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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

Defence

The Secretary of State was asked—

Human Rights Legislation

1. What his policy is on the application of human rights legislation to service personnel on the battlefield. (277533)

3. What guidance he issues to armed forces personnel on operations on their obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998. (277535)

We are strongly committed to protecting the human rights of our armed forces. However, the implications of the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the case arising from the tragic death of Private Jason Smith could open the door to routine legal challenges against the Ministry of Defence to decisions made by service personnel entrusted with the conduct of operations. The Chief of the Defence Staff has made these concerns clear in his own message to the armed forces. I am urgently considering the matter, and will decide shortly whether we need to appeal the decision to the House of Lords.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the number of retrospective claims that may be brought against the Department in the light of the recent Court of Appeal judgment?

I have not made any assessment of that; it is not clear to me that the judgment would have retrospective effect. That would have to be examined initially as part of the careful consideration that lawyers in the Ministry need to give the judgment. However, my real concern is whether we can stand aside and see bold decision making by battlefield commanders inhibited by anxiety about a legal process over which they will have no say and no control. Those are very serious matters. We have a clear duty of care to our soldiers, sailors and airmen, which we intend to discharge fully, but the case raises a set of issues that are complicated and fundamental. That is why it is right that—with your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of others—we take time to consider it carefully.

I am sure that the House wishes to send its condolences to Jason Smith’s family; it is a tragic case. However, although we wish the Government well, I fear that the problem is one of the Government’s own making, through their human rights legislation. There is no greater breach of human rights than being shot on the battlefield—and that is what we expect our soldiers to go out and risk. What exactly are the Government planning to do, beyond appeal? If the law stands, will not the Government have to change it to rectify the situation?

I do not want to indulge in hypotheticals, but I cannot resist the temptation. If we were to lose the appeal and the current interpretation of the law were confirmed, it would pose us a serious problem, which would have to be addressed. I personally do not believe that the framers of the European convention had it in mind when it was drafted that it would ever apply to soldiers in a battlefield situation. If I am wrong, and if the House of Lords took a different decision if we appealed, Ministers would have to consider seriously the position that would then arise.

This is a very serious matter, and I urge the Secretary of State to consider wisely and make an appeal as necessary. We are witnessing the possibility of sending serving soldiers into battle with no guns or other weapons, and with their hands tied behind their backs. It is an impossible situation—unless we can enforce human rights codes on the opposition, such as Hezbollah or the Taliban; that would be a step in the right direction. In the meantime we must treat the matter seriously and regard it as a matter of high principle for the Government, and ensure that our soldiers have the proper protection that they need when going to war on our behalf.

I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s point. When our troops are committed to battle, the public want and expect only one thing: that they can do everything they need to do to win the battles that they are fighting. Anything that makes it harder to win the fights that they are in must be resisted strongly. Without allowing my hon. Friend to draw me any further, I can say that we are still examining the judgment carefully, and we will decide shortly whether to appeal.

I note from the press that companies such Capita, Manpower and Serco are forming a disorderly queue to get the plum £100 million contract for outsourced recruitment of people into our forces. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that, given their lack of knowledge of service life, that contract will not be extended to promote the ideas of human rights legislation in a battlefield context, about which they know equally little?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting that point into this exchange. There is no question of private contractors being employed in a battlefield environment, so I am not sure whether my hon. Friend’s concerns are likely to materialise.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that military lawyers and senior commanders have already started work fully to appreciate the tactical and strategic implications, should the judgment pass into law?

I would like to express the condolences of the Opposition to the family of Private Smith, and also to the families of those who have fallen since we last met. They gave their young lives in the service of our country, and their sacrifice must never be forgotten. The Minister of State has said that the Court of Appeal’s judgment of 19 May has serious implications for our ability to conduct military operations overseas. Given the Secretary of State’s belated fears for operational effectiveness, could he say what representations his predecessors made when his Government were falling over themselves to incorporate the European convention on human rights into the Human Rights Act?

I think that human rights legislation is important. It has helped to embed a human rights culture in the United Kingdom and in our judiciary, which is very important. With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that the solution to the problem is to repeal the Human Rights Act. The European convention was always justiciable through the route of the European Court of Human Rights, so that would be a false path to tread. The problem has arisen because of subsequent interpretations of the parameters of the convention, not because of the Human Rights Act. The difficulty for us all in this House is that when we start down a road with a clear understanding of where we think the parameters lie, but then find that someone has moved those parameters, that poses a set of challenges about judgments that we may have to make in the House at some point in the future. None the less, that is the right way to see the problem—not to try, as the hon. Gentleman has, to put the blame on this Government, who rightly took the step of enacting the convention in the Human Rights Act.

