the UK is making an important contribution, and there is also a clear economic plan involving reconstruction, social development and political progress in cementing support across Afghanistan for the new democracy. We have a comprehensive approach.

When it comes to Europe and others, we are right to be critical of the NATO effort and response in Afghanistan. It falls short of what is necessary on specific matters such as combat forces or even the mentoring and training role, in which there is an obvious deficiency in the support that we are providing the Afghan army and police. It is important to keep in mind the fact that there are 25,000 NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan, which is a not inconsiderable effort. We do damage to the alliance if we tend to dismiss that, and we should never damage the coherence of the NATO alliance. However, we need more, which is reflected in the recent US decision to improve troop levels.

We have never ruled out additional troop deployments in Afghanistan. The decision on whether we deploy is taken on the advice of our commanders about the specific capabilities that they need. We have made no secret of the fact that there is currently a serious threat to us from improvised explosive devices. We have attempted to respond to it, and we need to do more to counter that threat, which now accounts for 80 per cent. of our casualties. It is not the case that we are not prepared to do more—we might be. We will act on the basis of the advice that we receive from our own commanders and from our NATO allies.

As President Karzai says that there is now no resting place for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as the head of MI5 says that our military presence there increases the danger of terrorism in Britain, and as the bombing of Pashtuns and their women and children greatly radicalises Pakistan, what is the continuing justification for sacrificing more British lives in this unwinnable war?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s defeatism, which has no place in this House. The logic for UK deployment in Afghanistan is very clear, and I have tried to set it out today and on previous occasions. The real threat that the UK faces is not the risk of state warfare but the risk that emanates from failed states such as Afghanistan that, as we know from recent experience, have provided a safe haven for international terrorists who mean us harm and who have done everything that they possibly can to acquire the capabilities to inflict serious harm upon us. The idea that we can simply leave Afghanistan to its own devices is a counsel of total despair, and would sacrifice the genuine interests of the security of our country.

While I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces in Afghanistan for the tremendous work that they are doing, does he agree with the US envoy Ambassador Holbrooke that the current situation in Afghanistan is a mess?

Ambassador Holbrooke will choose his own words to describe the situation in Afghanistan; I would not use those words myself. There has been progress in Afghanistan in recent years. We have not prevailed in the campaign against the insurgency—that is stating the bleedingly obvious—but it is an error to describe the past few years as having resulted in no progress. We have denied the opportunity for Afghanistan to be a haven for terrorism and there is a democracy there now that is making small steps towards progress. The very significant service and sacrifice of the British armed forces has played a significant role in allowing us to make that progress.

However, I agree strongly with Ambassador Holbrooke that there is an obvious case for NATO to do more to improve security conditions on the ground and for the Afghan Government to respond to the effort that our people are making to consolidate security, with progress at a domestic political and economic level. There has been too little of that in the past few years.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, despite the dismal performance of too many of our NATO allies, in many respects, the command structure is at fault? Does he agree that too many countries are pursuing their own objectives in Afghanistan outside the main plan and that the command chain needs to be pulled into a much tighter focus?

The two major operations in Afghanistan are that of the international security assistance force and Operation Enduring Freedom. I believe that there is homogeneity of command structures in ISAF, and that is useful. There is a debate between regional and provincial command, which needs to be properly aired and thrashed out. However, the detail of the command structure arises from military commanders’ advice, and politicians should tread warily when it comes to the detail of military command arrangements.

The general consensus on Afghanistan in the House has put the United Kingdom in a strong position in NATO. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if there is to be further British deployment in Afghanistan, four criteria must be met? First, there must be a clear and achievable political mission to support the military mission, as was the case with the surge in Iraq, but that does not currently exist in Afghanistan. Secondly, governance in Afghanistan, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts. Thirdly, as has been said, all NATO allies should be asked to take a fairer share because too many are shamefully failing to do that. Fourthly, any increase in troop numbers must be matched by a proportionate and appropriate increase in equipment such as helicopters and armoured vehicles.

