House of Commons
Monday 13 July 2009
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I start by paying tribute to the 15 brave men who tragically lost their lives in Afghanistan over the past 13 days. We have now lost 184 lives in the conflict, and each and every one of them is a terrible loss. The last week has been a hard week for those serving in theatre, but their resolve is incredible. In these tough times, they are determined to get on with their mission, and in the teeth of heavy resistance they are making progress. I urge colleagues in all parts of the House to be unfailing in our support for them. They deserve no less.
Progress is being made, but the insurgency remains resilient. The majority of people can go about their daily lives, but in certain areas of the country, in particular in the south and east, significant security challenges remain. In Helmand, British, Afghan, Danish, Estonian and American troops are currently engaged in major offensive operations to secure key population centres in the run-up to the Afghan presidential elections.
I join the Secretary of State and the whole House in paying tribute to the service personnel who lost their lives in recent days. They died serving their country and, to use those immortal words, for our tomorrows they gave their today.
Some of the greatest security threats that our service personnel face in Afghanistan are on the ground. Can the Secretary of State explain why he believes that the current provision of, and support for, helicopter cover is sufficient, particularly in the context of recent changes in policy and in the approach to operations in theatre, which put our troops’ lives at greater risk?
As we have said repeatedly, we have seen a huge uplift in the helicopter frames available to commanders, and also in helicopter hours: over the past two years, there has been an 84 per cent. increase. There will be more: by the end of the year, we will have the Merlin in theatre, and we will get some of the eight Chinooks out into theatre in 2010. The issue that the hon. Gentleman raises points up the problem; changes in how operations are being conducted have led to more ground operations, which cannot be conducted from helicopters. At the moment, troops involved in Operation Panchai Palang are clearing compounds and taking on the Taliban in one of their heartland areas. There has been hand-to-hand fighting, which, sadly, resulted in some of the deaths that took place over the past week or so. That cannot be conducted from inside a highly armoured vehicle or a helicopter.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that, tragic though all the deaths are, and although we must do as much as we can to minimise casualties, it is irresponsible and dishonest to pretend that if only the Government had provided this piece of equipment or that piece of equipment, all those lives could have been saved? That only serves to upset unnecessarily the grieving relatives.
My hon. Friend is right. In the Sangin area, we have lost five people who were conducting a security patrol. Such patrols are vital, and are done from time to time. There was a pretty well-planned ambush set for our people. One cannot conduct those security patrols other than on foot. We lost a member of 4 Rifles who had just dismounted from a Mastiff vehicle. It is the most heavily armoured vehicle that we have in theatre, but our troops have to get out to engage with people and to deal with the insurgency. Our troops have to take those risks; they understand that. I think that the British public understand that, too. I appeal to Members of the House to accept that that is inevitable. It is our duty to supply the kit and equipment needed to keep people as safe as we can, but we cannot remove risk from that kind of operation.
I agree with what the Secretary of State just said, but when the Chancellor of the Exchequer said over the weekend that the Treasury would ensure that the Ministry of Defence was not short of money, what, in practice, did he mean? What new actions will the Secretary of State take to take the Chancellor up on his promise?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor meant, for example, that the Treasury has lifted the urgent operational requirements ceiling of £635 million, which was announced in December, to include another £101 million, so that we get the latest capability into theatre. Everything that we need for that theatre of operations, we will present, and we will make sure that we get what is needed to keep our troops as safe as they can be. At a time when we are involved in the most serious operations in theatre—not only ourselves, but the Americans—people are contrasting the kit and equipment that we have with the Americans’, but our colleagues have lost more people over the past couple of weeks than we have, despite their great inventory.
I was in Afghanistan earlier this year and, talking to ordinary soldiers who have been on several tours of duty, I was struck by the fact that they were forming the view that we were losing the battle of hearts and minds, and that we had gone from being seen as a force liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban to being seen as an occupying force. Does the Secretary of State agree that vital to our winning the battle, however we define winning, is keeping the support of ordinary Afghan people?
Absolutely. I have not personally come across that opinion out there, but I would not deny that there will be Afghans who hold that view. My hon. Friend is right. This operation will not be won by killing Taliban. It will be won by winning over the people—by protecting the people, and by the people accepting that we and the Afghan Government are on their side. That is the absolute priority of the new commander, General McChrystal, in the instructions that he is giving to forces of all nations in Afghanistan.
If we are told, as we are now, that Helmand province contains Taliban heartlands, on what basis was it said on behalf of the Government before we deployed that it was hoped that not a shot would be fired? Was this not the beginning of a really serious misreading of the situation in Helmand, which is still continuing today and for which our armed forces are paying a heavy price?
It never was said that there was hope of not a shot being fired. What was said—it was said from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, and I remember that I was sat in that chair along there at the time—by the then Secretary of State was that we would be happy if not a shot were fired. He was responding to a question. He was expressing a desire, but he would not have been putting 16 Air Assault Brigade into a theatre of war if he thought that there would not be a little bit of trouble in the area.
May I confirm what the Defence Secretary has just said? May I tell the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) that, no doubt inadvertently, he has just misled the House? I never at any stage expressed the hope, expectation, promise or pledge that we would leave Afghanistan without firing a shot. I did, however, insist that we would not be aggressors. We did not seek war. We did not go there as part of an invasion. For our part, we would be happy to go and work with the Afghan Government and leave without firing a shot. It was clearly in that sense that it was said, and I would be extremely obliged if that could be confirmed again from the Front Bench, and that Opposition Members would stop the misrepresentation of what was said when we went in.
No one denies that these are difficult and dangerous operations, but surely that does not absolve us of the responsibility to do everything in our power to minimise casualties. Is not the fundamental problem for the Government the fact that there is no comprehensive strategy to deal with the military, political, economic and narcotics issues, and that until a comprehensive strategy is agreed and implemented, we will continue to struggle in Afghanistan?
I would say two things to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. First, I keep hearing that there is no strategy. If people want to disagree with the strategy, that is fair enough, but please let no one deny that there is one. The strategy is about building up Afghan capability, both in security and in governance, so that the Afghans can get to a point where they are able to defend their own country from the insurgency and provide the basics for their own people. It will be a long time before they can do that. Afghan tax revenues doubled in the past year, but the Afghans will be dependent on international donations for a long time yet.
Secondly, there is a strategy, but let us not pretend that its existence will get us out of a situation where our people must take on a very ingrained insurgency right in the heartland. They know how important it is that they maintain control of those central Helmand belts. Our people are going in there and clearing the insurgency from that heartland. That is why our people are fighting. They know how important it is—how utterly important it is—to hang on. Sadly, we have lost some people. The insurgency has lost a lot of people—
We are, I believe, winning the war in Afghanistan, but if we do not work together in political partnership, we will certainly lose the argument with the British people for the justification of the conflict. So does my right hon. Friend agree that any attempt to play politics or point score while our troops are laying down their lives is beneath contempt?
I agree with my hon. Friend that we are making progress and going forward. The operations that are currently being conducted are at our instigation; they are offensive operations to clear the Taliban from a very important area, and we need to back our troops at this time.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the objective in Afghanistan is ultimately political, and that the military battle is a precondition for achieving that? Eight years in, the Taliban have been contained to a terrorist insurgency and no longer fight as a standing army. How does the Secretary of State believe that the international community can shift from a predominantly military battle to a political battle? Is not the lesson of all other terrorist insurgencies that, ultimately, they have to have a political solution, alongside the military one, and that that is what is needed if we are to avoid General McChrystal’s warning about winning tactical victories but suffering a strategic defeat?
I think the hon. Gentleman is right. The military side of things can go as well as it likes, but unless we can make progress on those other strands, all will be for nought. There is not a single member of our armed forces who does not understand that, right down the chain of command. There is an election on 20 August, and it is important that it is credible; that it goes on to improve governance; that it goes on to provide better for the Afghan people; and that it goes on from a position not of weakness but of strength to hold out a hand to those parts of the insurgency that are prepared to come across, give up the armed struggle and involve themselves in politics.
It is a very great shame that we are currently engaged in an unseemly media row about airlift in Afghanistan. The defence world will know what that is about. It will expect my right hon. Friend—I hope he agrees—to commit in future to put pressure on a Chancellor to maintain funding for defence; and it will expect the Opposition Front-Bench team to commit the current shadow Chancellor to end his shameful refusal not to commit even to existing defence spending.
We need to maintain our support for our armed forces in the field. We need to do that through the core defence budget and through the UOR process, and we need to continue to get more protective vehicles and more helicopters into the field as soon as we are able to. I give my absolute assurance that I will do everything that I can to bring those dates as far forward as possible.
On behalf of the Opposition, may I add my condolences to the families of the servicemen killed in the past week? Every single death is an individual tragedy, and our thoughts and prayers are with all the families and friends involved.
When the Government cut the helicopter budget in 2004 by £1.4 billion, was it a mistake?
The hon. Gentleman goes back to a decision that was taken some time ago. We have made great strides to increase helicopter availability and capability, with a large degree of success over the past two years in Afghanistan. There are now 60 per cent. more helicopter frames and 80 per cent. more helicopter hours. Merlin is yet to be moved into theatre, and enhancements are possible both to Lynx and Chinook. That would make them better helicopters, more capable of dealing with a very difficult theatre.
I shall take that as a yes, shall I? People in this country understand the security need for our mission in Afghanistan and they understand that in wars there are casualties and fatalities. What they do not understand is why we are not doing everything we can to reduce the risks to our forces. We do need more and better armoured vehicles and we do need better ways of countering improvised explosive devices, but if we cannot move our forces by air, they will be more vulnerable on the ground. As Lord Guthrie, the former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:
“of course they need more helicopters. If there had been more, it is very likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs”.
Why is it that in Helmand, as Lord King pointed out, American forces have eight times as many helicopters for the number of personnel? How on earth did we get into such an unacceptable position? Who is to blame and how are we going to get out of this situation?
I have heard the hon. Gentleman for a period of time, but I have yet to hear how he thinks we can get more helicopters into theatre. [Interruption.] Well, he is saying from the Dispatch Box that we ought to get as many helicopters into theatre as quickly as possible, yet I have heard him say nothing that indicates he could do that any quicker than we plan to.
I understand that on the radio this morning the hon. Gentleman said that we should look to our allies, and that is true. We are part of a coalition; it would be nonsense for anybody to suggest that we ought to be down on the fact that our American allies are assisting in Helmand. The hon. Gentleman cannot do the impossible; we will do everything possible to enhance the whole of the protective capability in Helmand province.
Defence Information Infrastructure
We have a contract with EDS, which, in turn, has set up a consortium called ATLAS. It consists of EDS itself, Fujitsu, General Dynamics UK, EADS and Logica. Beyond that, there is a range of subcontractors with defined tasks, sometimes for limited periods of time. The selection and identity of those subcontractors are a matter for the consortium.
The delayed agreement and sign-off of defence information infrastructure stage 3 is but the latest debacle for a benighted project that has already more than tripled in cost to more than £7 billion. A tight review of defence spending is imminent. Why are civil servants and politicians so obsessed with outsourcing public sector IT contracts, given that the logic and economics of extra costs and complexity point in precisely the opposite direction?
My hon. Friend is factually wrong on a number of those points. The budgeted costs certainly have not increased by 300 per cent., as he suggests; there has been a much more limited increase of about £180 million out of the £7.1 billion. I have to say to my hon. Friend that this project is going to save money in comparison with legacy methods of fulfilling the same role. That is very important. Also, it is an absolutely essential part of modern warfare that we should have effective, secure communications, linking all aspects of our armed forces, at home and abroad in theatre. That is part of the network-enabled capability to which we are committed.