Piracy

The UK takes the protection of merchant shipping very seriously, and many personnel, both in the UK and overseas, are engaged in activities relating to the suppression of piracy around the horn of Africa. This includes the provision of command and control functions for both UK and international military vessels. We are working with the UK shipping industry, other Departments and international partners to co-ordinate, educate and support merchant shipping in the region.

With the Santa Maria in 1961, the Achille Lauro in 1985, the attempted hijacking of the Seabourn Spirit in 2005 and the attempted hijackings of other cruise ships in the past few weeks, how confident is the Minister that the British travelling public, who form the vast majority of cruise ship passengers, are safe off the horn of Africa? Obviously we are talking about pirates now, but they could well graduate from commercial ships to cruise ships.

There has been a big increase in the number of patrols: there are not only those run by the European Union; many other nations have also been participating. Even though most of those other nations are not prepared to fall under the command of others, they are more than happy to co-operate and ensure that what is being done is properly co-ordinated and therefore most effective. There is also a big operation involving the exchange of information from the United Kingdom in Northwood to ensure that we can pass information between nations safely and securely, so as best to attack the problem of piracy. Piracy is a real problem around the horn of Africa, but it will not be solved entirely in the maritime area.

Can my right hon. Friend tell us what he knows about the involvement of the Kenyan armed forces in the work of defeating piracy in the horn of Africa? I was in Kenya last October and many parliamentarians there were concerned about the situation, so I wonder where we stand now.

We should be enormously grateful to the Kenyan Government for the assistance that they have been giving us and for being prepared, in some circumstances, to bring those accused of piracy to justice in the Kenyan legal system. Kenya is directly affected by piracy, which attacks trade to Kenya. Indeed, a lot of the World Food Programme supplies to parts of Somalia come through Kenya; those ships have been targeted and are at risk too.

Increasing numbers of ransoms are being paid, and the pirates are now investing that money in better equipment and better weaponry. Does the Minister share my concern that if the problem is not nipped in the bud, the situation will escalate to the extent that many more people may be killed?

I am sorry to say that it is a bit late to nip the problem in the bud as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It has been going on for some time now, and the amount of activity and the preparedness of the pirates to go further out to sea to attack vessels—right out into the Indian ocean, for example—make it extremely difficult to offer full protection over such vast areas of sea. The reactions of the international shipping organisations need to be properly thought through. Their governance of their ships, and their preparedness to co-operate in the channelling of shipping that now takes place, and to accept our advice, ought to reduce the problem. We believe that this activity has led to an increase in the number of unsuccessful attacks, but in the past those organisations have been prepared to offer ransoms, which are hugely attractive to the individuals involved. It is hard to put in place sufficient deterrents to counteract the attraction of such large amounts of money.

Will the Minister confirm that if the Royal Navy comes under armed attack from pirates, it is entitled to use lethal force immediately? Will he also confirm that if the Royal Navy captures armed pirates, there is no longer any risk of their claiming asylum, and that they will instead be handed over to the nearest appropriate jurisdiction?

We have looked into that question, and made sure that the Royal Navy has rules of engagement sufficient for the tasks that we ask it to do. In any circumstances, it can always defend itself if it comes under attack. The hon. Gentleman knows that to be true, because he knows a considerable amount about this subject. We have no intention of providing a taxi service for asylum seekers through the Royal Navy. We have received the co-operation of countries in the area— Kenya, in particular, as I have said—in bringing these people to justice. We will take robust action, and we are also helping with the biggest single effort being made at the moment—the co-ordination of the many different nations operating in the area. There are Russian and Chinese ships in the area, as well as those of NATO countries, and they are all prepared to co-operate and to co-ordinate their activities. The Royal Navy has provided a superb facility in assisting and enabling that co-operation to take place.

Afghanistan

4. What plans he has for the future provision of military equipment to service personnel in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (277536)

We plan to continue to supply our troops in Afghanistan with the best possible equipment: personal equipment, weapons and communication systems, as well as intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—ISTAR—assets, armoured vehicles, helicopters, electronic countermeasures and all the rest. Highlights this year so far have been the delivery to theatre of Mastiff 2, Ridgback and Panther. I hope that in the next couple of months we shall deliver Jackal 2, and in the course of the year we shall make more Chinooks available for deployment in Afghanistan, as well as the first Merlins to be used there. Early next year, the new upgraded Lynxes will be delivered.

I thank my hon. Friend for that extensive answer. He will be aware of the comments by Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, who said that he was worried about the distant future and the need to “muddle through” that might arise in respect of the weapons that are to be sent to the Army. He also said that the weapons were not up to the standard required, and that they arrived too late. Has my hon. Friend had any discussions with Sir Richard, and if so, what was the outcome?