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We would not deploy additional forces to Afghanistan unless they had the right equipment to do their job properly. He has rightly drawn attention to the small number of helicopters that are available to support ISAF. We are working on that, as are our NATO partners and allies. The French-UK helicopter initiative is a small step in the right direction—it has yet to produce significant new assets but I hope that it will do soon.

Although I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, I caution him about drawing too many parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. They are two very different countries, with very different security situations.

The Secretary of State will know that, over the weekend, reports in the press gave detailed information about the life-changing injuries that some of our troops in Afghanistan have sustained. Will he take the opportunity, relatively early in his time in office, to review the way in which the Ministry of Defence publishes statistics, so that we can have a full and transparent picture of the sacrifices that are being made on our behalf? The British public, our armed forces and their families deserve no less, and are far more able to deal with unpleasant truth than with what many may perceive as half-truths and evasions.

I agree that transparency in the figures is important. Every fortnight, we publish a series of figures, which show the extent of injuries and wounds to service personnel in active theatres. It is not therefore fair or reasonable to criticise the MOD for failing to provide an accurate scorecard on what is happening. We do not have a category of “life-changing injuries”. Neither the statisticians nor the services have identified that as a meaningful definition. However, we publish comprehensive fortnightly data, which deal with the extent of injuries and wounds. I am happy to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that, if he wishes.

Armed Forces Personnel

2. Whether his Department plans to offer (a) financial support and (b) advice to armed forces personnel returning to the UK specific to circumstances caused by the economic downturn. (257880)

Financial guidance is available to service personnel in establishments throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. However, recognising the particular demands of service life, the Ministry of Defence and the Financial Services Authority are working together to deliver a programme of seminars for service personnel to help them to become more aware and confident in dealing with their personal finances. The programme’s implementation is flexible to allow targeting of units returning from overseas tours.

I thank the Under-Secretary for his response and I warmly welcome his emphasis on the transition to UK—and, in many cases, civilian—life. That echoes what he recently told me and other members of the all-party group on veterans.

There is a particular need to focus on the needs of service personnel who return to the UK without strong family links or, indeed, any family to which to turn for such assistance. I have heard that from voluntary organisations in my constituency. May I ask my hon. Friend and his officials to work closely with the Secretaries of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Work and Pensions to identify ways in which military personnel can particularly benefit from their services and assistance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that support. Some of those issues are already being addressed in the service personnel Command Paper. However, if there are instances where the MOD should be working with other Departments to improve the position not only of those who are in service, but of those making the transition into civilian life, I am prepared to look into them and to meet any Members with suggestions about that.

I know that the Minister is conscious of the support needed for servicemen, but will he give an undertaking to ensure that the families of service personnel who are serving on long deployments, whether in the Royal Navy or in the other forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, are also given proper advice at this time? One of the problems faced by servicemen currently serving abroad is that their families may have got into problems in this difficult time. I would like an assurance—and, I am sure, so would the House—that such advice will also be forthcoming to partners and families of service personnel.

I pay tribute to the service families, who are doing a vital job in supporting the men and women in theatre. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Welfare and financial support are available through the HIVE—help information volunteer exchanges—system. In addition, there is work under way with service charities such as the Royal British Legion, which, along with the RAF Benevolent Fund, has just launched a programme of support for welfare advice workers in citizens advice bureaux, which are giving support for families and those in service. However, I would like again to put on record our thanks to those families.

One of the biggest concerns that service personnel have when they return is that they and their families may face a year-long wait on the housing list. Will the Minister consider discussing with local authorities throughout the country the possibility of prioritising personnel returning from abroad—some local authorities do that, but not all?

One of the out-turns of the service personnel Command Paper is to allow service families to get local recognition of where they are based, if they want to stay in that area. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Later this year, I and ministerial colleagues from the Department will make a series of regional visits. One of my visits will involve meeting local authorities and other agencies to reinforce some of those issues, so that servicemen and women and their families are not disadvantaged by their local system.

The very high morale of soldiers and sailors returning from theatres of war will be witnessed by all those who are able to see the 7th Armoured Brigade coming through Carriage Gates at 3.45 this afternoon, after defence questions. However, does the Minister agree that unless proper advice on financial matters and the welfare packages available is given to soldiers and sailors at home, that morale in the field will be fundamentally undermined? It is vital that we keep the home end going, if we are to keep the fighting morale of our soldiers out there going.