A pilot mentoring scheme is in place at Catterick garrison to provide light-touch mentoring to early service leavers judged to be vulnerable; it is designed to help them to transition to and cope with civilian life. In addition to the normal support given when leaving the service, the pilot scheme provided additional telephone support, guidance and encouragement for six months, post-service termination. Early indications are that a number of leavers have found that helpful.
On the subject of training, the Public Accounts Committee was told last week that 48 per cent. of soldiers and Royal Marines receive only a five-day pre-deployment training for Afghanistan, rather than the full training with their units. Is it right to send soldiers into Afghanistan with so little training?
The mentoring service must also be available for the young men who do not make it through their initial training. Earlier this year, Professor Nav Kapur published his study of more than 230,000 young people who left the service over a 10-year period, and discovered that those most vulnerable, particularly to suicide, were those who had not finished their initial training or had served only for a very short period. Can we be assured that within initial training and within the mentoring service there will be a focus on advising young men, especially, of the need to seek help, advice and support should they suffer any mental health problems?
Certainly through our recruitment and training procedures we seek to ensure that all the appropriate advice, support and training are available. The pilot scheme is targeting service personnel who leave early and who are deemed to be vulnerable, and the initial indications are that it is proving successful. We need to get the end of the pilot scheme and see how it could be rolled forward.
The estimated financial cost of operations in Afghanistan for this financial year is £3.5 billion, as recently published for the first time in the MOD’s main estimates. The cost of military operations is dependent on a number of variable factors that are difficult to predict, including changes to operational tempo and the conditions in theatre at the time. We do not, therefore, attempt to project costs for the subsequent two years.
Following the Chancellor’s pledge over the weekend that our forces will have whatever they need, how does the Secretary of State anticipate funding future operational requirements, given that in future years his ministry will have to pay back every penny over £635 million that it spends on urgent operational requirements? Is that not a case of robbing the future to pay for the military today?
We have not gone over those limits, and therefore there is no need for a repayment. I have just announced to the House that the £635 million limit has been raised by a further £101 million; that is some indication that the Chancellor is trying to assist.
But in assessing those costs, does the Minister acknowledge that there are real, understandable doubts among the general public, not about our being in Afghanistan but about whether we have the required number of troops and the right sort of equipment to let them carry out their tasks? Could he respond to the public’s concerns?
My hon. Friend will recognise that the number of troops and the costs of the Afghan mission have gone up considerably in the past three years. However, I get the opportunity, which many others in the House do not, to go out to theatre on a regular basis, and I meet troops back here, and I hear repeatedly that the equipment that they have has been improved massively over the past couple of years.
The Secretary of State said a moment ago that Merlin and Lynx Mk 9 helicopters are being prepared for use in Afghanistan, but what further steps is the Department considering to ensure that helicopter needs in Afghanistan are met in future?
We are planning a spend of about £6 billion on helicopters over the coming years. We need to try to spend that as wisely as we can to ensure that we have no capability gap, particularly when our people are involved in the operations that they are today.
The Secretary of State rightly says that it is difficult to anticipate the precise costs, but airlift is clearly one of the areas where we have capacity constraint. Given that Germany currently provides 70 per cent. of ISAF’s airlift capacity but is severely constrained by the national caveats, is he having discussions with the Germans to try to lift them?
We try on every occasion to encourage our NATO allies to do the absolute maximum. There is little doubt that we are pulling our weight in the Afghan theatre or that the operation is absolutely vital to our safety back here in the UK and to NATO’s credibility, so we hope and press all the time for our allies to do whatever they can to ensure success.
Some 0.1 per cent. of regular service personnel are discharged annually for mental health reasons of whatever cause. The King’s Centre for Military Health Research is undertaking an MOD-funded study of mental health disorders in both the serving and veteran community. The results will be available towards the beginning of next year and will inform mental health policies. In addition, evaluation of the six community-based NHS mental health pilot schemes will help to define the population at risk, the levels of need and the support required for those communities.
As the Minister is aware, post-traumatic stress disorder is as debilitating and as distressing as any physical injury, and many of our troops are returning with PTSD. According to a recent survey, only 71 per cent. of GPs are even aware of the MOD’s medical assessment programme. What are the Government doing to improve on that shocking statistic?
I am very grateful for that question. I stress that the number of individuals suffering from PTSD is very small, but I am on record as saying that each case is a personal tragedy for that individual. I am working on two levels, first to ensure that GPs know about the mental health pilots and secondly, with the Department of Health, to consider a veterans tracking system so that we can track veterans through the health system. If the hon. Lady or any other Members would like to visit one of the mental health pilots or the medical assessment programme at St. Thomas’s hospital, I would be quite willing to arrange that.
My hon. Friend is aware that it often takes ex-service personnel up to 13 years to present themselves for treatment under a mental health programme. What can we do to take away the attitude, which is not unusual among the military in this country, that presenting themselves for some form of mental health treatment is in some way a disgrace? Every single military serviceman who needs our help should present themselves and have a check before they go into civilian life.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Unfortunately men, especially young men, are terrible at recognising mental health problems. I pay tribute, however, to all three services for raising the matter of mental health in-service. TRiM—trauma risk management—is a system of self-assessment pioneered by the Royal Marines, and it is ensuring that mental health problems do not carry a stigma and that people are not ashamed of reporting them. Working with veterans organisations and the NHS on six mental health pilots, we can ensure that there is help for veterans whenever mental health affects individuals.
The US Administration have put in place a $900 million PTSD programme, including comprehensive mental health screening for the operational military. Our Government have not. One could be forgiven for supposing that British combat stress and American combat stress were completely different disorders. Can the Minister say how much we have spent on PTSD, why clinical awareness of it continues to flatline and why there is no mental health screening programme for our returning veterans?
I do not accept that there is no mental health screening for our returning veterans. It is important to recognise that the King’s Centre has undertaken much research, as have the Americans. One thing that it indicates is that mental health screening pre-deployment is not effective and may actually cause more problems than it solves in the population in question. That goes right back to the second world war.
A small number present with PTSD. On the number who present with it in the US, there are question marks over how the operational tempo of the United States is different from ours. I know that our US counterparts and the Surgeon General are working together to examine comparative data. Recently, a team was over from the US to look at how we treat mental health in the armed forces and in our veterans community.
The Government are committed to the current nuclear deterrent and to the development of a replacement system. Good progress is being made in completing the actions set out in the 2006 White Paper “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Deterrent”.
The Secretary of State mentions the 2006 White Paper, but Tony Blair told the House in December 2006 that Britain could maintain its minimum strategic deterrent while reducing the number of warheads from 200 to 160. Less than three years later, the current Prime Minister seems to be offering to reduce that number to below 160 warheads. How can he do that while maintaining a minimum level of deterrence?
The Prime Minister also made it clear that he was committed to maintaining the nuclear deterrent. We need to try to make an appropriate contribution to any multilateral nuclear proposition, while at the same time ensuring that we have a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. The entire Government—not only the defence team—are committed to doing that.
In view of the impact of the recession and of President Obama’s meeting last week with the President of Russia, when they committed themselves to reducing their nuclear warheads by 500 each, is it not about time we publicly stated that we are not going to upgrade Trident?
No, it is not. If my hon. Friend wants to look at the record since we came to power, he will see that we have made significant reductions in our deployable nuclear capability. We have made a significant contribution to the reduction of nuclear weapons and we will obviously seek to be constructive when any propositions are made, but within the parameters of maintaining the British nuclear deterrent.
Can the Secretary of State confirm whether any future nuclear deterrent that involved reliance on nuclear-armed Cruise missiles, as some recommend, would be compatible with the provisions of the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we considered different methods of maintaining the nuclear deterrent during the White Paper process. We decided—I think for good reasons of invulnerability—to stick with the ballistic missile system based on submarines. That is what we intend to do.
Does the Secretary of State think it a good idea to commit ourselves to expenditure, during the lifetime of a new Trident, of £76 billion, ahead of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference next year and in the face of a declared aspiration by President Obama, which is shared by the Government, of a nuclear-free world? Would not a better contribution be not replacing Trident?
We keep our procedures under constant review, and are currently introducing further improvements.
I thank the Under-Secretary for his answer, but the main investment decisions on Terrier, Soothsayer and the new naval satellite communications terminals were made in 2001, on the introduction of smart acquisition, yet those very projects suffered the greatest slippage in 2007-08. Why?
As the hon. Lady knows, we have a substantial defence procurement programme, which we keep under constant review. One of the improvements to which I alluded is a more robust attitude to failure. The hon. Lady will see the results of that before too long.
Procuring the right up-to-date equipment is vital for our troops, but it can also provide skilled work for British workers, not least in my constituency at BAE Systems in Scotswood road in Newcastle. What prospect is there of an announcement early in 2010 on the future rapid effect system—FRES—the Warrior upgrade and the Scout and AFV support vehicles?
Just a week ago we issued draft invitations to tender for two important land vehicle projects. One is for the Scout vehicle and the other is for the Warrior upgrade. I remain hopeful that we can sign contracts for those two vehicles early next year, following the invitations to tender, the responses to those, which we have asked for by October, and our evaluation of those bids.
Good procurement depends, of course, on maintaining the best test centres. Some 6,500 defence-related jobs have gone in Scotland since 1997. No other political party supports the Government’s pondering of cutting 125 jobs at the Hebrides range in Uist. Will the Minister banish the uncertainty and tell us that those jobs, at Europe’s best missile testing centre, are safe? This Government will not be forgiven in Scotland if they go.
There is no question of degrading our testing facilities. The issue is whether it is more efficient to control all those ranges from one place, which modern IT makes a feasible possibility, and we would be irresponsible not to consider that. I have received a number of representations from Scotland that I greatly respect, and I have agreed to look at them. I have also agreed to visit the sites and to talk to local employees. We will not take any decisions until that has been completed.
Two years ago, the current Secretary of State said that all six ex-Danish Merlin helicopters would be operational by 2008, yet it now seems that they will not be available until the end of this year at the earliest. Given the widespread criticism of the Government’s failure to provide sufficient helicopters, how does the Minister justify yet another 12-month delay in a critical programme?
I do not accept that we have failed in producing helicopter capability in Afghanistan. The Secretary—[Interruption.] No, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just set out some of the figures, including an 80 per cent. increase in the availability of helicopter hours over the past two and a half years. We also have an enormous programme of procurement of new helicopters: there are the Danish Merlins and the—[Interruption.] I am coming to that in a second. There are the Merlins that are coming back from Iraq and being fitted up to theatre-entry standard for Afghanistan, as well as the prospect of the eight Mk 3 Chinooks, which will be available for operations again by the end of this year. There is also the re-engining of the Lynx helicopters and the prospect of Wildcat, which is being manufactured. That is a very good record. As for the Merlins from Denmark, they are being upgraded to theatre-entry standard as rapidly as possible. I cannot responsibly force through such procedures more rapidly than the experts can deliver them. Indeed, that would be an extremely dangerous thing to do.
We currently expect to consider initial gate later this year.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. However, given that a number of people, including retired military officers, former Defence Secretaries and academics, are now saying that Trident is both irrelevant and unaffordable, will the Secretary of State defer the initial gate process and the hundreds of millions of pounds that it would commit us to spending until a further, full debate in this place that takes into account the new financial and strategic circumstances?
The available resources for defence expenditure are set during spending rounds. The most recent comprehensive spending review set the Department’s budget for the financial years 2008 to 2011. The Department’s expenditure plans after 2010-11 are not yet agreed. We review the detailed allocation of the defence budget during regular planning rounds to ensure that we match available resources to defence priorities and commitments.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. We recently found that the carriers would require an extra £1 billion. Can he tell us whether the Government are fully committed in all circumstances to a like-for-like replacement for Trident and to two new aircraft carriers and, if they are, what their strategy is for ensuring over the next 20 years that the Ministry of Defence can provide the resources required to ensure that our troops are fully equipped for all the challenges that they face?