I have regular discussions with Sir Richard Dannatt, a man for whom I have the greatest admiration and regard. He is a very fine officer—and I have to say that I think that he has been misquoted by my hon. Friend. I am quite certain that he did not say those things about the weapons that we are delivering to Afghanistan being inappropriate. As for their being too late, I have just given an example of how we are delivering weapons systems and other equipment remarkably rapidly, sometimes within six months of the order going out to the supplier.

May I ask a question about helicopters? Incidentally, I am delighted that RAF Odiham in my constituency has been reprieved, and I hope that it now faces a long period of stability and investment. I want to ask about helicopters in the coming period. In the next three or four years, as old helicopters are phased out and before new ones have come on stream, there is likely to be a reduction in the availability of helicopters. What do the Government propose to do about that gap?

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his advocacy of RAF Odiham, for which he is famous in the House, and I am glad that he is happy with the news of the latest developments. As for helicopters, I look forward to discussing that matter in greater detail with the Defence Committee, to which I have been invited, tomorrow. As I think he knows, we are looking at a series of possible upgrades and life extension programmes for our existing fleet of helicopters, as well as focusing on the need for the future medium helicopter. Decisions on all these matters will be taken in the coming months. It will give me great pleasure to go through some of the issues with the right hon. Gentleman tomorrow, if he so wishes. As I frequently say—internally and, increasingly, externally—when it comes to helicopters, I am interested in outputs rather than inputs. Since November 2006—if I have the figures absolutely correct—we have succeeded in achieving an 80 per cent. increase in the helicopter hours available to commanders in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman regards that, as I do, as a fine achievement and a positive step in the right direction.

Can the Minister confirm that the problems experienced with rucksacks that are ill-fitting with the body armour that we supply to our armed forces in Afghanistan have now been resolved? Does he agree that in dealing with problems like this, it is imperative to act quickly?

I am totally with my hon. Friend on that latter point. Yes, we have looked into issues surrounding the burden of rucksacks in relation to the armour and so forth. It is an enormously important issue, because our troops have to carry enormous weights in very hot conditions, and I am concerned to ensure that we do everything possible continually to improve their personal equipment. The whole procurement function, as I see it, is one of managing continuing improvement. We have to remain flexible, we have to remain alert, and we have to ensure that everything we do gets better all the time. That has indeed been the story of our recent achievement, and we will continue it further. In the course of the next couple of months I shall be in Afghanistan again, and I shall talk, as I have before, individually to many people in all ranks about their issues with equipment, including the personal equipment to which my hon. Friend referred, and what they feel about all aspects of it.

The Minister will be well aware of the considerable overstretch that our troops face in Afghanistan, so can he update the House and tell us whether he has had any success in persuading other European members of NATO to supply more military equipment for our forces out there?

I do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation as one of overstretch. Of course, our forces have been under considerable stretch recently—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] “Overstretch” implies that our troops are being asked to undertake tasks that they are not able to undertake, which has not been the situation. The distinction between stretch and overstretch is very important, and I hope that she recognises it. Furthermore, with the end of our operations in Iraq, the stretch and the stress have been reduced. The hon. Lady will know that our last combat troops came back from Iraq just last week—indeed, I was privileged to be at RAF Honington when the RAF Regiment returned after a gallant deployment—so she is looking at the issue from the wrong angle. That said, yes, we have made considerable progress in persuading our NATO allies to make further contributions. The French, for example, have doubled theirs from 2,000 to 4,000 troops.

I was very glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) mentioning the weight of the personal equipment that our service personnel have to carry. Will the Minister tell the House a little more, particularly about body armour and the personal electronic countermeasures equipment, which seem to be the two main sources of the problem? What is being done to try to reduce the weight of those particular items?

A great deal of work is being done to improve the armour. I believe that our Osprey armour is the best armour available to anyone in the world today. We would like to improve it further and make it more effective; at the same time—there are obviously trade-offs to be made here—we would like to make it lighter if we can. We are making a continuing effort on electronic counter-measures, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that it would be in nobody’s interest—least of all that of our troops deployed in Afghanistan—for me to go into the details in public.

We are indeed looking forward to seeing the Minister before the Select Committee tomorrow. We just hope that he will allow time for us to ask the questions.

Apart from the helicopters, what equipment is being reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan?

I may say to the hon. Gentleman that when I appear before a Select Committee, I regard the time involved as a matter for the Committee. I shall be there for as long as the Committee requires me to be there.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, probably the most important asset to be reassigned from Iraq to Afghanistan immediately—or at least within a few months, after some maintenance and upgrade work—will be the Merlins. A number of other individual items of equipment may go to Afghanistan, but no precise decisions have been made about that yet.