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the all-party group on the Army for arranging this afternoon’s event? I and other ministerial colleagues will be there to support the event. He raises a vital point. It is important that we support families, because when people are on operations, they think about their families back home being taken care of. One thing that I am working on, which will be announced later this year, is a welfare pathway, which is intended to look not only at support for families and servicemen when they are in service, but at how they make the transition to civilian life. We should not forget that we have a duty of care to servicemen and women not just when they are in service, but when they leave.

Amphibious/Littoral Military Capability

Amphibious and littoral capability continue to be key elements of our force structure, as reflected in our major investment in amphibious shipping in recent years and by the contribution of our brave Royal Marine Commandos to operations in Afghanistan.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He will be aware that last week the amphibious task group Taurus 09 set sail for the far east, led by the Plymouth-based ships HMS Bulwark and HMS Ocean. Does he agree that that kind of shipping, coupled with our highly trained marines, for whom we have such high regard, is at the centre of defence capability for meeting the challenges of an uncertain future? Could he tell me what the prospects are for Devonport being involved in the support of such capability?

The Taurus 09 exercise gives our forces an opportunity to practise in the amphibious arena in challenging environments in various parts of the world. It is an important exercise, and I think that HMS Bulwark sailed from Plymouth last Wednesday to participate in it. Devonport will be the centre of excellence for amphibious operations, as well as conducting the depth maintenance that is needed on the submarine fleet and on the surface fleet, so Plymouth will continue to provide the support that it has provided to our forces historically.

The defence of our coastline has never been more important, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Mumbai, yet in recent evidence to the Defence Committee, the noble Lord West, referring to those defence arrangements, said:

“It is not what I would call, ultimately, satisfactory”.

Can the Minister reassure me that Lord West’s concerns are ill-founded, and that much more is being done to protect our coastline?

I do not know in exactly what circumstances the phrase “ultimately, satisfactory” was used, but plans are in place to provide the necessary capability to counteract a terrorist attack in our country. We believe that they are perfectly adequate, although they obviously have to be kept under review. In the light of circumstances such as those in Mumbai, that is vital, as every Member of the House can see.

An important part of any amphibious or littoral force is the capability supplied by the aircraft carriers. There was great concern in West Fife recently when the decision was made to delay the aircraft carriers, but there was little talk about the impact of that decision on the Navy’s aircraft capability in the longer term. What will happen to the Navy’s aircraft capability between now and when the aircraft carriers come into service? What will be the impact of the decision on the costs, not only of construction but of any elongation of the aircraft carriers’ service?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have our current aircraft carriers, but we also have the real capability provided by HMS Ocean. There will be no gap in capability. The new carriers will come into force as soon as possible. Yes, there has been some delay to the original in-service dates, but that will be adequately filled by our current force.

Joint Combat Aircraft

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress in the development of the joint combat aircraft. (257883)

I visited Fort Worth for discussions on this programme with Lockheed Martin about 10 days ago, and the programme is proceeding very satisfactorily. I am sure that this is a capability that our country needs, and I hope that we will be able to make an important announcement about it over the next few weeks.

Can the Minister use this opportunity to confirm that the delays to the future carrier programme announced last December are in no way connected with potential delays to the joint strike fighter programme?

The ability of senior MOD civil servants to deliver major capital projects on time and within budget is not something that automatically springs to mind when one reflects on their abilities. The defence information infrastructure IT project was costed at £2.3 billion. It is now running at £5.8 billion, even though it was not reported to Parliament, and its projected cost is now £7.1 billion. Will the Minister reassure the House that that £5 billion overspend will not inhibit our ability to finance the project that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) has asked about? When are we going to get a grip on some of the major projects for which the Ministry of Defence is responsible?

My hon. Friend has found an ingenious way of bringing up a subject to which I know he is very committed. I can give him the assurance that we are making progress—albeit with a delay, sadly, as he rightly said, in respect of the defence information infrastructure programme. The latest figures I have seen show that we have managed to install some 62,000 computer terminals and we hope to complete another 100,000 by the end of the year. I can assure my hon. Friend that the problems with this particular project will have no consequences at all for the joint strike fighter programme.

