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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 498: debated on Monday 2 November 2009


The Secretary of State was asked—

Territorial Army

Before I answer that question, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, who died over the weekend in Afghanistan. He was a man of great courage and dedication, and the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.

The Territorial Army has made a vital contribution to operations in Afghanistan since 2001. It has worked with, and supported, our regular forces in a wide variety of roles, such as acting as medics and trainers, and providing force protection and combat support.

May I join the Secretary of State in paying my respects, and will he join me in paying tribute to the London Regiment, which has served with great distinction in Afghanistan in 2007, and is due to go out again next year? Does he agree that the TA has come into its own in recent years because of the knowledge, experience and maturity that it brings to sensitive operations? Did he take that into account in reaching his sensible decision last week to continue full-scale training of the TA?

I agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution that has been made by the TA over time, and about the skills—niche skills—and maturity that members of the TA can bring to our operational theatres. As he says, the London brigade is the lead cohort for infantry for Herrick 12 next year. Altogether, 130 men will be mobilised on 16 November. I thank that brigade for the part it will play in organising that deployment.

Now that the “one Army” concept has been, at the very least, severely damaged by the decisions of the regular generals last week, how does the Secretary of State believe it will feed through to retention rates within the TA? Has he considered another blow to morale—to all those small employers who have supported so generously their personnel going off on active duty?

I hear what the hon. Lady says about the attitude of the regulars towards the reserves, but I do not think that it is fair at all. There were tough choices to be made, and in-year savings had to be found. They were not in any way easy to find, and they certainly were not easy to find among the regulars. It would be wrong for us to attempt to increase any feelings that there might be between the territorials and the regulars.

In considering the role of the TA as well as the regular Army in Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that armies understand—they do not necessarily have to agree—precisely what their role is? Does he also agree that there is now considerable ambiguity in Afghanistan, especially following the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah from the presidential election, and that there is a need for the international community to build a new consensus on the way forward, which should include all the regional power groups in Afghanistan?

I agree that the politics need to advance a long way in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah’s decision to withdraw, and the decision taken this morning by the electoral commission to accept that there is therefore no need for a second round, point up the difficulties we have in this area, but they are also welcome, because there was no point in a second round when the decision had effectively been taken.

I must say to my hon. Friend that I have talked to troops in theatre, and they know that they are not the answer in Afghanistan—there has to be a political answer—but they clearly know what their role is. They know that they are a force for good, and they know the work they are doing, and they do not allow themselves to be distracted from it by the political problems that they see and understand.

The overall strategic direction of the reserve forces was set by the strategic review of the reserves, a copy of which was placed in the Library of the House on 28 April 2009. This overall direction, and the Government’s commitment to the reserve forces, including the TA, remains unchanged.

As the Secretary of State has just confirmed, the Government’s strategic review of Britain’s reserve forces was published barely six months ago. What part of it recommended cutting 30 per cent. of the TA’s budget?

I cannot recall to what degree the hon. Gentleman engaged with the discussions that we had at the time that we published that review, but it was a strategic review that laid a framework for the future of our reserve forces. It acknowledged the funding issues that would have to be dealt with separately. Just because there were and are resource constraints, it does not mean that we should stop people doing the necessary thinking that needs to take place about the strategic direction of the reserve. Yes, some of the implementation will have to wait until resources are available and will have to stand in line for resources, along with the Department’s other priorities.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision to reverse the cut. Can we now look to the future, and will he use his good offices to rebuild the trust between the TA and Land Forces, and ensure that we never see any future cuts of that sort?

I will seek to do what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that Defence faces tough choices. As I said the other week and repeat again today, in the present circumstances I am unashamed about the fact that Afghanistan is my top priority. If that means that we have to push more resources in that direction, we will seek to do so. Inevitably, that means that other things will have to be brought forward to pay for that increased priority.

Last week’s U-turn leaves unfinished business, which the Secretary of State ducked during Wednesday’s debate about the TA. His silence on in-year cuts to the Army cadets and the Officer Training Corps, leaked in his Department’s 12 October memo, was deafening. Does he not recognise that penny-pinching in relation to the cadets puts high-quality TA and regular recruitment at risk? What effect does he think that that will have downstream on our ability to support current and future operations?