Indeed, and this is not unusual.
As I have just said, we are committed to Trident and to the carriers. There has been an increase in the programme costs of the carriers, as the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) suggests, but we are committed to both projects.
The effectiveness of our spending on defence procurement is being enhanced all the time. Ever since the reforms involving smart acquisition and smart procurement at the beginning of the history of this Government, its effectiveness has been very good by international standards. As I have already explained, we are now considering further improvements.
We are looking at this at present. We do not have any firm response to that question, but we are undertaking a study of the matter. It involves a complicated calculation, as the hon. Gentleman probably accepts.
The Department’s 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 my right hon. Friend for his response. May I place on the record my thanks to his ministerial colleagues for their courtesy in dealing with the Nimrod replacement programme? May we also have a clear statement that BAE Systems will have an opportunity to bid for the refitting of the MRA4s with the Helix system, and that such a bid will be properly assessed before any final decision is made about the efficacy of other bids?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has been hugely interested in this matter for some time. We are ready to receive a Nimrod-based bid from BAE Systems. We wrote to the company on 15 June, asking if it planned to make an unsolicited bid. To date, we have not received a response, but I can assure my hon. Friend that if the company makes a bid, it will be considered objectively. However, it does not have for ever in which to do so. We need to consider the decision around the end of the year.
I believe that the strategy and the tactics are working; we are facing an extraordinarily difficult set of challenges, however. The hon. Gentleman’s point about increasing the capacity of the Afghan forces is absolutely key. There are 90,000 troops in the Afghan national army; over the next couple of years, that figure will increase to 134,000. In the meantime, we are right to pursue the approach we are pursuing—taking back and reclaiming ground from the Taliban, bit by bit, so that we can spread the authority of the Afghan national army and its Government.
My hon. Friend must accept that we all need to make the maximum contribution to maintaining the cross-party support that our operations in Afghanistan have enjoyed over the years. We should not allow any tensions that might have arisen over the past few days to dent that. I was out in Afghanistan just over a week ago, and I was enormously pleased to be able to say to the troops in theatre that they enjoy cross-party support in this House for what they are doing. Let us all try to do everything we can to make that a reality.
We have rightly increased our troop numbers from 5,500 to 9,000. I think that that was the right thing to do, but we are also there as part of a multinational coalition—of 42 nations working together on this challenge—so the idea that we alone are responsible for facing up to that challenge is, I believe, fundamentally wrong.
We are looking at the MARS project, but I do not want my hon. Friend to be under any illusion about it. Where building war-fighting vessels such as the carriers or the Future Service Combatant, which will come on line after the carriers, are concerned, we have made a strategic decision as part of the defence industrial strategy to ensure that those ships are built—and, of course, subsequently supported—in this country. Where we are talking about logistic support ships or tankers, however, that does not apply, as we need to get the best value for money. It would thus be quite wrong to say that those ships are being reserved for the shipyards in the Clyde or elsewhere in the UK, but that does not mean that British shipyards would not be most welcome to bid for them—indeed, we would be delighted if they did and if they won a contract on a best-value basis. I must make it clear, however, that when we procure those ships, it will be done on that basis.
The shadow Secretary of State for Defence confirmed his view this morning that, tragically, no amount of helicopters would have saved the lives that were lost last week. I think we should conduct this discussion on the basis of the facts and a rational approach. On nation building and reconstruction, we are committed and we are increasing the capacity of the Afghan national army, the police, the courts and the judicial system to spread the authority of the Afghan Government. That is the right approach.
When the bullets stop flying, the hated Karzai police will move back in with their dreadful record of exploitation of the population, extortion, robbery, drug use and drug trafficking. Worst of all is the practice of “bacha bazi”, which is the sexual exploitation of young boys. How is that a way to win hearts and minds?
My hon. Friend has strong views, which he has expressed over a period of time. Let us not deny that the situation in Afghanistan is less than perfect. We have to strive to improve it, but some of the abuses perpetrated under the Taliban regime when it was in power were utterly appalling and pretty comprehensive—and still are in those areas where the Taliban hold sway. My hon. Friend, I would have thought, should temper his views with regard to the Karzai Government.
As with any other surplus land belonging to the MOD, the aim is to obtain the maximum possible value for money, but, as I said when I last wrote to the hon. Gentleman, it is also important to ensure that there is a community buy-in. I shall be happy to meet him and local authorities to discuss how the disposal of the site can provide the maximum economic benefit for the local community as well.
As my hon. Friends will know, the British public understand very well how many casualties are occurring among the British forces in the offensive in Afghanistan but are less aware of the losses being experienced by our allies, the Afghans and others—and, indeed, of those being experienced by the Taliban. Are any estimates available?
I cannot give precise figures, but I think my hon. Friend is right. There have been casualties across the coalition, and their numbers are equally significant to the numbers we have lost. That underlines the fact that we have arrived at a critical phase of the campaign. We are harming the Taliban—that is why they are fighting as strongly as they are—and we need to keep pursuing our current strategy to ensure that we can succeed.
We face an acute dilemma. We have to strike a balance between giving the required priority to the operations in which we are now involved—difficult as they are, as the right hon. Gentleman says—and trying to ensure that we can respond to the many threats we may well face in the coming years. That is quite properly the province of a strategic defence review. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s party is committed to such a review in 2010, as are the Liberal Democrats and as are we.
The strategy is about ensuring that this country is safe. If that is to happen, we need sufficient capacity in the Afghan national army, police and Government, so that the Government of Afghanistan can bring about security in their country for themselves.
Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment at the fact that we seem to be losing the argument about Trident purely because of the financial bill? Would it not be better if, rather than his giving us holding replies as he did today and referring back to 2006, we started an open debate about the strategy and the options—as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis)—so that people can begin to understand why we need it?
I think that the debate has already started. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there is quite a debate raging in his own party about the future of the Trident nuclear weapon. The defence team has one view, while the Treasury team appears to have another. However, there is a need for a debate on defence across the piece. That is why I announced the other week a process to produce a Green Paper on defence capability. I hope that we can conduct that process in a cross-party manner, and that as many people as possible will become involved in a non-partisan way.
Health centres are open, schools have been rebuilt and girls are at school in Afghanistan today, and that simply was not the case in 2001. Yes, we face significant challenges, but I think that hon. Members understate the progress we are making if they deny that reality.
Is it good value for money to spend an additional £1 billion on the aircraft carriers without creating one extra job or any additional capability on those carriers? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be no further delays in the construction of these carriers?
The carriers are proceeding well. The first carrier had its first steel cut last week in Govan, and it was a great privilege to be there and to see the excellent morale in the shipyards. I have no reason to suppose that there will be any delay in that programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have re-profiled the programme in order to align it better with the introduction of the joint strike fighter, the aircraft that is going to fly off those two new carriers.
May I put it to the Secretary of State that, with the appointment of General McChrystal as supreme commander in Afghanistan under President Obama, the Americans and the British are in fact embarked on a new strategy of which Operation Panther’s Claw is a part? Will we not know in just a few short months whether we are able to win the hearts and minds of the ordinary Afghan; if not, will we not have to rethink what we are doing in Afghanistan?
General McChrystal is involved in an initial review of the situation in Afghanistan. It is a 60-day review, and we are completely and absolutely plugged into that process. We will want to see and be able to respond to his findings, but the election process that will follow very soon thereafter is of course of massive and vital importance. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this is a particularly crucial time for the future of Afghanistan, and, therefore, for the future of our involvement in that country.
This has been a sad and difficult time for our armed forces and for our country, and I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the families and friends of the servicemen killed in Afghanistan in the past few days: Rifleman Daniel Hume, 4th Battalion the Rifles; Private John Brackpool, Prince of Wales’s Royal Regiment; Riflemen Daniel Simpson, Joseph Murphy, James Backhouse and William Aldridge and Corporal Jonathan Horne, all of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles; and Corporal Lee Scott, 2nd Royal Tank Regiment. Riflemen Murphy, Backhouse and Aldridge were just 18 years of age. It is at times of loss and sadness such as these that we become ever more aware of the service and the sacrifice our armed forces give for our country. We owe them, and all those who have been killed or wounded in conflict, a huge debt of gratitude.
I want to make a statement about the conclusions of the G8 meeting, the major economies forum on climate change, and our outreach meetings with African leaders, and to thank Prime Minister Berlusconi for his organisation of the G8 and related summits, but first I will focus on one of the most important and urgent matters considered in detail at our G8 meeting. This is a time of great challenge for our armed forces serving in Afghanistan. I have written to the Chair of the Liaison Committee and placed a copy of the letter in the Libraries of both Houses, and we are also making time available on Thursday for a debate on Afghanistan, but perhaps, Mr. Speaker, following the G8 discussions I could take this opportunity to update the House on our current strategy and operations in Afghanistan, alongside 40 other nations, and our work with Pakistan.
Eight years ago, after 11 September 2001, the case for intervention in Afghanistan was clear: it was to remove the Taliban regime and deprive al-Qaeda of a safe base for terrorist plots that were a threat to countries around the world. In 2009, the case for our continued involvement is the same: to prevent terrorist attacks here in Britain and across the world by dealing with the terrorist threat at its source—that crucible of terror on the border and mountain areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must not forget that three quarters of terror plots against the United Kingdom have roots in these areas.
To succeed, we must succeed both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, so our strategy, which I set out to the House in April, reflects an integrated approach to both countries. If progress in one is to be sustainable, we must have progress in both, and progress requires three things: military action against terrorists and the insurgency; action to build the rule of law; and economic and social development to give local people a stake in their future.
In the last few months, the Pakistan Government have taken action, launching successful operations to drive out the Pakistan Taliban from the Swat and Buner regions. While the overwhelming majority of the Pakistani people fully support their Government’s actions, operational success has come at a high humanitarian cost, with about 2 million displaced people. As we must ensure that this does not become a pretext for radicalisation, we are helping to lead in providing humanitarian assistance to Pakistan—as are other G8 countries—for these internally displaced people, combining our support for Pakistan’s security and military forces with development assistance and help with reconstruction.
In Afghanistan, international forces must take the lead on the front line, because the Afghan army and police are not yet able to maintain control alone. Again, our strategy is to combine coalition military action with civilian support for development and training the Afghan forces to take more control.
As the House knows, British troops are today involved in a major military operation—Panther’s Claw—fighting to bring security to areas in central Helmand until now beyond the reach of the Afghan Government. American forces are engaged in a similar, co-ordinated operation in the south of the province. We are combining our military advance with civilian action. When we go into the towns and villages and districts in Helmand, our forces are supported by the Afghan army and police who, with our help, can hold the ground that we are clearing, and prevent the Taliban from returning. Our civilian and military stabilisation experts work with Governor Mangal and his district governors to follow up with plans for new roads, clean water and other basic services including, above all, justice—not the mediaeval brutality of the Taliban, but the rule of law.
Earlier this year we announced an increase in our numbers for the summer campaign and the Afghan election period to around 9,000. Today, the figure on the ground is just above 9,100, as commanders rotate troops that have been fighting at peak intensity—it is right that those operating in the most arduous conditions are given respite when they need it. We keep our force levels under constant review, depending on the operational requirement, and I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of our armed services that we have the manpower we need for the current operations.
I spoke with President Karzai yesterday. He expressed his condolences at the loss of precious lives in Helmand, and I urged him to make available this summer—in addition to the 500 already involved in Panther’s Claw—more Afghan army personnel for operations in Helmand, so that our hard-won gains can be fully consolidated.