The joint combat aircraft will be based at RAF Lossiemouth, where a good deal of work has already been done on the transition from Tornadoes to the JCA. Is the Ministry of Defence content with those preparations and is it confident that the changes will go to time?

I have not looked at those particular preparations in detail, as it is still some time before we take delivery of those aircraft, but the hon. Gentleman can be certain that we are watching that matter very closely indeed. We do not intend to invest in this programme, with all the enormous importance it has for the future of the nation’s defence capability, without ensuring that proper support mechanisms are in place for it.

We are widely informed that the development of the joint strike fighter has led to a two-year delay in the aircraft carrier project. Will the Minister confirm that there has been no official announcement that work that has been destined for the Tyne for more than 12 months now on the aircraft carrier has been transferred to Scotland? Will he meet me and a number of other Members from the north-east, along with the trade union leaders, to discuss the matter further?

I am always delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I mean my hon. Friend. I would be more than happy to meet him. I have already given the House the assurance that the reprofiling of the carrier programme was in no sense due to any delays in the JSF programme, and we have made that clear from the outset. I hope that my hon. Friend will be satisfied with that. So far as the distribution of work on the carrier is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, we have a contract with the Aircraft Carrier Alliance and it is up to the alliance to decide where it would be most efficient and most appropriate to locate the work that needs to be undertaken. It is not for us to designate particular sites.

Typically, the Minister piled confusion upon confusion. He has just told the House that there is no connection between the delay in the aircraft carriers and the acquisition of the joint combat aircraft or joint strike fighter. I point out to him that his own Secretary of State made a statement to the House on 11 December—a statement that we have previously had no opportunity to discuss. In that statement he said:

“We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service date of the new carriers by one to two years.”—[Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]

The Minister and the Secretary of State cannot both be telling the truth. Which one is true?

The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me and has got it exactly the wrong way round. It was put to me this afternoon that the reason for reprofiling the dates of the manufacture and delivery of the carriers was the delay in the JSF programme. I have explained that there was no delay and that that is not therefore the reason for reprofiling the carriers. The reason for doing so was, quite simply, that it made no sense to spend money much earlier than required to no possible benefit when we could not advance the date of JSF delivery even if we wanted to. We have made that very clear. It is exactly the other way round. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has completely failed to understand the situation.

Will the Minister assure me that Britain will have complete autonomy in its use of the joint strike fighter? Is he absolutely certain that we will be able to fly it to its full potential, maintain and upgrade it without the support of American personnel?

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a number of important points, and I can assure him that we are confident of meeting those objectives. It is a central priority in our programme to do so.

Iran (Missile Development)

5. What assessment he has made of the implications for UK defence policy of recent Iranian missile development. (257884)

We routinely assess the military capabilities of other nations’ armed forces, including those of Iran. Iran is attempting to improve its ballistic missile capabilities; we continue to monitor these developments very carefully indeed.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reply, but how worried are the Government about the potential supply of Fajr-2 missiles from Iran to Hamas and what would be the implications for regional security, including the safety of our own troops?

Iran should stop meddling in the affairs of the middle east. That is what it should do. The supply of armaments to Hamas in Gaza is profoundly unwelcome and must stop. We have made an offer to try to help the interdiction of those missile supplies and we stand ready to do that. We have no information to suggest that the capabilities that the Iranians are seeking to acquire pose a threat to UK forces, but Iran’s growing interest in developing ballistic missile technology goes far beyond what is and can ever be justified in terms of Iranian self-defence, so we are entitled, along with our allies, to keep a very close eye on the continuing malign influence that Iran is playing in the middle east.

What attempts have the Government made to speak with Iran about the possibility of its signing, or at least seeing the value of, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty?

We should certainly continue to discuss those matters with Iran. It is quite clear that Iran is continuing to take steps to seek to acquire a nuclear weapons programme. We must do everything we possibly can, with our international allies, to ensure that that never happens.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of possible Russian involvement in arming Iran, in particular the stories that the Russians might be providing the Iranians with anti-missile missiles?