Where is the clarity about the decisions that would have to be taken by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues? They criticise everything that is done, but are not prepared or able to say what they would do. Tough choices need to be taken, and if people are trying to present themselves as capable of governing, they have to be prepared—as the shadow Chancellor knows—to take those choices. It is clear that the shadow Defence team are not.

Reserve Forces

3. What his most recent assessment is of the adequacy of training facilities for the reserve forces; and if he will make a statement. (296683)

We have adequate training facilities for the reserve forces, but they are not organised in the most efficient way. That is why, as part of ongoing efficiency work, we are seeking to identify several rationalisation measures.

When I asked a written question last week about the future of the Browndown training facility in my constituency, I was told that there was a review of operations and several rationalisation measures had been identified. If rationalisation means the closure or restricted use of training facilities, it would have a devastating effect on cadet and reserve activity. What future can we look to for cadets in particular, as they are so important for future recruitment?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a real interest in this issue within his constituency. I do not believe that his statement that the rationalisation measures will have a devastating effect will be borne out by the evidence. It is a reality that as a part of ongoing efficiency work and a Department-wide exercise to deliver savings, we have conducted a review of operations and identified several rationalisation measures. Browndown camp has been included in that review, and while at this stage no firm decision on the future of the facility has yet been taken, I can give him the reassurance that whatever our eventual decision is, it is anticipated that parts of Browndown, in particular the dry training area, will continue to be used.

RAF Search and Rescue

4. What his plans are for the future of RAF search and rescue bases in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (296684)

The Government remain committed to 24/7 search and rescue cover across the UK. I have recently instructed planned crew reductions to be reversed to ensure that the first-class service that the RAF provides can continue to be sustained. We are aiming for the changes to be in place by early summer 2010. In the meantime, to avoid excessive strain on the force and to manage resources better, a programme of planned, rotating and temporary night closures will be necessary while we train the additional crews. The harmonised search and rescue helicopter service will continue to be provided from 12 UK bases.

I welcome the Minister’s decision to reverse a mistaken earlier decision to cut the number of crews. Given the number of occasions on which RAF Boulmer’s search and rescue has been put out of action, because of either 12-hour operation or failures, will he give considerable attention to the need to maintain full 24-hour cover wherever possible, and can he tell us what implications that has for the privatisation contract?

We intend to continue with the PFI project for search and rescue, which will provide an effective way forward. A decision was taken last year that we could operate on the basis of 24 crews. As soon as it became clear to me that that was not possible, I immediately instructed that we move back up to 28 crews, which I know the right hon. Gentleman welcomed. I also know that he and a number of other Members have particular concerns about the issue. It is extremely complicated, but as I said to him when we spoke on Friday, I shall be more than happy in the next week to arrange a meeting to discuss it.

How many search and rescue aircraft are operationally available today, and what is the shortfall in the number of pilots required?

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure immediately following questions. The original decision was to move from 28 crews down to 24. We are at 26 crews today, but I have reversed that decision and we will go back up to 28. However, even where there is an ad hoc closure at one of the bases, we meet our response times by providing search and rescue from a neighbouring base.

I welcome what the Minister said about the short-term measures that he is taking, but will he clarify the situation post-2012? Is it still his intention that three of the 12 bases will run on a 12-hour basis, not on a 24-hour basis? There is grave concern in the south-west, where people simply cannot understand why, if three bases are to run on a 12-hour basis, two of them—Portland and Chivenor—should run contiguously, leaving Culdrose to cover the Atlantic, the English channel, the Bristol channel, the south-west peninsula and Wales.

The answer is yes. We still intend to operate three of the bases on a 12-hour basis post-2012. We have been able to reach that conclusion because since we started the process, the industry solutions available have meant faster helicopters and faster response times. However, as I said earlier, I recognise the detailed concern about the issue, and I will include the hon. Gentleman in the meeting that I shall organise very shortly.


