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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Yes, I should be happy to do that.