Our troops will continue to face a tough and dangerous battle, and we will continue to give their safety the highest priority. Since 2006-07, we have increased funding for the Afghan operation year on year, from the Treasury reserve and in addition to the defence budget, from £700 million in 2006-07; to £1.5 billion in 2007-08; to £2.6 billion in 2008-09; and to more than £3 billion this year—over and above the defence budget of £30 billion. The Chancellor has made it clear that all operational requirements will be met.
In the last two years, we have increased helicopter numbers by 60 per cent. and because we have provided more crews and equipment we have increased capability by 84 per cent. Since 2006, we have spent more than £1 billion in urgent operational requirements for vehicles, including 280 Mastiffs, which offer world-leading protection against mines and roadside bombs. We will go further this year with the deployment of the new Ridgeback vehicles and Merlin helicopters. We have also just agreed a £100 million programme for the upgrading of Chinook helicopters.
The Chief of the Defence Staff has said that
“the British armed forces are better equipped today than they have been at any time in 40 years”.
But we are not complacent. Our troops operate in a dynamic, ever-changing environment. This Government, and our military commanders, recognise the need to adapt as conditions develop.
Despite the tragic losses of the last two weeks, our commanders assure me that we are having a major impact on the Taliban in central Helmand and that morale among our forces is high. Our brave servicemen and women know that taking the fight to the enemy as they are now doing, to prevent terrorism on the streets of Britain, will inevitably put them in harm’s way. The majority of recent casualties have been sustained not in direct confrontation with the insurgency, but from improvised explosive devices, and from April we have begun to deploy additional units to tackle this growing threat.
As I made clear in April when I announced for the period of the Afghan elections a temporary uplift to around 9,000 through the summer, we will review that commitment after the Afghan elections, with the advice of our commanders and in discussion with our allies. At the same time we will continue to strengthen our approach in the ways set out in our April strategy: by better continuity of our campaigns; by further improvements in civilian-military integration; by the closest possible co-ordination with American forces; and above all by a gradual shift towards training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police so that they can take more responsibility for what is happening in Afghanistan.
At the G8 meeting, all members agreed on the importance of the work now being done in Afghanistan, and I talked directly with President Obama about the challenges we will face together. It has been a very difficult summer, and it is not over yet, but if we are to deny Helmand to the Taliban in the long term and if we are to defeat this vicious insurgency—and by doing so make Britain and the world a safer place—we must persist with our operations in Afghanistan. I am confident that we are right to be in Afghanistan, that we have the strongest possible plan, and that we have the resources we need to do the job.
Let me turn to other matters raised at the G8 summit. The summit will be remembered as the climate change summit where we achieved real progress towards our goal of reaching a global climate change agreement at Copenhagen in December. First the G8 and then the major economies forum concluded that average global temperatures must rise by no more than 2°. That is an unprecedented and universal agreement, taking in developed and developing countries alike. It reflects a worldwide consensus unthinkable only a few years ago that the scientific evidence for climate change is irrefutable, and all of us now have a duty to act.
The summit agreed that developing countries will contribute to a global agreement by undertaking actions promptly
“whose projected effects on emissions represent a meaningful deviation from business as usual in the”
medium term; that
“Financial resources for mitigation and adaptation will need to be scaled up urgently and substantially and should involve mobilising resources to support developing countries”;
and that, to take this forward, G20 Finance Ministers should work on it further and should consider the proposals that the British Government have set out, including the Mexican green fund, and report back at the Pittsburgh summit of the G20 in September.
For the first time, the G8 countries agreed the goal of reducing their emissions by 80 per cent. or more by 2050 as part of a global goal of at least a 50 per cent. reduction in emissions, and we will also undertake
“robust aggregate and individual mid-term reductions.”
These are the most ambitious targets on climate change ever agreed by the G8.
The summit also sent out a second wake-up call on the world economy. We reaffirmed the commitments made at the G20 to take
“all necessary steps to support demand, restore growth and maintain financial stability”.
We pledged “to implement swiftly” these measures and called on
“all countries to act decisively to reinforce the international economic and financial system.”
In advance of the next G20 meeting, which will take place in Pittsburgh this September, the summit laid the foundations for a new strategy to
“lead the global economy to stable, balanced and sustainable growth”
by acting “individually and collectively”. We agreed to
“vigorously pursue the work necessary to ensure global financial stability”,
that there must be more bank lending, that reform and funding of the financial institutions should be secure and that there should be fast progress on regulation of financial services worldwide. We agreed to do what is necessary to make progress on growth, on commodity prices and on trade. We reaffirmed our commitment to a green recovery by
“investing in measures encouraging the creation of”
jobs in environmental technologies.
On development, we agreed that the global recession is no excuse for abandoning our commitments to the poorest, so we reaffirmed our ambitious pledges to increase aid to Africa by $25 billion and by $50 billion globally by 2010. The G8 also agreed a global consensus on what we have to do to accelerate progress on maternal and child health and on the millennium development goals on which, historically, we have made the least progress to date. In meeting with leading African nations, President Obama, I and other leaders agreed decisive action on food security to avert the hunger emergency. There is to be a $20 billion programme of assistance over three years to support the agricultural sector in poorer countries and I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom will contribute $1.8 billion to the initiative.
The G8 leaders also issued a strong statement on non-proliferation. We welcomed President Obama’s proposal to hold a non-proliferation conference in America next March, before the negotiations on the review of the non-proliferation treaty begin, and we will set out soon our proposals to prepare for that summit in 2010. We said that if Iran does not respond to the international community’s offer of a supervised civil nuclear programme, we would put together a tougher programme of sanctions in the autumn. I welcome the solidarity shown by our G8 partners, who agreed that
“embassies in Iran must be permitted to exercise their functions effectively...without arbitrary restrictions on, or intimidation of, their staff”
“unjustified detentions of journalists and recent arrests of foreign nationals are unacceptable.”
On Burma, we reiterated our support to do all that we can to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.
We also discussed the measures that we must take to address the pandemic of swine flu.
In the coming months, there will be crucial summits: on the global economy in Pittsburgh; on climate change at Copenhagen; and on non-proliferation in New York. If those meetings are to secure lasting change, now is the time for global leadership, to build a new strategy to deliver global growth, to face up to our obligations on climate change and poverty and to face down those who would threaten our global security.
The G8 has laid foundations for such progress, and once again I believe that Britain has played a pivotal leadership role. I commend this statement to the House.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to the eight servicemen killed since last Wednesday: from the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, Corporal Jonathan Horne and Riflemen William Aldridge, James Backhouse, Joseph Murphy and Daniel Simpson; from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, Corporal Lee Scott; from the Prince of Wales’s Royal Regiment, Private John Brackpool; and from the 4th Battalion the Rifles, Rifleman Daniel Hume. They died serving our country. We must look after their families. We must thank them for what they have done, and we must never forget what they have done for our country.
Everyone serving in Afghanistan should know that they have the support and admiration of hon. Members on both sides of the House and the whole country. Does the Prime Minister agree that more needs to be done to set out and explain the right strategy in Afghanistan? It must be tightly defined, hard-headed and realistic. As he said, we need to be absolutely clear about what our mission should be: it is about security; it is to deny the ability of al-Qaeda to have bases in Afghanistan.
On equipment, the Prime Minister talks about the increase in helicopter capacity since 2006, but is not the real point that the number of troops has doubled since 2006, so, proportionately, there has not really been an increase in helicopter capacity at all? Does he regret the £1.4 billion cut in the helicopter programme that he, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, pushed through in 2004? Of course, helicopters alone are not enough and helicopters are not invulnerable, but the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, has said very clearly that more helicopters would save lives, so does not more need to be done right now?
On troop numbers, when the Prime Minister is asked whether military commanders requested 2,000 more troops, his response is always that 700 more troops are being provided for the election, but can he now answer the key question: was he asked for 2,000 more? If he turned down that request, can he explain the reason that he gave at the time? I listened very carefully to what he said in his statement: “I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower that we need for the current operations.” Those are clearly very carefully chosen words, but they raise the question of whether commanders asked for more troops to do more things, so that it would be easier to achieve the objectives that we all want to be achieved. I hope that he will be able to answer that question when he stands to speak again.
On Pakistan, it is right that we have a combined strategy. Can he tell us how much aid is being delivered by British non-governmental organisations and the British Government in tribal areas, where it is extremely difficult to get through?
On the Afghan national army, which the Prime Minister talked about in his statement, can he tell us not just how many troops are now available, but what agreements he achieved following his discussions with President Karzai? Figures suggest that less than 10 per cent. of Afghan forces are actually in Helmand province, even though almost half the fighting in Afghanistan is taking place in Helmand. Can he confirm those figures?
On other issues discussed at the G8, I welcome what the Prime Minister said on non-proliferation. I very much agree with what he said about Iran. I welcome the fact that we will take a lead in drawing up EU sanctions if Iran does not take positive steps forward.
Clearly, the central issues at the G8 were development, trade, climate change and the economy; let me ask briefly about each. On development, this morning we reaffirmed our commitment to 0.7 per cent. of gross national income to be spent on aid by 2013. I know that the Prime Minister will welcome cross-party agreement on that issue. Does he agree that it strengthens our ability to ask other countries to do more? Is it not the case specifically that Italy is cutting its aid budget this year and is planning to spend little over 0.1 per cent. of its national income on aid? Does that not make a mockery of the G8’s Gleneagles commitments that were solemnly entered into four years ago? By next year, 2010, development aid was meant to have increased by $50 billion, with $25 billion of that going to Africa. Is it not the case that, four years on, countries are on track to meet around half of their commitments, and will that not sap people’s faith in these meetings and the promises that are made?
Sit down. I thought you said you were going to retire. I think that I hit a sensitive spot.
On trade, the communiqué says that there needs to be agreement on Doha by the end of 2010, but two years ago we were told that we were going to get agreement on Doha by the end of 2007. Last year the Prime Minister told the House that progress would be made by the end of 2008. Again, we are getting the same message: progress will be made. Yes, elections in America and India are now over, so those stumbling blocks are being overcome, but can the Prime Minister tell us whether he sees real evidence of political will to make progress happen?
On climate change, let it be said that getting agreements from all these countries on cuts in carbon emissions which are domestically painful is not easy, and the progress made at the G8 is very encouraging given the importance of the Copenhagen conference later this year. Is it not the case, though, that of the three things that were necessary, two have happened? First, every country committed to the 2° target, and secondly the G8 committed to the 80 per cent. goal for industrialised countries. However, is it not disappointing—and is it not better to acknowledge this—that the wider group of countries did not commit to the 50 per cent. goal for the whole world? Does the Prime Minister agree that that highlights the need for interim targets before 2050 if we are to have any chance of getting those other countries on track?
On the economy, the G8 discussed financial regulation, bank support for business and the need to get deficits under control. In each of those three areas is it not clear that Britain is failing badly? On financial regulation, will the Prime Minister finally take this opportunity to admit that the tripartite system that he established has failed? On bank lending, let us just take one scheme. Can the Prime Minister confirm that as of a week ago the automotive assistance programme, launched in a blaze of glory to help the car industry, had yet to guarantee a single loan? On deficits, will he confirm the IMF’s finding that we are heading for the largest budget deficit not only in the G8 but in the entire G20? Is it not the case that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecast a deficit of 14 per cent.? That is twice as high as when Denis Healey went to the IMF in the 1970s, and by far the largest figure since the war. Does the Prime Minister not agree that the most important lesson this country needs to learn is that it should never allow the public finances and the budget deficit to get in such a mess again?