Concerns remain about the loss of lives as a result of improvised explosive devices. Can my hon. Friend say any more about the urgency that he attaches to the provision of greater armour for vehicles to protect our troops from explosions of that kind?

As my hon. Friend probably recognised, many of the vehicles that I listed earlier are new generation. Mastiff 2 will follow Mastiff 1, Jackal 2 will follow Jackal 1 within the next couple of months, and Snatch Vixen will follow Snatch. Each of those developments involves a considerable enhancement in the survivability and protection afforded by the vehicles concerned. It is clear that there is no way in which a vehicle can be protected against absolutely any level of blast—and, sadly, that there is no way in which we can engage in armed conflict without losing troops. That is a tragic but, I am afraid, inescapable fact. We make continual efforts to improve our game, re-examining our tactics and counter-measures and trying to make them more effective, and we are succeeding—although, as I have said, I will not talk about that in public for obvious reasons. We are providing a new and ever-enhanced series of armoured vehicles and other forms of protection, and I look forward to reporting to the House on further improvements in future.

In the light of reports that American-fired enhanced-blast munitions may have caused 140 civilian deaths in an air strike on 4 May, can the Minister guarantee that British munitions, which have been used 43 times in the last year, have not killed civilians in Afghanistan? What precautions are we taking to ensure that they do not? Can pilots really see whether civilians are in target buildings? Does the Minister understand the fear that the use of such indiscriminate weapons might undermine the popular civilian support that is so essential to NATO’s operation?

The hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great regard and who I know to be a considerable expert on military matters, uses terms that I am surprised to hear him use in this context. He knows that none of the NATO forces involved operate indiscriminately in any way. The word is completely inappropriate.

I cannot comment on the specific American operation to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. Obviously I know nothing about it, because it does not fall within my direct responsibility. I can, however, tell him that enormous attention is paid by British forces to the need to avoid collateral damage and civilian deaths. In an armed conflict, as ever in the whole of human history, that can never be achieved 100 per cent., but we make great efforts. It is a difficult and serious trade-off—particularly given that someone may put their own personnel at risk by not taking action that they might otherwise have taken in defence of our own operations, or our own troops, because of a fear of civilian deaths or collateral damage.

Does the Minister agree with the former Secretary of State, who described the Pinzgauer Vector as

“an excellent solution to our soldiers’ requirements”,

or does he now accept that, at a cost of more than £100 million, it was a massive defence acquisition fiasco—as some of us on the Conservative Benches have pointed out, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton)? If so, what has he done to improve the technical evaluation process to restore our troops’ confidence in the acquisition process? That is the very least that they should expect from the Government.

The hon. Gentleman should wake up a bit, get with it and start to look at the realities of life. The fact of the matter is that those who invest in a portfolio of armoured vehicles, as we are doing—or, indeed, in a range of equipment for any purpose in this world—will want to ensure that they have the best, in terms of meeting different mobility, capability, fire power, protection and other requirements. We will inevitably have some vehicles that are less effective than others; we will inevitably have some successes and some failures— that is what a portfolio policy is all about, by the way. Vector was not a success and it is being withdrawn. Its problem has been its “operationability”: it has great difficulty carrying some of the loads that it is required to carry on the Afghan terrain. It has not been able to live up to expectations there, and we will be replacing it with the new tactical support vehicles that we have ordered—the Coyote, the Husky and the Wolfhound—which I have mentioned in the House in different contexts. That is one more example of this steady process of flexibility, improvement and enhancement, which is the policy to which we are committed.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

5. What contribution the Government are making to the MONUC peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (277537)

We are making a valuable contribution to the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—MONUC—by deploying experienced officers into key posts, with their agreement. We will shortly be increasing our contribution to seven officers with the addition of a two-star deputy force commander.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention recently met Alan Doss, the new head of MONUC forces in the DRC. One of the issues that he raised with us was the need for US and UK security services to share intelligence with MONUC better if we are to track down the dissident groups operating in the east of the country. It is imperative that that intelligence is shared if security is to be restored in the east of the DRC, where Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, the CNDP, and the Hutu militia force, the FDLR, are still causing chaos and huge humanitarian disruption.

Obviously, we share my hon. Friend’s desire to see the disruption in the DRC brought to an end and the humanitarian crisis that has flowed from it reduced and stopped. I am not aware of difficulties in the sharing of appropriate intelligence. If she has any information in that regard that she wishes to pass on to me, I will look into it and try to ensure that, where appropriate, we give people any information that we have that would be useful to that end.