We do have concerns about the suggestion that Russian ground-to-air missiles might be provided to the Iranians. As part of trying to secure the defence of Iranian nuclear installations, that would certainly be a very unwelcome development. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we have had discussions with Russia about those matters, and continue to do so.

Within the last few days, it has been revealed by the British ambassador to the United Nations that in 2005 the Iranians offered the British a deal whereby they said:

“We stop killing you in Iraq…you allow us to carry on with our”

missile and

“nuclear programme.”

That deal was rightly rejected. This is, I believe, the first time that a senior British official has spoken about an Iranian admission of direct involvement in killing British service personnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is also his understanding of that situation?

I do not think that there is any doubt that, in recent years, the Iranians have been assisting various groups in Iraq to attack British forces. That is totally unacceptable. Iran should keep its nose out of Iraq and other countries. Iran has a legitimate set of interests in the middle east, but it has no right whatever to involve itself in the internal security situation of other countries. Its role in assisting those groups to kill British forces is one that we will never forget.

Super Garrisons

6. What progress has been made on the evaluation of policy options for super garrisons; and if he will make a statement. (257885)

Four super garrisons will be established in Aldershot, the east of England, Yorkshire and Salisbury plain. Those will all form by April 2009, and the Northern Ireland super garrison by April 2010.

All those phase 1 super garrisons have been subject to major rebuild programmes, but their development goes beyond infrastructure. They will provide a sustainable military community better integrated with the local civilian community and the local civilian authorities. These will be places where people will want to work and to live.

I thank the Minister for that answer. We have quite a large military footprint in Oxfordshire—Bicester, Benson, Abingdon—and it would be fair to say that Oxford would very much welcome, in due course, being considered for super garrison status, but those things require planning and lead-in time. Will the Minister assure the House that there will be long discussions and lead-in time with local authorities to make quite sure that we can get the best out of the potential for super garrisons for the military and for communities such as Oxfordshire?

The hon. Gentleman has been a champion of the garrison at Bicester for a long time. While I do not think that there is the potential for a super garrison in that location, there are possible synergies in respect of other defence capability moving into the area; of course, we will be considering that. Should we consider it further, there will be full consultation not only with him, but with the relevant local authorities in so doing.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is satisfied that the garrison of our armed forces in this country broadly reflects where they are recruited from?

It can never do that in its entirety. The garrison in this country reflects historic decisions that have been made and facilities that have been located in different parts of the country. Of course it would be sensible, to the degree that it is practical, to align the garrison of the Army in Great Britain with the locations in which its members are recruited, and we should try to do that. However, we cannot simply change our footprint and an extensive estate that has existed for a long time.

I am grateful to the Minister for writing to invite me to see progress at Andover in relation to the proposed transfer of UK Land Command to the site. He will, however, be aware of the enormous changes and pressures affecting the community in south Wiltshire as a result of the super-garrison proposals, and also the quite proper expansion of the work being done in the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down. Can he assure me that planning will take place in close association with the new Wiltshire council, which will come into being shortly, and that in implementing this enormous investment programme, he will not neglect the existing married quarters, which remain sub-standard for so many of our military personnel and their dependants?

I am told that there is a good relationship with the local authority, but if the hon. Gentleman has evidence to the contrary I shall be only too happy to listen to him and ensure that we put things right. He has expressed his concern about some of the changes for some time, and I should also be more than happy to talk to him privately, as well as in the Chamber, about those issues.

There has been substantial investment in both single and married quarters over time, but the hon. Gentleman knows that we live with a legacy of neglect that goes back many decades.

The Government’s super-garrison initiative offers them an opportunity to do something about the shameful accommodation that many of our troops have had to put up with for far too long. However, servicemen and women will note that defence is conspicuously absent from the Government’s programme for bringing forward capital expenditure and that defence projects are being delayed or cancelled, and they will draw their own conclusions on where they lie in the Government’s scheme of priorities. Why have Ministers decided not to follow the example of other countries that are including defence projects in their fiscal stimulus packages?