Let me start with Afghanistan. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the debt that we owe to our troops. Over the past weekend, which has been very difficult for our forces, I talked to the Chief of the Defence Staff, and I talked this morning to our commander on the ground in Afghanistan, Brigadier Tim Radford. I visited the Northwood joint headquarters to receive a briefing on Operation Panther’s Claw, and this morning I visited RAF Benson to see the progress of the Merlin helicopter programme and talk to some of our very brave helicopter pilots who are in Afghanistan. Of course, I have also talked to President Obama about progress in Afghanistan, and yesterday to President Karzai, who I keep in regular touch with to talk about events in Afghanistan and what we can do.
While we are not complacent and will always be vigilant, I have to tell the House that despite the terrible loss of some great soldiers, to whom we owe this huge debt of gratitude, our forces on the ground are making progress in Operation Panther’s Claw, and have made it absolutely clear to us that they are moving ahead with some speed in clearing the ground. Behind them will come Afghan forces, whose numbers I want to see raised very substantially over the next few weeks. The civilian effort led by Governor Mangal is in place. It is our hope not only to take the ground and to clear it, but to hold it, using both our own forces and Afghan forces. At the same time, there should be a civilian effort to make sure that the land is held and that people believe that they have a stake in the future.
I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman, despite his quotations from various people, that the British Army spokesman in Helmand province, Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, has repeated what has been said to me in private. He said publicly:
“Absolutely we have the proper equipment. Our equipment is first rate and we have plenty of it. It’s…about having a full range of equipment, people are being critical of vehicles, we have a full range of vehicles here that help provide the protection that soldiers need.”
He went on to say:
“So everything from the vehicles to the personal protective equipment, whether it’s body armour, helmets and also the weaponry, and also the specialist equipment, it’s here, it’s great…it works”.
I have to say, also, that when he was asked about helicopters, he said:
“There’s much speculation about helicopters and have we got enough. It’s a sad fact that helicopters would not have saved the lives of the individuals last week. We’ve got to be…on the ground, we’ve got to be interacting with the population—you cannot conduct a war from a helicopter. So the equipment we have is very, very good. In terms of would we like more, any commander will say yes, we’d like more. Yes, we’d like more equipment and we’d like more troops, whatever it may be, but my commander is very hard over on the fact that he has sufficient to get on with the task…which he has been given.”
I hope that the information that comes from people on the ground who are working in Afghanistan is taken on board by the House in this debate.
We have increased the number of helicopters by 60 per cent. in less than two years. Because we have more crews and because we have made adjustments to those helicopters, we have increased the capability of those helicopters—in other words, the flying hours that they can do—by 84 per cent. By the end of this year, the Merlin helicopters, which I saw this morning when I visited RAF Benson, will be on the ground in Afghanistan. In addition, we contract from NATO a lot of helicopters that do the work of getting our equipment on to the ground. We have created a helicopter fund, so that we and other people can contribute to countries that will provide helicopters, and we will pay for them to be upgraded. That will create 11 helicopters over the next period of time. We are working very closely with the United States of America on those issues, and of course we have set aside £6 billion for future investment, particularly in the new Lynx helicopter, over the next 10 years.
I hope that Opposition Members who want to make an issue of the fact that there are insufficient helicopters will take it on board that while of course we would want more helicopters, there has been a 60 per cent. increase, and there will be more on the ground by the end of the year. In addition, of course, we are converting eight Chinooks to enable them to deal with the weather in Afghanistan. I have to say that to move helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan is very difficult, because the weather in Afghanistan and the terrain on which people are operating are very difficult. The helicopters have to be converted. Our crews have got to be trained for the ground on which they are fighting. I believe that people appreciate that we are striving daily to have the best equipment available for our troops in Afghanistan.
As for the numbers of troops, in our discussions with the military, of course one talks about all the options that are available, but let me just make it clear that we decided, after discussion with our military and with President Obama, that we would increase the number of troops from 8,100 at the point at which we discussed the matter to 9,000. There are today about 9,150 people on the ground in Afghanistan. I repeat that I have been reassured by commanders on the ground and at the top of the armed services that we have the manpower that we need for current operations. I have also said that once the elections are over, we will review the numbers with our allies and with our commanders on the ground.
We have made our additions to the numbers in Afghanistan. We have persuaded some other countries to contribute more troops, but we are the second largest provider of troops for Afghanistan. We are far ahead of other countries, and we insist that there has got to be proper burden-sharing across NATO. I hope that every section of the House will want to support that.
I repeat that in April we published our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. We understand very clearly that we must have success in both countries if we are to be able to deal with the problem of terrorism. We also understand that military action alone, although vital, is not sufficient. We need action on the ground with development aid, and we need to train local people to take responsibility for security in their areas. Our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to tackle the terrorist threat. We are now in a position where the Pakistan Government are taking action in the Swat and in Waziristan, and progress is being made in the Swat valley.
Therefore, we have a complementary strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan to tackle the terrorist threat, to strengthen local forces on the ground, to bring development help to these areas, and in Afghanistan to tackle the heroin trade that is so costly not only in Afghanistan, but around the world. That is the strategy that we are pursuing with our American allies and with 40 other allies in the region, who are contributing to the effort.
I repeat that there needs to be burden sharing not just in troops, but in development. We are contributing a substantial amount of development aid both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. We have shifted aid from the other areas of Pakistan to the north-west area. We are determined to do more in those areas to help young people to go to school, for example, and to make sure that the internally displaced people in Pakistan have homes that they can go to and proper services.
I come to the other issues raised by the Leader of the Opposition. It is precisely because we must meet our commitments on development aid that we, the British Government, have issued a call to action. We have asked other countries to join us in realising the poverty emergency that exists and what we have to do.
Let me be clear that the reason that we could not get an agreement on trade in 2008 was that the Indians and the Americans could not come to an agreement on what was called a very specific safeguard clause for Indian imports. I believe that that barrier is being removed. That is why I believe that there is hope that the new trade negotiations that will start will have greater success. Trade Ministers have been asked to meet before the Pittsburgh summit in 2010.
On climate change, the right hon. Gentleman knows that our policy is not only long-term targets and that there must be help for developing countries; interim targets must be agreed as well. That is what we will be discussing at the Pittsburgh summit, then at the United Nations, and then on the road to Copenhagen in December.
On the economy, I repeat that it is because we have succeeded in getting global action, partly at the G20 meetings in Washington and London, and partly at the G8 meeting that we have just had, that the world has a shared policy to deal with the recession. It is to create financial stability. The Americans are proposing a similar arrangement to the one that we have—the regulators, the central Bank and the Government work together. That is precisely what the Americans are proposing to do. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that no financial policy in future can work unless the Treasury, the Bank of England and the financial regulatory authorities work together. To my knowledge, no country that was at the G8 shares the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to cut public spending at a time when people need it, and to fail to support a recovery.
I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in paying tribute to Corporal Jonathan Horne, Rifleman William Aldridge, Rifleman James Backhouse, Rifleman Joseph Murphy and Rifleman Daniel Simpson, all of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles, Private John Brackpool of 1st Battalion the Welsh Guards, Corporal Lee Scott of 2nd Royal Tank Regiment, and Rifleman Daniel Hume of 4th Battalion the Rifles. This is a heartbreaking roll call of losses, including many young men who displayed courage and a professionalism well beyond their years. We all owe them a great deal.
I believe that the British people are resilient and understand the sacrifices that are inevitable in conflict, as long as the purpose of that conflict is clearly explained and understood, but how can people understand the true nature of this war when the Government have refused to explain what the achievable aims of the mission really are? For the past eight years, the Government have been sending mixed signals about the nature and purpose of the deployment. In the past week we have had the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary giving different justifications for the war.
We on the Liberal Democrat Benches support the Afghan mission to stabilise Afghanistan and to reduce the threat of terrorism to British citizens. However, we need to be very clear about the limits of what we can achieve. Military action may be able to contain problems but not resolve them.
We have learned some difficult lessons in the past eight years. We have learned that our forces were not in a position to secure Helmand province alone, given the chronic shortages of equipment and manpower. We have learned that, because of the nature of Afghan tribal society, we must not overreach ourselves by trying to import overnight a western-style liberal democracy to a country that has never had a functioning central Government.
Does the Prime Minister now accept that, at best, what we can do is stabilise Afghanistan to provide a space for the state to grow? Does he see that, since our troops first stepped into Afghanistan, the Government’s strategy has been over-ambitious in aim and under-resourced in practice? Is it not time to commit the necessary resources and to set a reasonable goal? When exactly—he still has not answered this question today—will he find a way to send the desperately needed helicopters to our troops on the ground?
When will the Prime Minister seek full co-ordination of the international political strategy in Afghanistan? We know that President Karzai vetoed last year the appointment of a single, strong political figure to co-ordinate the international effort in Afghanistan, so will the Prime Minister prevail upon President Karzai or his successor to reverse that decision and to accept the appointment of a single senior figure with sufficient authority to bring together the piecemeal strategies of the international community?
Finally, I should like to turn to the G8 summit conclusions on nuclear non-proliferation. It is likely that conflicts such as Afghanistan will dominate in the coming years, rather than the old, state-to-state conflicts of the cold war era, so I welcome the position—the strong line—taken at the G8 on nuclear non-proliferation and the 2010 non-proliferation talks. However, does the Prime Minister not agree that rushing to commit Britain to like-for-like replacement of the cold war era Trident system hardly puts us at the forefront of such efforts? Is it not time both to admit that we do not need and cannot afford Trident on that scale, and to start to look properly at the alternatives, so that we can then commit the resources needed to our brave troops on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere?
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that what I set out as our Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy is very similar to what he asks us to do: first, that military action has to be complemented by other actions; secondly, that we must get the Afghan people into a position where their troops and their police are able to take responsibility for law and order, justice and security in their own area; and, thirdly, that that must be matched by development aid. Our increase in development support for farming and the social and economic development of Afghanistan is exactly what the right hon. Gentleman wants to see.
Our strategy is very clear: to deal with a terrorist threat that could affect the streets of our own country, we have to take pre-emptive action to deal with terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2001, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and was pushed out into Pakistan, but in 2009 we have the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda in the mountainous areas on the borders of Pakistan. We have to see joint, co-ordinated action both in Pakistan to deal with the terrorist threat there, as is now happening, and in Afghanistan, where we are clearing areas and making it possible for free elections to take place. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that both our strategy and the way in which we are seeking to pursue it are in line with what he is suggesting.
I repeat to the right hon. Gentleman, because I do not think that he heard what I said, that there has been a 60 per cent. increase in helicopters and an 84 per cent. increase in the capability of our helicopter forces. The Merlin helicopters from Iraq are being adapted so that they can be brought to Afghanistan as quickly as possible; we set up a helicopter fund to allow other countries to contribute helicopters, to upgrade them for the terrain in Afghanistan and to contribute to that development effort; and, of course, we are working with the Americans, who have helicopters, too, so that we can share the use of that particular equipment. I hope that he will agree also that the £6 billion that we are investing in helicopters is something that all of us can support.
On development in Afghanistan, I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that General McChrystal is head of ISAF and the US operations, so there is now the co-ordination that before there was not. Kay Eide is the head of the development operation. Of course we want development projects to move a lot quicker, and of course I keep pressing President Karzai to ensure that his Government take direct action to ensure that that happens. However, 6 million Afghan children are at school who were not at school previously, and there are huge increases in the amount of health care available to the Afghan people. I caution the right hon. Gentleman: the support for the Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy is common to America and the 41 nations that are part of the coalition. We all have the same objective: to reduce and remove the terrorist threat by supporting the development of local control in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Let me say this to the right hon. Gentleman about the non-proliferation treaty. What we want to achieve is in the spirit of the original non-proliferation treaty. We offer to non-nuclear states the chance of civil nuclear power under conditions in which the transfer of that power to those states can be safe. At the same time, we secure an agreement that they will not adopt nuclear weapons. Furthermore, unlike in the case of Iran, the duty of those countries will be to show that they are not proliferating nuclear weapons, rather than our duty being to prove that by our investigations. I hope that there will be major progress on the non-proliferation treaty.