5. What recent assessment he has made of the internal and external threats to the military security of Afghanistan. (296685)

10. What recent assessment he has made of the internal and external threats to the military security of Afghanistan. (296690)

In Afghanistan, the threat is from the Taliban-led insurgency, which continues to rely on the use of improvised explosive devices against our forces. That is why this year we have deployed 200 specialist counter-IED troops, together with new equipment, including vehicles, and increased flying hours for unmanned aerial vehicles, to find and defuse mines, and IEDs and to identify and target the networks that produce them. Regionally, the activity of violent extremists in Pakistan is a threat to both wider security and Afghanistan itself. More widely, the international community has trained more than 90,000 Afghan troops. The new Afghan national army will establish its headquarters in Helmand next year to take part in operations in partnership with units from the international security assistance force. Finally, the commander of ISAF, General McChrystal, has said that the military security situation in Afghanistan is serious, but that we can succeed.

The Secretary of State will have seen from press reports at the weekend that the most senior British Army officer killed in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, wrote to his superiors just before he died warning that the shortage of helicopters would cost lives, as more journeys would have to be taken by road. He said that the system for managing helicopter movements was

“very clearly not fit for purpose”.

Why is that?

The hon. Gentleman will have seen and heard, I hope, the Chief of the Defence Staff on the television at the weekend explaining the helicopter situation and saying what I have said in the House repeatedly, which is that helicopters are not a panacea. Yes, any commander would like more helicopters, but people plan operations on the basis of the equipment that they have. I also have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I spent the weekend listening to one of his hon. Friends telling the world about how we could have more helicopters in theatre by Christmas, as provided by one of his mates. He cannot be a very close mate, because I do not think that he gave him the detail.

Given that our troops in theatre clearly find it difficult to work with the Afghan national police, because of issues of corruption and the ANP’s close links with the Taliban, and given that our NATO allies the Germans are meant to be sorting out the ANP, does the Secretary of State think that the Germans are going far enough or fast enough to address the problem?

The development of the Afghan national police is a serious long-term issue that has to be addressed. Yes, the Germans are the lead nation in that regard, but we all need to make a contribution. The progress that has been made with regard to the Afghan national army needs to be speeded up. We can do that through partnering and we can get to a position where the Afghan national army is increasingly able to look after security in its country. But the population will depend on a non-corrupt police force, so effort has to be put in that direction, and it has to be led by the Afghan Government themselves. Those are the things that we need to be saying to the new Afghan Administration.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the continued risking of British troops’ lives in Afghanistan will be contingent on an acceptance from the obviously corrupt President Karzai of a significant dispersal of power away from him?

Now that we at last have an end to this election period, we need to prevail on the Afghan Government to be inclusive, to build good governance in the various different parts of the country—we have seen the benefit of that in Helmand province, where we have had a good governor for some time—and to tackle the very deep levels of corruption in Afghanistan. Unless the Afghan people can see a Government who are of benefit to them, all the efforts of our brave forces will not get us very far. That has to be the main focus of our effort and that of our allies.

What progress has my right hon. Friend made in removing the restrictions on the Gibraltar Regiment’s deployment to Afghanistan so that it may be allowed to play its full and proper part?

I think that in the very near future we will be able to make an announcement that my hon. Friend will be pleased with.

Like many other Members, I have been travelling here through the day, so I was slightly taken by surprise when the Secretary of State referred to the election period as being over. Perhaps I have missed the lunch time news. [Hon. Members: “Yes, you have.”] Mr. Speaker, we will all be very relieved that British troops’ lives are not being risked to enable us to go through the absurdity of a Soviet-style election with one candidate.

Last week’s Nimrod report is of significance in Afghanistan because we have been using Nimrod assets there a great deal for the security of our services. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the lessons will be learned from the last strategic defence review, and that the Nimrod system will not be in the turmoil that it was found to have been in previously?

The hon. Gentleman has missed the news that the electoral commission has announced that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with Abdullah Abdullah having withdrawn from the race, there is no need for a second round. That in itself will be good news to our forces in Afghanistan.