It is good news that we are giving money to the Conflict Prevention Pool, and a certain number of key people and a certain amount of funding to MONUC; I believe that it is nearly 10 per cent. of its funding. Does the Minister agree that unless other UN member states with reasonable lift capacity are willing to contribute, with a degree of leadership, to initiatives, be it MONUC in the DRC or those in Darfur, we simply will not make progress? These peacekeeping operations appear to be just marking time: we are not making progress and there is not the required grip, because member states that could give that grip of leadership are not participating.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the vast spaces involved in conducting operations in Africa mean that the need for strategic and tactical lift and helicopter capability in theatre is of particular importance, and that those are restricting factors in terms of our ability to have sufficient impact in places such as Darfur and the DRC. I hope to discourage him from suggesting that we, with the commitments that our people have at the moment, can provide that capability ourselves, but we will obviously do what we can to encourage others to do so.

Does the Minister recognise that one of the problems is that the militia groups and the armed forces operating in the eastern DRC are, in effect, funded by illicit mining operations? Huge sums flow tax-free out of the Congo, and then flow back in for the purpose of buying arms that kill and maim people. I realise that this is slightly beyond his remit, but can he speak to trade Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers to see what can be done to close off that flow?

I agree with my hon. Friend that there is no doubt that one of the motives for people to get involved in the area is the exploitation of minerals and other natural resources. We must all do everything that we can to prevent that from happening and to ensure that the regulations make that exploitation—and the humanitarian catastrophe that flows from it—not profitable as it has been in the past. I will do as my hon. Friend asks and see to it that we do all that we can in that regard.

Afghanistan

I regularly discuss Afghanistan with my European Union and NATO counterparts. On 10 June, I shall attend a meeting of nations that are contributing to operations in Regional Command (South). On 11-12 June, I shall attend a meeting of NATO Defence Ministers.

I understand that at the recent NATO Defence Ministers meeting in Poland in February, the Secretary of State said that it was crucial that as many European NATO members as possible sent more helicopters to Afghanistan. He said at the time that he was confident that that would happen. How many extra helicopters have now been sent?

I think that there are only three, from the Czech Republic, which is making available some of its helicopters under the helicopter initiative. As the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) has said, it is important to recognise that we are deploying more helicopters to Afghanistan later this year to support our troops, and that is right and proper. On a wider level it is imperative—as I have made clear many times—that NATO do more in Afghanistan. I was very pleased that at the Strasbourg meeting Poland, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Australia—our true friend and ally—said that they would support operations in Afghanistan with more troops. That has to be good news for the success of the operation.

Does not the Secretary of State understand the gravity of this singular failure of NATO? This was supposed to be an article 5 operation, and people were supposed to step up to the plate with mutual assistance, but that has not happened. That is the case against the backdrop of the House of Commons never giving a mandate for our commitment in Helmand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) made the announcement in a statement one day, and most of us had never even heard of Helmand. We have had drift on this matter and it is now time that the commitment made by Tony Blair and the present Prime Minister—that we commit our armed forces only after a conscious decision by this House—was respected. That has not happened, and there is no mandate for this operation to go on.

I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. NATO needs to do more and we have made that clear. I am glad that NATO is responding to President Obama’s request for more military assistance to the Afghan Government, as that is long overdue, but better late than never. Can we do more? Yes, of course we should, and we will continue to argue for that.

On my hon. Friend’s latter point, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made his views very clear on how we should proceed in the future.

Is it not the case that the vital currency of our reputation has been undermined by the Prime Minister not accepting the recommendation by the Chief of the Defence Staff that 4,000 extra troops should be sent to Helmand if we are to do the job properly? Does that not affect our credibility when dealing with the Americans and other NATO allies?

I agree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman that our reputation matters a great deal to us, and it is with great reluctance that I contradict what he says. I assure him that there was no suggestion that we send 4,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. The Chief of the Defence Staff—who is my principal military adviser, as he is the Prime Minister’s— is content with the decisions that the Prime Minister has made, and we are now busy operationalising that in the most effective way possible.

I am not sure whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to read The New York Times today, but it contains an important article by a distinguished correspondent entitled “U.S. Gives Absolution to its Allies”. The article makes the argument that the US no longer wants to open a second front against European allies who are not engaging in fighting and killing, but instead wants a team effort. It is changing the nature of its operations in Afghanistan, not to step up a huge kinetic war, but to find political as much as military solutions, and Britain is playing a leading part in that. Can we therefore have an end to the European bashing and an understanding—as was evident at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly—that the US and its European allies are talking and working as one?