As for Trident, let me be clear. We need collective action for disarmament involving all the nuclear states, and that is also one of the promises of the non-proliferation treaty. At a time when North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear weapons and other countries in the Gulf are threatening to do so, people would find it strange for Britain—a country that has nuclear weapons—simply to surrender hers unilaterally at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned development. All of us support Britain’s leadership in providing international development to the poorest countries of the world. That leadership is important to the House.
The Prime Minister is to be congratulated on pushing climate change up the agenda of the meeting. Does he agree that climate change is a bigger threat to the future of humankind than any of the regional conflicts, the economic crisis or the terrorism so prevalent in the world today? We need to act urgently on the climate change agenda.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee is absolutely right that we have to act urgently to deal with the climate change problem. That is why it was progress that every country present accepted the scientific evidence and accepted for the first time that we had to avoid an average increase of 2° C. That is also why the developed countries have agreed an 80 per cent. target for carbon reductions.
I hope that we can go forward from this G8 summit and meeting of the major economies to get an agreement on climate change at Copenhagen. If we can do that, we can go further and secure an agreement on nuclear disarmament during discussions on the non-proliferation treaty, to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world. I believe that we will prove that collective action can work around the world, with international co-ordination to deal with the problems of our economy and of security. Copenhagen is vital not only for climate change but for showing how the world can act together.
As my son is serving in Operation Panther’s Claw, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on that. However, I say on a personal basis that I profoundly hope that the Prime Minister’s assurances are right.
On environmental issues, can the Prime Minister tell us what the global warming has been in the past 10 years? Can he say whether the real impact that we have to look at is that it is not all man-made and that carbon dioxide and methane can come from natural causes? I am not a denier of climate change, but would not the money be better spent on measures to prevent rising sea levels and other such issues?
First, let me say about those serving in Afghanistan that we owe them a huge debt. These are very difficult times. Operation Panther’s Claw was never going to be easy. This is an important summer not just for Afghanistan but for the security of the whole region. We are therefore indebted to those who are making the sacrifice and giving service not only in Operation Panther’s Claw but throughout Afghanistan.
As for climate change, over the past few years there has been a rise in temperatures from the trough—
Probably by more than 1° C. At the same time, we want to prevent a situation whereby the rise is above 2° C. All the expert predictions that we have seen suggest that by the year 2100, without taking action, the rise in temperatures would be in the order of 6 per cent., which would make it very difficult for some countries to be able to survive in the way that they are doing at the moment. The need for action is urgent, and the agreement that we should recognise this as a problem is worldwide. The question is whether we can get an agreement at Copenhagen, and I hope that we can all strive to do that as quickly as possible.
I recognise that much—indeed, all—of the criticism that has been directed at my right hon. Friend over Afghanistan is unfair. Nevertheless, given that British troops—we all pay tribute to their bravery—have now been in Afghanistan for nearly eight years, which is obviously longer than the second world war, does he accept that it is legitimate, and certainly in no way unpatriotic, for people to ask whether our intervention is going to be indefinite, whether a British contingent will be there in another eight years or more, and what we mean, as such, by victory in the context of Afghanistan?
The Defence Secretary has rightly said that our role in the south began in 2006, and it has been a very important role, because Helmand is the most dangerous of the provinces. For as long as there is a terrorist threat and it is not possible for Afghanistan or Pakistan to deal with it, they will need some kind of help from other powers. That does not necessarily mean military forces on the ground, but it does necessitate help to back them up. We are committed to giving help to the Pakistani authorities to deal with the terrorist threat in their areas. We are working closely with the security services but also giving what support we can to the army, and making it clear that development aid is available. We have to deal with the situation in Pakistan and in Afghanistan by working together with their Governments, but we hope that over time they will take more responsibility for their own affairs. Particularly in Afghanistan, we hope that the numbers in the army can rise from 80,000 to 130,000, and perhaps a great deal higher, and the number of police can rise to about 70,000, so that the country will be able, gradually, step by step, to take more control over its own affairs.
The Prime Minister said that the hard-won gains in Afghanistan must be fully consolidated. People at my former battalion, 2 Mercian, talk to me all the time, and they say that there simply are not enough troops to hold the ground after the current operation. Notwithstanding his careful answers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), can he confirm that troop numbers will not be drawn down after the election and, more to the point, that the ridiculous rumours about the axing of three infantry battalions are just that—rumours?
Yes, we should not believe all the rumours that are put around this place. We want to achieve a situation whereby we take the ground and the Afghan national army works with us to hold the ground. With the Americans and other coalition powers, we are training about 2,000 new troops in Afghanistan every month. The Afghan army has grown in numbers to between 70,000 and 80,000, and, as I said, it is set to grow to 130,000. In the long term, we want the Afghan army and the Afghan police to be able to take more control over their own affairs. We have suggested that, just as in Iraq, province by province, we could transfer control to the Afghan army and police. I have made my statement about the commitments that we have made in relation to troop numbers. We will review that with President Obama and others after the election. However, the hon. Gentleman should not be in any doubt that the number of troops in Afghanistan has been raised over the past few months for the summer campaign and the pre-election period. We have kept and held to the promise that we would take the action that is necessary to ensure that our troops are properly safe.
Can I ask my right hon. Friend to expand on one sentence in his statement? He said, “On Burma, we reiterated our support to do all that we can to secure the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.” What does that mean, what can we do, and what will we do?
As I know my right hon. Friend is a long-term campaigner for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, I should say that all nations that were present at the G8 were united in our determination to remind the Burmese Government that repression is unacceptable; to tell them that Aung San Suu Kyi should not be held or tried as a political prisoner; to say that if there are to be fair elections in Burma, she must be allowed to participate; and to say that we will consider whatever action is necessary to ensure that the Burmese Government recognise that what they are doing is an offence against human rights and democracy, particularly against someone who some time ago was elected as the democratic leader of Burma.
As my right hon. Friend may know, the Secretary-General of the United Nations has just been in Burma. We supported his visit there, and although it was unsuccessful, the matter will come before the Security Council today or tomorrow. I hope that the Security Council’s members will send a message that such behaviour by the Burmese regime is completely unacceptable.
May I remind the Prime Minister that ever since we went back into Afghanistan in 2003, I have repeatedly warned a succession of Defence Ministers that even 300,000 troops would not be sufficient to succeed in the task that they have been set, a figure that senior American generals have echoed in recent months? Why, yet again, despite the grim history of our interventions in Afghanistan over the years, have this Government sent an undermanned, under-equipped army there to face the situation that we all see has now emerged, which was inevitable in the circumstances?
First, we have made progress in Afghanistan, and I disagree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. There are millions of children at school, health care services are being provided, there are roads and there is economic development as a result of what we have managed to do.
Secondly, our aim, as we set out in April and as I said previously—the aim is now accepted by all our allies—is to complement our military intervention with action on the ground to help Afghanistan to build up its armed forces and police services, and to take action that is necessary for the development of Afghanistan so that the Afghan people have a stake in the future. As I have said, military action alone will be insufficient to bring Afghanistan to a point where we can justifiably say that we have dealt with the terrorist threat. It demands action by the Afghan people themselves, and that means training their own armed forces and police.
President Sarkozy and I talked about this last week, and we issued a statement saying that by April 2010, we wanted every country to have abandoned the tax haven practices that they were adopting. We have now also made it clear that there is a grey list and a black list of countries, as well as a white list, based on the action that they are taking. Many countries are now taking action as a result of the G20, and some countries have signed more than a dozen agreements that make it possible for them to lose their status as tax havens. We are pushing forward with our plan to ensure that tax havens in the old form will be a thing of the past.
We join in the tributes and condolences that the Prime Minister gave and in his wish for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but is it not the case that the real window of opportunity in Afghanistan was lost with the invasion of Iraq? With more than 50 per cent. of the British population now saying that they want troops to return by Christmas, is it not the case that the UK Government need seriously to reconsider their policy?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will support our action in Afghanistan and recognise that more than 40 nations are part of the coalition there. I hope that he will also accept that our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to deal with the terrorist threat, to support local Afghan and Pakistani people in controlling their own affairs and to secure the economic and social development of their countries. I would have thought that most parties would support that strategy, not oppose it.
Did my right hon. Friend remind the other leaders, when they were discussing the recession at the G8 meeting, that he had had a little bit of practice because on 16 September 1992, we had a terrible day, Black Wednesday? The economic adviser to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer is sitting over there—the Leader of the Opposition. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the reason that I can remember all this is that I did not have a wasted youth, going to Eton and being educated beyond my intelligence, and I am drug-free?
I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider any plans for an early retirement. People will remember that in 1992, interest rates increased to 18 per cent., inflation was 10 per cent. and millions of people were affected by mortgage rates that caused a record number of repossessions. We have taken action precisely because we want to avoid those consequences. Unfortunately, the Opposition still support the policies of 1992.
The Prime Minister knows that millions of little children die from bad water and bad sanitation. He did not mention that in his statement. Will he be good enough to consider the problem that arises through duplication between the G8-Africa partnership and the global framework that is being set up—as the right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor, Mr. Tony Blair, said he would do at the next G8—so that we have positive movement and progress on water and sanitation?
I agree entirely that we must do more to ensure that water is clean and that sanitation services are provided. That was a feature of our discussion at the G8 with African leaders. We were determined, first, to deal with the problem of hunger, because 1 billion people face hunger and poverty. That is why we have set aside an extra $20 billion for a programme to help agriculture, particularly in Africa. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that, if we do not meet the goals on water, we will fail on poverty and the environment. It is also right to make water and sanitation a priority. It is the first time that he has not asked me a question on Europe, which must be a record for the House.
May I add my condolences to those expressed to the families of every single one of the young men and women who have fallen for a better world and a more secure country here in Britain? May I also welcome the Prime Minister’s open statement that he will continually review the position and listen to the soldiers and those who risk their lives in Afghanistan about what they need in numbers and resources? In doing that, may I lay to rest the accusation that has been made in the past few days that, when we went into Helmand, the configuration was somehow the diktat of politicians and that the Treasury rejected or objected to it? That is not true. The configuration was determined by the chiefs of staff, and the Prime Minister, as Chancellor at the time, met it fully, as I asked him to do. However, circumstances change, the enemy’s tactics change and, of course, the mission changes. He is therefore right to confirm to the House today that he will keep an open mind on what may be additionally necessary to complete today’s mission.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his work as Defence Secretary and in the Government. He was clear about our responsibilities in Afghanistan. What has changed in the past few years is that al-Qaeda’s moving to Pakistan and the build-up of the Pakistan Taliban as a threat to democracy there mean that we must deal with the twin problems of Afghanistan and Pakistan. We need to do it by complementing our military action with work to help both Governments to build up their own strength and by giving what we can in development support so that everyone in those two countries can have a stake in the future.
Following on directly from that, does the Prime Minister share the concern of Pakistan’s Interior Minister about the critical importance of stopping insurgents criss-crossing the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Will he explain why, according to that Minister, whereas Pakistan has managed to set up 1,000 checkpoints on its side of the border, NATO has managed to set up only 100, with only 60 of them working?
