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Topical Questions

Volume 493: debated on Monday 1 June 2009

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)