With regard to the Nimrod, the fault was found with our airworthiness systems in the MOD, and we will have to look at the detail of the report. I gave the House a commitment that I would come back to it before the Christmas recess with the lessons that we have learned, and with our plans for how to deal with the recommendations of the report.

The whole House, including the Liberal Democrats, will be glad that the farce of a run-off election in Afghanistan with a single candidate has been averted, because to have put our troops at risk to secure an election process with only one possible outcome would have been an obscenity.

The Prime Minister said on 13 July that the extra British troop deployment was until the end of the Afghan election period. When he phoned President Karzai today to congratulate him, did they discuss troop numbers? When will we get a clear statement of the Government’s intentions?

The Prime Minister has already announced, a week or two ago, that we would extend the additional troops that we put in for the election period and make them permanent. We have also announced, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, that, if certain conditions are met, we will agree to a further troop uplift of another 500 troops, taking us to 9,500.

I hoped that we might get some clarity here. The Government recently stated that a further potential troop uplift would be to augment the mission, improve the protection for our armed forces and speed up the training of the Afghan national army. The Government then applied conditions, including an increased commitment from European NATO members. As the Bratislava meeting last week made it clear that they will not make that commitment, how long will the Government allow that issue to be a smokescreen for inaction? If their reasons—the safety of our forces and the success of the mission—are so compelling, why the delay?

It is not a smokescreen at all. The hon. Gentleman ought to welcome the fact that we are not prepared to put in the further troops until we can satisfy ourselves that the equipment levels are adequate for the increased force, or until we have had an opportunity to talk in detail to all our allies, including the United States of America, about what contribution they are making. Heaven knows there are people on the hon. Gentleman’s side—including the hon. Gentleman himself—who complain all the time about burden sharing. Now, here we are, trying to talk to people about their own burden and their preparedness to put forces into Afghanistan, yet he wants us to say, “Let’s forget about that and put the extra troops in now.” That really is nonsense.

The lack of clarity in the Government’s position will be extremely worrying for our forces. Let me try another angle. It is becoming increasingly clear that a major threat to our security comes from Pakistan. Given the apparent discovery in Waziristan last week of passports and documents relating to the Madrid train bombers and the 9/11 hijackers, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind the House and the country that our military mission in Afghanistan and the actions being taken in Pakistan are primarily about national security, and that reconstruction and development, while complementary, are not the reason why our troops are in Afghanistan?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman: I have never tried to suggest otherwise. The reason why we keep our troops in Afghanistan is directly and primarily associated with our national security and our national interests. What the Pakistanis are doing on their side of the border is obviously complementary to that. We should help them where they are prepared to accept assistance, and congratulate them on the headway that they have made and their greater preparedness to take on terrorists in their own country.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to ask his Dutch and Canadian colleagues whether they are prepared to reconsider their decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan?

At the recent informal NATO meeting, I discussed Afghanistan with my Canadian counterpart and the Dutch Defence Minister. As my hon. Friend knows, they both have plans to reduce their commitment: the Dutch in 2010 and the Canadians in 2011. I am hopeful that they will continue to do the maximum that they feel able to do, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that I did not get the level of comfort that I would have liked from either of those two colleagues at that meeting.

Gray Report

6. What changes are planned to be made to the practices and processes within his Department in light of the recent Gray report on defence acquisition. (296686)

7. What steps he plans to take to reform the practices and processes of his Department in response to the Gray report on defence acquisition. (296687)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his oral statement to the House of 19 October a number of steps that we will take, in the light of the Gray report, to build on earlier and current reforms and to deliver a radical improvement in performance. Building on this, we intend to publish a wider, more detailed strategy for acquisition reform in the new year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he not accept that the Gray report shows the need for an immediate strategic defence review? Will that be enshrined in law, and will we now get the 10-year and 20-year rolling equipment budgets that the report recommends?

We were already committed, before the publication of the Gray review, to a strategic defence review, which will start next year. We are undertaking quite a lot of preparatory work for that now.