I shall certainly look at the statement that the hon. Gentleman cites from Pakistan. We have talked about how we can co-ordinate activity across the borders, how joint discussions can take place between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how we can make the border more secure. The hon. Gentleman is right that, if the Afghan Taliban are reinforced regularly by people coming from Pakistan, that makes the job of our British troops far more difficult. If people can slip back across the border when they are chased to it or to the border areas, that is another threat to the safety of our troops. It is therefore important to our strategy to bring the operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan together.
The Prime Minister’s role in pushing forward the climate change agenda is well understood. However, if we are to engage with the developing world beyond the G8 in combating climate change, it is vital that there should be proper technology transfer from the rich nations to the poorer nations, and at prices that are affordable.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and this is exactly the point that I was talking to Prime Minister Singh about. The Indians will want technology transfer so that they can develop policies to deal with climate change. The transfer of technology is a vital part of our delivering a strategy that will cut carbon emissions successfully. We are prepared to enter into talks with other countries about how we can help them to meet their climate change objectives.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Some £20 billion will be invested in nuclear power over the next few years. We want to see nuclear power moving forward—[Interruption.] This is very interesting. The Opposition have spent a long time saying that they were hostile to nuclear power, but now I am asked, “When is the first planning application?” We will publish our planning statement on nuclear power in due course. It would be sensible in our country to have a cross-party consensus on the need for a balanced energy policy, and I hope that that will not long elude us.
If the Prime Minister looks at the development conclusions, I hope that he will consider countries such as Yemen—the country where I was born—which is 155th out of 177 countries on the poverty index and where half the population live on less than £1.25 a day. We have had many G8s and G20s over the past 10 years. How is this one going to help the people of Yemen?
First, because where there is hunger we want to act immediately, and the urgency of acting on hunger was understood by all countries. President Obama and other countries’ leaders wanted to take that action immediately. Secondly, because we said that the millennium development goals to be met have to be properly accounted for, we have to look in the next year at how far we are from meeting those goals and assess that at the next G8 summit, which will be held in Canada. So there was agreement not only that we had to secure value for money, but that we had to know how far we had got and what we had yet to do to meet the millennium development goals. I hope that that is not abstract, because it is important that countries deliver on the ground what they promise to the people of Yemen and elsewhere.
I listened to what the Prime Minister said about the 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in the past two years. However, it is my understanding that helicopters that can transport troops are the most significant need, so what proportion of that 60 per cent. is troop-transporting helicopters and what is that in raw numbers, please?
It has not been the practice of the Ministry of Defence to reveal the numbers of helicopters in any particular theatre of war. However, we have tried to increase the number of helicopters available for transport and for cover. The addition of the Merlin helicopters at the end of the year will add to the 60 per cent. increase over the past two years, but I repeat what was said by the spokesman for the military on the ground:
“It’s a sad fact that helicopters would not have saved the lives of the individuals last week.”
I hope that people will put the comments that they wish to make into perspective after hearing that statement from someone who is there on the ground in Helmand.
President Karzai has refused to reduce the 20-year sentence on a man sent to prison for accessing a document on the internet about human rights, yet he has given a full pardon to some young thugs who gang-raped a 13-year-old girl. Is it any wonder that Malalai Joya, a human rights award winner and Member of the Afghan Parliament, has said that human rights under Karzai are worse than under the Taliban? Also, is it right that we should ask our young men to put their lives at risk in support of Karzai’s thuggish police and his mediaeval view of human rights?
Yesterday I raised the question of the family law being enacted in Afghanistan, as I have on many occasions. We want to make it absolutely clear that we can support only legislation that guarantees basic rights, particularly those of women in Afghanistan. I urged President Karzai to look at any amendments that were necessary to protect basic women’s rights, particularly the rights of under-age girls in Afghanistan. He assured me that this was what he would do, and I shall be able to report back to the House when asked.
May I join in paying tribute to those who have lost their lives in fighting to protect our country in the mountains of Afghanistan? I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that sufficient resources and manpower are made available to them to do the job. Will he tell me what assessment he has made of the impact of the climate change package on the public finances, on energy costs and on job losses in this country, especially given the fact that a number of important developing countries have refused to sign up to the targets?
First, it is going to be important that all countries sign up to a climate change deal at Copenhagen. We do not want to be in the position that we found ourselves in after Kyoto, in which some countries had signed up and others had not. It is important for the health of the world economy as well as for action on climate change that we persuade the developing countries to join. Secondly, I regard the climate change challenge and the carbon reduction challenge as something that can create jobs and make it possible for our economy to do well in selling to the rest of the world. We believe that, in five years’ time—10 years’ time is probably the better figure to give—there will be more than 1 million people employed in green jobs and carbon-related jobs. I believe that this could be a major provider of wealth for the British economy. If we can get the technology right and sell it to the rest of the world, and create jobs as a result of that, the carbon challenge will be one that we can meet successfully in our own interests as well as in the interests of the world.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I have heard today from a constituent about the kidnapping of a relative of hers by the Taliban in Pakistan, and about his wife and children fleeing for their lives and going into hiding? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the action that we are taking is essential for the cohesion and security of our close friend, Commonwealth partner and ally, Pakistan, whose future, like ours, depends on the success of our action in Afghanistan?
My right hon. Friend makes very wise comments about the connection between Afghanistan and Pakistan. First, let me say to him that if I can help in any way with his constituent’s problem, will he please raise it with me directly and I will investigate what has happened? It is important to recognise that the Pakistan Government and the Pakistan army are now taking action in the Swat valley against the Pakistan Taliban, and that they are preparing to take action in Waziristan against al-Qaeda as well. That is an important development for the future prospects of security in the region. The fact that action is being taken in Pakistan, and that it is being complemented by the action that we are taking in Afghanistan, means that there is a legitimate hope that we can curtail the threat from terrorism and, at the same time, strengthen the institutions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like my right hon. Friend, I want Pakistan to be a strong member of the Commonwealth.
Rather than asking the defence chiefs to give the Prime Minister an assurance that, as he put it in his carefully chosen words, “we have the manpower we need for the current operations”, will he ask them whether we have the manpower successfully to deliver the current strategy? Were he to do so, I think that he might get a different answer.
I have been very clear about what we are doing in Afghanistan. We are trying to take ground, to hold that ground and to make that ground safe for a democracy and for the provision of services to the Afghan people. The exercise, Panther’s Claw, which is being carried out at the moment, has the resources that are necessary and is making real advances. As for what happens after the election period, I have already made it clear that there will be discussions with America—which is reviewing its strategy and has agreed that it will have a review after the Afghan elections—and that we will be part of that reconsideration.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on taking the lead in securing G8 agreement on ambitious climate change targets. I also thank him for his answer to the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). Will my right hon. Friend tell me what steps will be taken to nurture companies that are developing green technologies in the UK, and thus to secure valuable manufacturing jobs while helping us to meet our emissions reduction targets?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: we are asking companies to consider moving into green, low-carbon technologies, and we have to make it possible for them to get the necessary investment to make that happen. In the past two weeks, we have set up the innovation fund, which will enable companies with low-carbon technology innovations to apply for help. We estimate that, along with the £150 million that we are investing, about £1 billion of private investment will come forward. Any company in my hon. Friend’s constituency or elsewhere in the country that wishes to see investment in low-carbon technology and believes that it can benefit from the innovation fund should apply for that support. This is how we can develop the new technologies that we can sell to the world, and the jobs that are essential for the future.
This time last year, soldiers from 16 Air Assault Brigade were losing their lives in Afghanistan. Does the Prime Minister recall that I was critical then of the failure of major European countries to commit troops, helicopters, resources and financial support to that effort in southern Afghanistan. Bearing in mind the Prime Minister’s reference in his statement to burden-sharing and his specific comment that, “In Afghanistan, international forces must take the lead on the front line”, will he name the major European countries that over the past year have committed soldiers on the ground in Helmand province, provided helicopters and other military equipment and provided financial support for the British effort in Helmand?
Estonia and Denmark are working with the United States and Britain in Helmand. Countries present at the NATO summit pledged, I believe, 5,000 more troops for the election period. We set up the helicopter fund, which I think is now £13 million, and countries such as ourselves and France are contributing, while there are, of course, some countries that are prepared to use the helicopter capability, but do not have the resources to make the adjustments necessary for Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will know that France has sent just under 1,000 extra troops over the last few months.
First, I join others in offering my condolences to the families and friends of the soldiers killed in Afghanistan—the genuine concern at the high human cost of that engagement is sometimes debased by cheap political commentary. On the substance of the Prime Minister’s statement, he said that the leaders of the G8 agreed to do what it takes to make progress on growth, commodity prices and trade. On commodity prices, does the Prime Minister believe that that will include curbing the ability of banks and other financial institutions in the future to speculate on commodity indices and futures in a way that drove price surges in food and fuel in the past?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s comments on Afghanistan. As far as oil is concerned, yes, we are looking at what is happening in the oil commodities market at the moment. Prices have gone up by 75 per cent. over the last few weeks—oil was $35 a barrel and has risen to $75. It is probably down today, but oil price rises are very difficult for industry and people to accept if they lead to rising fuel bills. We are looking at what is happening in the marketplace and we will take any necessary regulatory measures.
May I assure my right hon. Friend that the House, and indeed the whole country, will be very reassured by his assurance that we are strictly realistic in our aims in Afghanistan? While part of the realism has to be the defeat of the Taliban, may not a broader political settlement involve some basic accommodation with the tribal factions, notably those of the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun? Sooner or later, that will be essential if we are to succeed.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right that the tribal chiefs and tribes in Afghanistan have to be involved in any settlement that is going to work. Some tribal leaders are, of course, drug lords, and it is difficult to deal with them, but we must involve tribal chiefs and leaderships in any settlement that comes forward. There has been a shift in strategy to enable them to be involved in discussions that I hope will lead to greater reconciliation in Afghanistan. He is absolutely right that it is the combination of the military action we have taken, the building up of Afghan police and security, the development of relationships at the local level with the tribal chiefs, at the same time as pursuing a course of economic and social development, that will bring stability to Afghanistan and ensure that the land is free of terrorist influence.
Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in this country think that the policy in Afghanistan is fundamentally misplaced, that it has done nothing to control the drugs trade, that it has probably increased support for the Taliban and will inevitably involve NATO and other forces crossing the border into Pakistan with the further problems that will result from that? Is it not time for a complete rethink of the entire strategy?
I hope that my hon. Friend will look at the strategy that we announced in April and the way in which we have developed it over the past few months, and will note that President Obama in America is pursuing a course very similar to ours.
The fact of the matter is—and we cannot ignore it—that three quarters of terrorist plots start in the mountainous and border areas around Pakistan. Before 2001, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan; now it is based in Pakistan. If we are to make our streets safe in Britain, we must consider what is happening in those regions. That is why our strategy is not simply military, but is intended—alongside military action—to build up the Afghan forces, to develop the Afghan economy and, of course, to deal with the heroin trade in Afghanistan. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will recognise that people are safer in London because of the actions that we are taking in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. A motion was passed on 3 July last year in relation to removing the preferential tax status of Members of Parliament apropos second homes and capital gains tax. Although it may not have found favour with the House of Commons Commission, it was passed by the House, and therefore should have been implemented. What concerns me is that it has not been implemented. While Sir Christopher Kelly may wisely choose to go beyond it in his recommendations to the House, it remains the policy of the House, and should have been implemented from 3 July. What is the House of Commons Commission going to do to implement the will of the House?
Political Parties and Elections Bill (Extension of Carry-over)
I beg to move,
That the period on the expiry of which proceedings on the Political Parties and Elections Bill shall lapse in pursuance of paragraph (13) of Standing Order No. 80A shall be extended by 15 weeks until 29 October 2009.