The strategy that we are pursuing in Afghanistan is not a purely military one. It is a comprehensive approach that has a necessary military component to it, because there cannot be greater security, and therefore the opportunity for the Afghan Government to deliver to greater effect in Afghanistan, unless there is improved security. As my right hon. Friend has correctly said, that military component is combined with an approach that emphasises the development of civilian capabilities and capacity, too. The Europeans are making a significant contribution to that. My criticism of the NATO effort so far is a matter of record and I do not resile from a word that I have said, but I am glad and pleased that the NATO military effort in Afghanistan has now increased, which I consider to be absolutely essential if we are to achieve the wider goals of peace and security in that troubled country.

Will the Secretary of State list the countries in the European Union that have deployed ground forces to southern Afghanistan?

Yes, I will: Romania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia and Belgium, and France is flying fast jets in the south of Afghanistan.

As things stand today, does the Secretary of State believe that British forces in Afghanistan have an adequate number of troops, adequate funding and the right equipment to succeed in the mission that they have been given? In particular, is he happy that when we take territory we can hold it and initiate reconstruction quickly and successfully enough?

I believe that we have sufficient troops; I believe that we have sufficient equipment; and I believe that we have sufficient resources. That is not just my view; it is view of the chiefs of staff.

A large number of the military seem to take a different view. Compared with this time last year, there has been a 55 per cent. increase in coalition deaths, including those of British soldiers, and a 90 per cent. increase in attacks on the Afghan Government. Since January, there have been more than twice as many insurgent-initiated attacks in Helmand as next door in Kandahar. In the light of a clearly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the challenges in Pakistan, is it not time that we undertook a full and comprehensive review of the strategy we are pursuing with our NATO allies and the regional players to determine a way forward? Do they all understand that failure in Afghanistan would both damage NATO and provide a shot in the arm for every extremist across the globe? Why is NATO not working?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman: failure in Afghanistan is not an option. Our military effort in Afghanistan must succeed, as must our wider comprehensive approach in Afghanistan. We regularly review the strategy—the Prime Minister has made that clear—and we published a recent review of it. We remain committed to reviewing constantly the military and the wider civil and political campaigns in which we are involved in Afghanistan, and I take it from the hon. Gentleman’s question that he wants significantly to enhance military deployment to Afghanistan.

Training (New Equipment)

7. What procedures are in place to provide that troops receive training on new equipment before deployment to theatre with such equipment. (277539)

All business cases, including urgent operational requirements, are structured to provide equipment to meet our training needs. However, urgent theatre equipment needs sometimes rightly take priority over training requirements. We have made improvements in providing theatre-standard equipment for pre-deployment training and have always provided in-theatre training where that has not been possible.

I note the Minister’s comments, but is he not concerned that the number of cancelled military training exercises has increased since 2005 from 58 in 2005-06 to 80 in 2008-09? Is that not unacceptable, and what more can the Government do to ensure that the training is given before the equipment is used?

Current operations will always have to be the priority. Given the operations in which people are involved, the structure of our training has changed significantly over the past couple of years. Of course, pre-deployment training takes priority, which sometimes has an impact on other training opportunities. We have to do our best to ensure that we maintain all the skills that are necessary for both other contingent liabilities and the operations in which we are involved in places such as Afghanistan.

What steps are being taken to ensure that those personnel returning from theatre can pass on their up-to-date and latest experience of equipment and counter-insurgency to those who are having pre-deployment training so that the latest information and experiences are passed on to troops before they go into theatre?

My hon. Friend hits on an important point, of which all the services are fully seized: people who are about to be deployed into a changing situation, with changing threats, need to be brought up to date as completely as possible by those with the latest information. We, and the Army, Navy and Air Force, try to ensure that training is structured in such a way that all those lessons are learned to the maximum possible degree.

When short-term gaps in equipment emerge, they are met by urgent operational requirements—UORs—which can mean that although equipment is put in place, which is welcome, troops do not have the proper training on working with that equipment. Would not a better long-term plan be a strategic review to assess more accurately equipment needs against operational requirements?

In an ideal world, we would have a proper full-blown procurement system that would be able, for example, to bring vehicles such as Mastiff into use within the 19-week time that elapsed from its first planning to deployment in theatre. However, that will never be possible. When the nature of threat changes— in Afghanistan, the situation has changed from overwhelmingly a shooting war to one in which the improvised explosive device, or the roadside bomb, became our enemies’ tactic of choice—we have to get new equipment into theatre quickly. Of course, we must follow that through with capability so that training on the equipment can take place as quickly as possible thereafter. When lives are at risk, it is essential that theatre needs come first. However, we have improved the way in which we are getting theatre-level equipment into the training establishment, because it is no good deploying equipment if we are not deploying capability, which means people capable of using the equipment with which we have provided them.