The hon. Gentleman has raised these issues in a manner that is not acceptable. There has been substantial investment in the estate over a long period, and the legacy that we were left by the Government whom he supported was truly outrageous. He needs to remember the Annington Homes deal, which left us with a legacy on family living accommodation that was an absolute scandal before the 1997 election. None of that can be solved immediately; it has to be solved over time, and it is being solved. Many thousands of homes have been brought up to standard, including both service family and single accommodation.

Afghan Public Opinion

7. What assessment he has made of Afghan public opinion on the international security assistance force and UK military missions in Afghanistan. (257886)

The United Kingdom and our ISAF partners are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the democratically elected Government of Afghanistan, and our strong experience on the ground is that Afghans welcome the progress that has been made since the overthrow of the Taliban. The governor of Helmand province, Governor Mangal, has himself stated:

“Until the threat of terrorism is removed it is important that British and international forces remain in Afghanistan.”

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he acknowledge that United Nations figures show that 39 per cent. of the 2,118 people killed in Afghanistan in 2008 were civilians and that 31 per cent. more civilians were killed by NATO in 2008 than in 2007? At the same time, a broadcasting poll shows that the proportion of Afghanis who think that their country is heading in the right direction has fallen from 77 per cent. to 40 per cent. and that support for NATO among Afghanis has fallen from 67 per cent. to 37 per cent. Does the Secretary of State not think that these trends are connected, and that we have to ensure that the people of Afghanistan see themselves not as targets but as protected by the forces, and that they can see the basis for their country developing, rather than having their civilians killed in the crossfire?

Let me make it absolutely clear to the right hon. Gentleman that Afghan civilians are not targeted by NATO and ISAF forces—it is completely untrue to claim otherwise. The majority of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban and their supporters, and we should never lose sight of that fact. They show an indiscriminate use of violence and a willingness to use men, women and children—civilians—as a cover behind which they launch their cowardly attacks on both the Afghan security forces and NATO troops. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that we have to do more—it is the value system that we represent that is important here—to reduce even further, if we can, civilian casualties in Afghanistan. I want to be clear with him and the House that I think there is more we can do, and I want to be in a position soon to make a further statement about that.

I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but even some of the more stable parts of Afghanistan, particularly in the north, are now beginning to look as though they may come under threat from Taliban or other insurgent elements. What guarantees can we ask for from the whole international community that a proper political process is underwriting what the military are currently trying to do? I am aware that my own regiment, the 1st Rifles, is there, as it has been on previous occasions. The military people need to have some knowledge that the political situation is getting better, not worse.

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I think it is a mistake to describe the security situation in the way that he has done. I think he will find that there were fewer security incidents this year in Kabul, for example, than the year before, so we need to be very careful about how we in this House describe the security situation there. I am not for a second saying that there are not still very serious challenges for us to face in Afghanistan, but I think we need to be clear about the nature of the problem.

The political reconciliation process is, first and foremost, rightly and properly a matter on which the Afghan Government, as the democratic representatives of the Afghan people, should take lead responsibility, but I think my hon. Friend will find that our military commanders on the ground are very well experienced and very well educated in the political realities of Afghan society.

While Afghan public opinion is, of course, very important, so, too, is British public opinion. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that if our European NATO allies do not deploy more troops in a combat role, British public support for this particular campaign will be substantially lessened—and, indeed, the public’s faith in NATO itself will be much reduced?

Yes, I think there is a danger of that, as I have made clear in many public remarks, but if there is a consensus in this House—and I hope there is—it should be about the nature of the UK mission in Afghanistan. It is first and foremost about securing UK national security interests. That is why our troops are there—it is why we ask them to expose themselves to the risk of danger—and if the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees with me about that, I hope he will join me in continuing to make the case for why the United Kingdom should be involved in the way that it is in our mission in Afghanistan.

Topical Questions

My departmental responsibilities are to ensure that our country is properly defended now and in the future, and that our service personnel have the right equipment and training to allow them to succeed in the military tasks in which they are engaged either at home or abroad.