The House will be aware that because this is a carry-over Bill, which was introduced on 17 July 2008, it will fall if it does not receive Royal Assent before 17 July 2009. It should receive Royal Assent before that date, or before the House rises for the recess at the very latest. However, it is only prudent for us to take precautions to ensure that it will endure in the event of parliamentary timetabling—which is always strained at this point in the Session—making it impossible for it to complete its passage within that time frame. The extension motion is intended to ensure that the life of the Bill—an important Bill that has spent some time in the House already—will continue beyond 17 July this year if that is necessary for the effective timetabling of parliamentary business. The motion in no way reflects any lessening of the Government’s determination to put the Bill on to the statute book as soon as possible—I hope that Members in all parts of the House will agree on that—but it is only right for us to make provision for all future possibilities.
I agree that the Bill is important, but I am concerned about the date of 29 October that the Government have specified in the motion. Clause 14, for example, introduces important new regulations that will take effect on 1 January, and an Electoral Commission consultation must take place between Royal Assent and that date. What concerns me is that an extension until 29 October will not allow enough time.
That concerns me as well, which is why I stressed our determination to complete the Bill’s passage by the recess at the very latest. I look forward to the co-operation of the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, all Members, because it is important for the Bill to be on the statute book as soon as possible. This is merely a prudent measure to ensure that it does not fall altogether.
I think it fair to say that the Minister and I, and our respective teams, have come a long way with this marathon piece of legislation. What was a very weak and partisan Bill became—bit by bit, debate by debate, in both Houses—a Bill that I think we can broadly say was built on consensus. I am afraid, however, that that seems no longer to be the case. Given that we received the Minister’s amendments only today, no one has yet been able to give proper and full consideration to the impact of clause 8 in its amended state. The Bill contains complicated clauses with significant underlying issues and complex tax implications. As it happens, we think that these provisions still have serious flaws and weaknesses, but that apart, from a procedural point of view, this is no way to make law.
In the other place, the Minister, Lord Bach, said most stridently that he was against what was then called the Campbell-Savours amendment and that it was “unrealistic and cannot work”, yet here we are just one month later with the Government accepting the amendment in principle. The Minister needs to explain why this U-turn came about. Have the Government really become so weak that they have to introduce a series of major amendments to our electoral law just a few hours before they are debated? Frankly, this is outrageous. The Bill has been passing through Parliament for more than 18 months and it is unacceptable that this issue could not have been dealt with earlier within one of the two Houses.
The Government have consistently maintained that they want this Bill—the Minister just did so once again. They want it as a revision of electoral law and party funding, and they also want proceedings on it to be conducted in a consensual manner—and for the most part, after the revision of the overly partisan initial Bill, that has been the case. I should take this opportunity to acknowledge the usual spirit of co-operation that we have enjoyed with the Secretary of State and his Minister. However, it is totally unacceptable for them to come here today and announce this major change of policy, which I first saw only in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian, and then to throw six pages of complicated amendments at us this morning. This is no way to behave; this is no way to act like a responsible Government.
What we are seeing here is the dying embers of a rudderless Government who have once again failed to control their Back Benchers. The reality of this situation is that it is a problem for the Government, not for us. So let me make it very clear that this Bill no longer carries cross-party support. Our position now is that the Government should take this Bill away, rethink it and come back in the next Session with a new Bill that we can debate properly. A significant number of knock-on issues emanate from this, and we need to think them through carefully. For these reasons, we will be asking the House to divide on this carry-over motion, and I recommend that my hon. Friends vote against its extension.
As the Minister said, Standing Order No. 80A(13) provides for carry-overs to last only one year, and that year comes to an end on 17 July, hence the need for an extension motion under Standing Order No. 80A(14).
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) said that the Bill no longer carried consensus because of the Government’s concessions on the clauses to do with tax exile donors. On the substance of that matter, I welcome very much the Government’s concession and, as far as we are concerned, this increases, not decreases, the degree of consensus on the Bill. However, I do share the hon. Gentleman’s concern over the process. This is now quite a short and insignificant Bill that has taken more than a year to get to its current state, but our debates on it have repeatedly been cut short. As a result, in the debates in Committee and on Report, only one of all the Hayden Phillips proposals that Liberal Democrat Members were proposing ever got to a vote. The Government constantly said there was not enough time to debate very important issues. In fact, on Report we ran out of time and could not discuss properly the very issue the hon. Member for Huntingdon has raised. For the Government to come forward at this stage with a carry-over motion on the grounds that we are running out of time, and on that very morning to table new and serious—even though very welcome—amendments strikes me as an abuse of process.
I want these clauses to work, but we have not had time to consider them in the depth that they deserve. I am concerned whether they will properly cover the devices that donors enter into to avoid being captured by the law—but I shall say more about that later. Those of us who might have had legitimate amendments to suggest to the Government’s proposals have had no time to table them. The only thing that we can do is suggest manuscript amendments, and that is far from the proper procedure. As a member of the prospective committee on procedure to be chaired by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), I will raise this matter elsewhere.
The Government should be given a strict deadline to get this Bill through. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid), I do not think that that deadline can possibly be 29 October, because by then it will be too late to implement the Bill. If there were to be an extension of the carry-over, it should not go beyond 21 July. With great reluctance—because I strongly support the Government’s concession on the major issue before us—I will advise my hon. Friends to oppose the carry-over extension.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) is right in his criticism of the process that this Bill has gone through. Procedurally, it has been a shambles. I served on the Committee and vast rafts of amendments were not debated. I sat here through the entire Report stage and, again, rafts of amendments were not considered. I tried to speak on Third Reading, but we ran out of time. There have also been huge gaps between different stages of the Bill.
My concern about the carry-over motion is that it specifies 29 October. I know that the Minister, in response to my intervention, said that the Government’s intention was to get the Bill on the statute book before the parliamentary recess. In that case, why does not the motion simply give the last day before the parliamentary recess—21 July? Why does it specify 29 October?
Clauses 14 and 15 introduce important new rules about election expenses that come into effect on 1 January 2010. Between Royal Assent and 1 January, the Electoral Commission has to conduct a consultation exercise and then issue guidance. The two months between 29 October and 1 January would not be long enough for that to happen. I would have been happy to vote for the motion had it specified 21 July, but as it says 29 October, I will oppose it.
It is a pity that the Government wish to rush through what could turn out to be a bungled and unsatisfactory piece of legislation. Given the problems that candidates for the deputy leadership of the Labour party got into under the law that the Government introduced before, one would have thought that the Government would have seen the need for simpler and clearer legislation and for more time to prepare it so that everyone could buy into it, understand it and comply with it. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members wished to comply with the earlier legislation, but they got into difficulties because it was complicated and not fully understood. That legislation had not been thought through or debated sufficiently so that all could grapple with its complexities.
I have the same worry, only more so, about this Bill, because it has a troubled history. We now learn that consensus has broken down between the main parties on this issue, but the Bill requires consensus and agreement because it relates to the methods of election of people of all parties and none to this House. Surely it requires as much time as Parliament thinks it needs or deserves to try to reach sensible agreement. It is not satisfactory to have a whole set of new proposals put before the House at the last minute.
I cannot understand why we need 80 days off this summer, but that is the Government’s wish. If they are sticking with their 80 days off, there clearly is not time to do this Bill properly. They have an easy answer—they could put on another couple of days next week and get this thing done properly. I do not see the Minister rising to offer to do that. I find it very difficult to explain to constituents why there is not enough time to make our case or to do our job when we are then forced to take an 80-day break when some of us would be happy to work longer to see things through properly.
If we must have this kind of legislation, the Government should let us have the time to debate it. Indeed, why cannot we go longer this week if colleagues already have holidays planned for next week? We could sit later on Wednesday or Thursday to accommodate the need to consider these measures carefully. I think that it is a great tragedy that the Minister will not rise from his seat and offer us that—[Interruption.] Does the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) want to intervene?
I thought that the hon. Gentleman was keen to disagree—I am delighted that I have the agreement of the Labour Back Benchers. They do not wish to intervene and tell me that I am wrong to want more time to discuss these matters. Please will the Minister reconsider, will he see that this has broken any chance of consensus and will he grant us more time? There is plenty of time this week or next week.
Will my right hon. Friend the Minister guarantee that there will be sufficient time to discuss the important issue of politically motivated leaders of local authorities who deliberately try to keep registration at a low level? The Minister will recall that I have given the example in previous debates of the Liberal leader of Islington local authority, who, when approached by the Labour group to have a registration drive before an election, was adamantly opposed to that idea because that was how Liberals won elections. Will there be sufficient time to discuss these important issues?
I am not at all surprised that the Conservative party opposes the Bill. I want to see it come on to the statute book as soon as possible so that we can get more transparency on the funding of political parties and of elections in particular. I know that this Bill will cause problems for the Conservative party because it currently abuses the system. It acts in a way that the public perceive as totally improper in funding campaigns with tens of thousands of pounds even before the starting point of the election is reached. That is an abuse of the system. I want to see that stopped, and that is why I will be supporting the Government.
Did the hon. Gentleman also think that it was an abuse when the incumbent Government decided to add £10,000 on top of already generous allowances so that Labour MPs in particular, who have the majority here—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall abide by your wishes and not be distracted from the motion that we are discussing. I am astounded that the Conservative party, of all parties, should seek to raise today, in this debate, the question of the abuse of Members’ allowances. What brass neck they have.
I want to see the Bill brought forward and that is why I will be supporting the carry-over motion, although I want to see levels of reporting reduced to lower sums so that we have even greater transparency. I also want to see even greater restrictions on spending on elections. I do not want to see this country going down the same route as America on election funding.
As always, we have had a very interesting little exchange on these matters, but the contributions from Opposition Members have been unusually baffling and illogical. Of course, I agree with the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid). He is quite right that we need to get this done as quickly as possible, but the contributions that we have heard from both Opposition Front Benchers demonstrate exactly why we need to allow a little bit of time for the Opposition to get their act together.
Does the right hon. Gentleman realise quite how offensive it is to suggest that the Opposition need time to get our act together, when the Government, on a matter of huge difficulty, which is the legislative equivalent of brain surgery, have produced six pages of amendments on the morning that these matters are to be debated in the House? To suggest that the Opposition need time suggests a lack of self-awareness that beggars belief.
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, I certainly would not want to cause any offence whatsoever, but if he had borne with me just a little, I would have explained precisely why the Opposition need to get their act together. I do not wish to cause him offence, but if he listens to me, I will explain exactly why I said that.
These amendments were debated at some length in the other place. I respectfully point out to Opposition Front Benchers that consensus is a matter not just of two Front-Bench teams reaching agreement, but of the whole House reaching agreement in so far as possible. We also need to take proper recognition of the sentiments in the other place.
In the other place, as the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, a very large number of Conservative peers take the Conservative Whip—200 or so. I wonder whether he can remember how many of them voted against the amendments that the other place passed. I will remind him: it was 40. He will be aware that a significant number of Cross Benchers also voted in favour of the amendments. We have to take account of the sentiment of the other place, and I am surprised that Opposition Front Benchers do not wish to do that. We believe that it is right and proper to do so. We are conscious of the time frame. These issues have been debated. We think that there is sufficient time to debate that.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) that we will have time in later debates to discuss the matter that he has raised, and I will do so in relation to the appropriate clauses.
I am baffled by the contribution of the hon. Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). On the one hand, he seems to be calling for a strict deadline to be imposed on the Bill; on the other hand, he has been vituperative in his criticism of us for not allowing sufficient time to discuss the Bill. As so often, I am afraid, the Liberal Democrats are facing both ways.
With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, we have discussed all these issues at very great length. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] We have, and as hon. Members on both sides of the House want to get on to discuss the Bill’s substance, I beg to hope that the House will now agree to the motion.
The House proceeded to a Division.