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.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. At a time when many former servicemen and women can find it difficult to settle back into civilian life, and at a time of rising unemployment, what is he doing to ensure that the training that they are given when they are in the forces is transferable to civilian life?

We work very hard, and put in significant effort, to ensure that those who leave the forces get the best opportunity to take up a career in civilian life. We have made new commitments on helping ex-servicemen and women migrate from the military family into the civilian world, and we will continue to do everything that we can to ensure that that happens.

T10. May I take my right hon. Friend back to the EU and NATO meeting that he is holding? Will he explain to those at the meeting that the inappropriate weight being placed on UK armed forces, and the fact that those NATO colleagues are not committing personnel or equipment, are unacceptable? We need such personnel and equipment in Helmand province. We should be taking the weight off our personnel and giving our UK armed forces the much needed break that they require. (277567)

That is certainly part of our argument. The draw-down from Operation Telic will help to ease the operational stress under which the armed forces have recently been operating. Specifically on Afghanistan, more contributions from more nations would be welcome—I think that there will be more in future months—but the ability to deploy forces without caveats would also be welcome, because those caveats often impede flexibility and the delivery of maximum effect on the ground.

T3. In earlier exchanges about the application of human rights law to the armed forces, the Secretary of State said that international law was fixed and that domestic legislation simply implemented it. However, is he aware that the French Government, with more foresight than us, derogated from articles 5 and 6 of the European convention on human rights precisely because they were afraid of the way in which the terms of those articles would affect their troops on the battlefield? Why did not the British Government show similar foresight by doing that when they passed the Human Rights Act 1998 at the start of their time in government? (277560)

The particular case that came before the Court of Appeal, and that was the subject of our earlier exchanges, was not just about the articles that the right hon. Gentleman mentions; it covered article 2 as well, as he will be aware. I was asked to speculate on what we would do if we lost the appeal, and I probably went further than I should have done in speculating on what our response would be. The only way in which I can sensibly answer his question is simply to repeat one fundamental point: we will have to consider the Court of Appeal ruling very carefully indeed. If there were to be an appeal, and that appeal were unsuccessful, the Government would have an obligation to reassess the situation in the round.

The deaths of civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan have already been raised in questions today, and have certainly caused a lot of concern, not least among the Pakistani community in this country. I am sure that the Government and the allies are doing their best to ensure that civilian casualties are minimised, but will my right hon. Friend ensure that the UK and the other NATO forces look at their tactics and their approach, to try to ensure that there are no civilian casualties? When there are such casualties, not only are there terrible consequences for the families involved, but it jeopardises the credibility and standing of the NATO forces in the area.

The whole point of the military deployment in Afghanistan, and the whole point of the British military deployment in particular, is to protect the population from the threat of indiscriminate violence from the insurgency. We take that responsibility very seriously. A significant effort goes into identifying a target, and making sure that there are no civilian casualties. We make every conceivable effort to avoid civilian casualties. The difficulty that our commanders face on the ground is often compounded by the fact that the Taliban show no such respect for human life, and will often launch their attacks against our forces—our young men and women—from behind children, older people and women. That is the reality that our commanders face on the ground, and I can say absolutely confidently that we move heaven and earth to avoid harming members of the local population. That will continue to be our policy.

T4. The Secretary of State will be aware that about two thirds of opium production continues to come from Helmand province, despite the presence of British troops there. From that province, there emanates a large supply of heroin, which is then supplied on the streets of Britain. What action are British troops taking to combat that increasing problem? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the matter will be taken very seriously because of the effect that it has on young people in our country today? (277561)

Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The British armed forces are heavily involved in trying to intercept the flow of money and materials that have their origins in the drugs trade, and that feed and fuel the insurgency. We have undertaken a number of very successful operations—I am happy to provide him with details—in which our forces have made important confiscations and have seized significant drug assets. We also support the local law and order operations of the Afghan security forces. We are making progress, and the governor in Helmand province is making real progress in reducing the total acreage devoted to opium production. We are supporting those efforts, and we need to redouble them if they are to have the effect that the hon. Gentleman and I both want.

The recession means that the Governments of all NATO member states will be scrutinising their public expenditure ever more closely, with the consequence that some, I am sure, will propose cutting defence expenditure. What impact will that have on burden sharing, and what representations is my right hon. Friend making on the North Atlantic Council to make sure that front-line services are protected?

My hon. Friend is right that there is a danger that precisely what he says will happen. Our view is that we should prioritise current operations, and we want our allies to prioritise them, too, particularly their respective deployments to Afghanistan. I am glad to say that many more NATO members are deploying more resources to Afghanistan, despite the current economic difficulties, and despite the undoubted pressure on their national budgets.