The Minister will have seen reports about the joint strike fighter and the aircraft carriers. Can he confirm whether those reports are accurate, and whether they will result in a reduction in aircraft, a reduction in the specification for the aircraft carriers, or both? In the context of the Gray report, does the Minister think that any such changes would represent value for money?

Order. There were at least two questions there, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that one answer will suffice.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to say quite clearly on the record that the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers are complete rubbish. There is no suggestion—it has never been in our minds at all—to re-specify either of the two aircraft carriers. There has been no change in that programme, and neither has there been any change in our joint strike fighter programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already committed to purchasing the first three aircraft.

As the Gray report refers to major procurement activities, will the Minister tell me, and the House, what recent discussions he has had with commanders on the ground about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment for our troops in theatre—such as the Stourbridge war hero, 19-year-old Michelle Norris, who risked her life and was the first woman to gain the military cross for her work?

She was a particularly gallant lady, providing a wonderful and inspiring example to us all. The answer to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to raise this matter, is that we attempt to achieve the very best in personal protection, the very best in the latest techniques to counter improvised explosive devices, the very best armoured and protected vehicles for our troops, the very best in communications equipment and the very best in personal equipment. So far as personal equipment is concerned, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that we now have the new Osprey assault armour—the latest version of it. The Osprey was brought in only two or three years ago—it was then the best of its time—and now we have the Osprey assault and the new mark 7 helmet. The latest roulement of troops out to Afghanistan a month ago were carrying that new armour, in respect of which they had undertaken pre-deployment training. Our principle in supplying Afghanistan with kit is a continuous pipeline of improvement, and the best available that money can buy at any point.

Page 38 of Bernard Gray’s report says that

“between £1 billion and £2.2 billion is being lost each year as a result of the failure to control this overheated equipment programme”.

Does the Minister agree?

Of course I noticed that rather startling figure when I read the Gray report myself. The right hon. Gentleman, who has obviously read the report, will also have noticed that there is no evidential basis for that statement anywhere in it, nor is there an evidential basis for it anywhere else that I have ever come across. The very fact that the figure ranges between £1 billion and more than £2 billion shows, I think, how imprecise that statement inevitably is.

Does my hon. Friend have plans to reduce elements in the procurement programme to match the number of personnel to oversee that programme and the resources to implement it?

We continue to keep our equipment programme under constant review. The whole purpose of having an equipment programme—this is my job—is to ensure that it is managed on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis so that it is coherent, and so that we can make such changes as are required as a result of changing operational or other priorities. At any one time, of course, it must also be affordable. We can spend only the money we have in any one year, and we always meet our contractual liabilities. This programme is constantly under review and constantly under management. There is no question of suddenly taking one decision and viewing it as valid for all time.

The Government’s stewardship of the defence of the realm has suffered two damning indictments in two weeks—the Gray report and also the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod. In considering how to respond to the devastating criticism contained in the Bernard Gray report, will the Government ensure that the lessons in the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod are also fully learned so that the welfare of our armed forces is given priority over cost-cutting in the Ministry of Defence?

In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s concern—he is trying to make a party political point—I think he has fundamentally misunderstood something important: the Haddon-Cave report, although it produced some very serious and worrying conclusions, is focused on the issue of airworthiness, whereas the Gray report is entirely about procurement. Clearly, we take into account in our procurement reforms—about which I have already made a statement—any relevant conclusions from the Haddon-Cave report, but the prime issue in that report is the procedures for delivering airworthiness certificates for our aircraft.


8. What steps the Government have taken to respond to requests from military commanders for additional troops in Afghanistan made in 2009. (296688)

In April this year, after considering options in consultation with the service chiefs, we announced an uplift in force levels to 9,000 for the period of the election in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister confirmed on 14 October that we had agreed to maintain UK troops at that level beyond the election period.

We have also agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect subject to the following conditions: first, that the new Afghan Government bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces; secondly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach and burden sharing across the international coalition; and thirdly, that military commanders are satisfied that the extra troops are properly equipped for what they are being asked to do.