The Secretary of State will be familiar with the case of Marine Joe Townsend, who was grievously wounded, like so many of our brave service personnel, while on active duty in Afghanistan—in Joe’s case losing his lower limbs entirely. The Secretary of State will know that there was huge public support for Joe when he encountered problems with the planning laws in trying to build a bungalow on his grandfather’s farm to allow him to live independently. It is clear that there are problems here—although Wealden council is trying to work constructively with him, there are lessons to be learned—so will the Secretary of State agree to meet me, representatives of local government and, perhaps, his colleagues from the Department for Communities and Local Government, to see whether planning guidance can actually reflect the fact that when we say that wounded servicemen and women are special, the treatment they receive reflects that?

I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman and the spirit behind his question. We have to find a sensible way to enable Joe to live in a house that is suitable to his needs and near to his parents, and that must be a priority for us. Wealden district council is trying to find a sensible way forward and I hope that that is achieved speedily. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and his constituents to discuss this genuine and important issue.

Sergeant Michael Brennan from my constituency was blown up in Afghanistan, but it happened too early for him to get compensation. Is it not time that the Government paid less money to solicitors to argue why people such as Sergeant Brennan should not be paid and instead paid out to all those service personnel who have been badly injured in Iraq and Afghanistan?

My hon. Friend will not be surprised that I share his views on solicitors in general. However, in the specific case in question, it is not that his constituent does not have access to any compensation; the issue is that he was injured before the 2005 scheme was introduced, and he can access a war pension under the old war pension scheme. If my hon. Friend wants to meet me to talk about the issue, I am prepared to arrange that.

T3. As the A400M airlift aircraft is not expected to come into service until 2014, and even that date is optimistic, what will the effect be on future Army structure, given that it is heavily dependent on airlift and that airframe capacity is being not just diminished but rapidly exhausted? (257905)

We have a contract with Airbus Military, and we are committed to that contract. We expect Airbus Military to deliver on that contract. If it is unable to do so, we shall have to examine all the options available to us.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the service cadet units in our constituencies and in recognising that, for example, the Air Training Corps in Eastham and the Sea Cadets in New Ferry provide a valuable service to our young people and their communities? (257907)

I am pleased to do so, and I pay tribute to all the young boys and girls, their parents and the volunteers who support the ATC and the Sea Cadets in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They do a brilliant job, and we would like to find ways to encourage more such activity. It is a great grounding for a young person to spend some time in the cadets, and I strongly recommend such an experience for every young boy and girl in this country.

T4. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessment he has made of any possible implications of, or lessons to be learned from, the recent collision between nuclear submarines for our nuclear fleet and our defence? (257906)

As the hon. Gentleman will know and as the First Sea Lord has made clear, a very careful investigation is taking place into exactly how that event happened and what conclusions we should draw. I do not want to pre-empt that inquiry, but if there are any lessons to be learned—and I suspect that there are—we need to learn them quickly.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the recent increases in fares for the Falkland Islands air bridge and the removal of the child concessions, which have made it more and more difficult for Falkland Islanders to visit this country? That goes against the spirit of what the Government have always professed—that we should increase our contacts with the islanders. (257909)

Progress is being made in discussions with the Falkland Islands Government on this issue, and we hope that we will be able to reach agreement in the very near future and announce the details.

There is a piece of work being done in the Department about the Joint Force Harrier. All that I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that it is right that we should look at every option as we prepare for the future, but all the options that we are considering include recognising the principle that it should be a jointly operated force.

Increasing numbers of Territorial Army doctors are serving abroad. For many years, doctors have been trained at Strensall camp just outside York. Is the Minister convinced that sufficient training is given now that they are more likely to be deployed, and does the NHS—the normal full-time employer of those doctors—give enough support to doctors who serve in the Territorial Army?

May I start by paying tribute to the men and women reservists who are in both Iraq and Afghanistan? I visited Afghanistan two weeks ago and met some of them. My hon. Friend’s constituents should rightly be proud of the contribution they are making to training. I have visited York on previous occasions and I should be pleased to do so again if my hon. Friend feels it would be helpful. To try to meet the need for specialist medical provision, there is a new scheme for volunteers from the NHS and currently two NHS nurses are on Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.