T5. Given the number of veterans who are in prison or on the streets, what discussions is the Minister having with his NHS counterparts about discovering cases of combat stress in the veteran community before serious symptoms emerge? (277562)

The Government produced the command paper last year which includes a host of initiatives to support servicemen and women in service as well as veterans. I have commissioned a piece of work called the welfare pathway which I will announce later this year. Among other things, it looks at work with charities and with other Government Departments. We also support the King’s Centre for Military Health Research in assessing the instance of mental illness not only in servicemen and women, but in veterans. We are conducting a study with the Ministry of Justice to ascertain the number of veterans in prison. The Government are committed to ensuring that the fullest support is given not only to our servicemen and women in service, but to veterans.

T6. Marching in the Castle Point armed forces day celebrations on 27 June this year will be the Gurkhas, the Chelsea pensioners, the Royal Anglian regiment, many local veterans and young people in cadets organisations. They will be showing the role that those people have played in society over the years and the part that they can still play in our community. What message does the Minister have for them? (277563)

May I start by thanking the hon. Gentleman for his encouragement and involvement in the celebrations in his constituency, which as he said will involve the march-past and support of armed forces day? More than 80 communities throughout the UK are being supported directly by the MOD. In many others, smaller events are taking place. So far, 460 out of 480 councils have agreed to be involved in the raising of the armed forces day flag. May I encourage communities large and small to ensure that they take part in armed forces day on 27 June or in the lead-up to it, to say a big thank you to our servicemen and women and to acknowledge the debt of honour that we owe to veterans?

T7. Ascension Island remains a key strategic asset for the United Kingdom, but its financial future is under threat as a result of the MOD refusing to pay its fair share of costs for running the island. Is it right, for example, that next year the administrator of the island may have to close the island’s school because of an internal dispute between Government Departments? Will the Secretary of State look into the matter urgently and write to me outlining the steps that he intends to take to resolve this serious situation? (277564)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has written to the Department about the matter and that he has had a holding answer. We are looking into the issue and we will, of course, reply to him. There is a dispute, and we will write to him as soon as we are able about exactly what we can and cannot do with regard to that situation.

T8. The Minister with responsibility for defence equipment, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), recently said in a speech that“claims of a multi-billion pound funding gap paralysing defence procurement were wrong”.However, since then we have heard that a number of the Nimrod MRA4 surveillance aircraft will be cancelled, the Soothsayer communications programme will be axed, and Project Eagle will be cancelled, as will the RAF Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. That will surely expose some of our front-line troops on the ground, so how can we take seriously or believe what the hon. Gentleman says? (277565)

I am beginning to wonder how we can take seriously the questions asked by the hon. Gentleman. What he referred to as absolute fact is complete nonsense. The MRA4 contract has not been cancelled and is not going to be cancelled. We are expecting to take delivery of those aircraft starting from the end of the year. The Reaper contract has not been cancelled either.

I welcome the announcement this week that the MOD is to review the role of women in the armed forces. If we are to discharge our duties under UN Security Council resolution 1325, which specifically looks at the role of girls and women in armed conflict and the consequences of what happens to them, it is vital that we increase women’s participation in our armed forces. Experiences in Kosovo and central Africa show that where women are the victims of sexual violence in post-conflict situations, they will not reveal this to male soldiers.

We are trying to improve the recruitment of women to the armed forces, and we have been successful to some extent. The review to which my hon. Friend referred is a more specific review of the role of women in combat roles in the military. I do not want to say much more about that today, but we will keep the House fully informed of that review’s progress.

My son is one of the officers fighting alongside brave men in Afghanistan at the moment. One issue that all our soldiers face concerns the porous border with Pakistan. What is the Ministry of Defence doing to assist the Government of Pakistan and their army to try to establish further control through what seem, so far, to be successful activities in the Swat valley?

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s son? We respect and salute his service in the name of our country. On Pakistan, the hon. Gentleman has again identified an important point. We are providing a range of help and support to Pakistan’s security forces, particularly the frontier corps, helping them improve their capabilities and their ability to deal with the serious threat to Pakistan’s nascent democracy posed by the Taliban and similar extremists. We are involved in a training role with the Pakistani military, too, and we will continue to extend the hand of friendship to the Pakistani armed forces in their fundamental struggle against the forces of darkness and primitivism.

T9. I am sure that the Secretary of State is concerned as anybody about developments in North Korea, but does he agree that the problem is not just the capacity of the North Koreans, but the possibility that they may seek to export both nuclear and missile technology to third-party states? Apart from obvious conversations with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will he take up the matter at NATO level and report back to the House with his plans? (277566)