In all, that means that, in principle, we have increased our troop numbers by about 1,500 in just over six months.

Does that increase mean that the Government are now complying fully with military advice on the correct level of troops to tackle the current tasks in Afghanistan?

The Secretary of State spoke of the requirement for the extra troops to be properly equipped. Is he saying, in effect, that he has received no offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan?

I have received lots of offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan. What I have not received is an offer for what was described over the weekend as the ability, for the sum of £7 million a month, of about 20 Chinooks to ferry our troops around.

That is what was said on the television by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who is now remonstrating with me from a sedentary position. We do have, and we will assess, offers of helicopters for logistics and supplies. If any Member wants to encourage someone to put in a bid for a new contract in that regard, we shall be happy to evaluate it, but the idea that we can secure additional lift for our troops in the way that our nation was told we could at the weekend is total, complete and utter nonsense.

Will my right hon. Friend add a fourth condition to the three that he listed—that there should be substantial progress in the elimination of corruption at the centre in Afghanistan and in Kandahar province? Will he bear in mind that any further measures relating to presidential elections will be a pointless and dangerous exercise until that progress is made?

I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential for the Afghan Government to address the issue of corruption and governance, and to reach out to the whole of the Afghan population as well.

9. What is his most recent assessment of the progress of military operations in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (296689)

We continue to work with the Afghan national security forces and ISAF partners to bring security to the Afghan people. In Helmand, the Afghan Government and security forces now have an increasingly permanent presence in the population centres where it matters most, and progress in military operations ultimately contributes to the international civilian reconstruction and development effort.

Given the large and worrying number of people who say that they do not understand why our forces are in Afghanistan, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a need to define the mission better, and to propagandise it?

I think we all need to share responsibility for that, and to help in any way we can. As I have said—and I do not think that any member of any of the three parties, including Back Benchers, disagrees with me—our presence in Afghanistan can be justified only by a threat to our national security, and the overwhelming importance that the region has for our national interests here in the United Kingdom.

Given my right hon. Friend’s acknowledgement of the importance of building civilian and military capacity across Pakistan, will he assure me that he is satisfied that the large and increasing number of civilians working in Afghanistan are provided with the appropriate level of security by private security companies and the Afghan army, and that it is of a standard with which our military commanders are also satisfied?

The level of threat in Afghanistan is a very real problem for civilians trying to operate in that country. There are, of course, circumstances in which private military companies can and do provide the necessary level of security, and our forces are more than happy not to have that burden themselves.

Territorial Army

What plans does the Secretary of State have to assist, financially or otherwise, TA units such as mine in Norwich to re-book the training that has been cancelled due to the budgetary fiasco of this Government’s making?

We believe that it should be possible to recommence the training within the next couple of weeks. Obviously, that may be problematical for some people, but we hope that they will be able to recommence as soon as is practicable.

Pre-deployment Training

12. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of availability of equipment for pre-deployment training in the UK. (296692)

The balance of equipment between operational theatres and training is kept under constant review. The training requirement is dynamic, as new pieces of equipment are brought into service and as changes are made to the size and composition of deployed forces. In general, the quantity of equipment available for pre-deployment training is increasing.

Where pre-deployment training is inadequate due to a lack of equipment, what extra training takes place in the field of operations before our troops are put into harm’s way, particularly in the use of vehicles and electronic counter-measure devices on vehicles?

Let me be very clear: we do not deploy troops where there is an unacceptable balance of risk. Rightly, our priority—I think that Members throughout the House will agree with this—is to get the best possible equipment into theatre, but we are certainly increasing the availability of equipment for training. For example, between July and October we achieved a 50 per cent. increase in the number of Ridgback and Jackal vehicles available for pre-deployment training. However, wherever there is a gap, that is addressed so that we do not deploy troops in circumstances where there is an unacceptable balance of risk.

Is the Minister not aware of the National Audit Office report earlier this year that said that there is

“a shortage of appropriate theatre-specific equipment to train on”?