T9. Some Defence questions ago, the Minister indicated that he was willing to respond to the number of forces personnel who have been deafened in action, and I am pleased that some constructive discussions are going on between the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the Minister’s Department, but does he acknowledge that the United States gives both better equipment and much better support and compensation for servicemen and women who are deafened on active service? Can he ensure that we provide exactly the same quality of support as the Americans do for their troops? (257911)

Following the right hon. Gentleman’s raising the issue, I had a meeting in the Department with the RNID, along with the Surgeon General, and we are now working together, which includes having representatives from the RNID on working groups. Later this year, I hope to announce a joint working approach with the RNID, which we both feel will be constructive and helpful for servicemen and women. I do not agree that the United States is doing more than we are in this field. The constructive approach taken by both the Ministry of Defence and the RNID is a positive way forward.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister is aware, my constituent Willie Leith lobbies me almost daily about the Yangtze incident. I have written to my right hon. Friend to raise the issue with him, but will he put the Government’s position on the record so that I can reassure my constituent, Mr. Leith?

I have replied to my hon. Friend in the past and I am more than happy to meet him if he wants more detail about the issue.

When our brave servicemen and women return home after they have been injured, many of them receive compensation but many need help from local social services for adaptations. Is the Secretary of State aware that some local authorities refuse to give adaptations unless people pay, because their compensation has come through and they are above the threshold? Can we do something to prevent local authorities from taking compensation away and ensure that they give people the adaptations they really need?

That is an issue that I am addressing. Councils should be disregarding compensation lump sums in respect of adaptations. This is part of a bigger piece of work I have asked the Department to do on what is called a welfare pathway, so that when people leave the armed forces we do not just forget about them, but make sure that local authorities and other agencies take into account the fact that those people have been on active service and we owe them a debt of gratitude. That work will be produced later this year, and I am working with other Departments and COBSEO—the Confederation of British Service and Ex-service Organisations—to pull it together. As part of the regional visits, I shall be meeting local authorities to stress the need to treat veterans as a special case.

In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State expressed his desire that Iran should stop meddling in the middle east. Iran needs financial means to engage in that activity. Lloyds TSB recently had to admit that it had facilitated some financial transactions, so may I urge my right hon. Friend to have talks with his Treasury colleagues to make sure that no other British banks are involved and that no financial transactions from the UK put our troops at risk?

I shall certainly look into the matter that my hon. Friend raises, but I am sure that she will be aware of recent steps that we in the United Kingdom have taken to freeze Iranian assets and to deal with the flow of money that is used to support causes that directly target the health, safety and well-being of British forces.

To take the Secretary of State back to the issue of Afghanistan, let me say that I fully support our troops being there, but I am not sure that they are helped by his definition of “progress”. Could he say what kind of progress there has been, given that two years ago non-government organisations could operate freely in about 80 per cent. of the south, whereas today they can barely operate anywhere in the south at all?

I am not sure that the UK forces would welcome that assessment of progress, either. [Hon. Members: “It’s true.”] No. In the south, and in Helmand, which has become the principal focus of Taliban insurgent activity, the situation remains seriously challenging, both for local Afghans and for British forces. However, we recently saw significant success in operations in Helmand, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least welcome that.

May I remind the Secretary of State that when British forces were first deployed to Afghanistan back in 2002, we were promised a six-month deployment, yet we have been there for a period longer than the second world war? May I also draw his attention to the fact that he has issued revised defence planning assumptions that still class Afghanistan as a contingent operation instead of a standing commitment? Is it not about time that we treated our Afghan deployment as a standing commitment, and configured our armed forces accordingly?

Whatever our armed forces need to conduct successful operations in Afghanistan, they will have; I do not think that it matters very much what label we attach to that operation. They will get whatever help, support and resources they need to succeed.

Will the Government help those of us who are concerned about the proposal to sell the Royal Star and Garter home in Richmond upon Thames? It is highly valued by people who are disabled. It is not only a place for service personnel who were disabled in conflict, but a war memorial, and it should not be disposed of in the way proposed by the trustees.

I understand the passion to which the issue gives rise, but it is a matter for the trustees. However, if my hon. Friend would like to write to me on the subject, I should be happy to meet him and others who raise such concerns.