I can confirm from my knowledge of the Welsh Guards, who have just returned from theatre to Aldershot, that they did not have sufficient quantities of Mastiff equipment to train on here, with the result that they had to train in-theatre, did not understand the maintenance of the equipment and as a consequence suffered more maintenance problems. Will the Minister address the issue more urgently, and provide more equipment if it is required so that the guys who are going out on operations are properly trained before they get there?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the past three years we have spent an additional £10 billion on new equipment. He also knows that he and his colleagues are not proposing one penny more in additional defence expenditure than this Government are. In the current circumstances, the priority has to be the delivery of equipment to theatre. That is what we are doing, but we do not do that, and we do not deploy troops, where there is an unacceptable balance of risk.

Nuclear Weapons

13. What recent progress has been made towards procurement of the next generation of the nuclear deterrent; and if he will make a statement. (296693)

The concept phase for the future deterrent programme is making good progress. The defence board will consider that work later this year.

I am pleased to hear that it is making good progress, but the Secretary of State will know that both the Government and the Conservative party are committed to a nuclear deterrent, and yet this one is beginning to wear out. When will we have an announcement on when there will be a replacement?

All our plans were laid out in the 2006 White Paper. The position has not changed on my side of the House; the only person who has brought the position into question is the shadow Chancellor, who appears to have waged—

Since Britain launched its first nuclear-powered submarine, HMS Dreadnought, in 1960, 15 vessels have been taken out of service and defuelled, and 12 more are due for that before 2040. Will the Secretary of State say what the plans are for the dumping of dangerous radioactive waste? In this weekend’s newspapers we saw details of 12 alleged sites from a Ministry of Defence “secret list”.

Plans will be drawn up for the disposal of nuclear submarines, and a proper consultation will take place as soon as is appropriate on any plans that we have, so my hon. Friend should not listen to scare stories that he reads in the newspapers.

14. What recent progress his Department has made in its assessment of the UK’s nuclear defence needs; and if he will make a statement. (296694)

The UK’s nuclear deterrence policy remains as that set out in the 2006 White Paper and, as is clear in that paper, is kept under continuous review. The Prime Minister recently announced in New York that, subject to continued progress in multilateral negotiations and a report on technical feasibility, he would wish with the next class of deterrent submarines to deliver a posture of one on patrol at all times and a fleet of three, rather than four, submarines. He has directed the National Security Committee to report by the end of the year on those two issues, and the MOD is closely involved in this work.

The Secretary of State talks entirely about a traditional submarine-based deterrent. Given that the future nuclear threat may well come not from established states but from irregular groups and organisations, will he consider other, more flexible deterrents that use new technologies, rather than big submarines that have big missiles on them?

It is the Government’s policy to maintain a minimum strategic nuclear deterrent; it is not our policy to develop a range of tactical nuclear weapons that can be used in the kind of circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman mentions. I do not believe that that is the policy of his party, which appears to be a bit flaky on the maintenance of the strategic deterrent.

Topical Questions

As I have said to the House before, Afghanistan is the main effort of my Department for the near future, along with the preparation of a Green Paper that will lead up to a strategic defence review the other side of an election.

On service mental health, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to address the problem, highlighted by the Royal British Legion, that up to 85 per cent. of GPs across England and Wales have no awareness of his Department’s medical assessment programme or the reservists’ mental health programme?

The Department has a good record on veterans’ mental health: we have six veterans’ health pilot schemes, as well as the medical assessment programme, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, at the hospital across the river. I shall also make an announcement later this year on how we can track veterans through the NHS system—that work will be done with the Department of Health.

T3. Given the Haddon-Cave review’s comprehensively damning indictment of QinetiQ’s role in passing the fatally flawed Nimrod MR2 into service, will the Secretary of State commit to reviewing the defence training contract under which, as part of the Metrix consortium, that expensively privatised disaster, QinetiQ, again plans to use an integrated project team? (296709)

We will respond to all the recommendations in the Haddon-Cave report before the Christmas recess.

T2. With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, may I just pass on my condolences to the friends and family of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid? Although not a constituent of mine, he was based at 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, which is based at the Vauxhall barracks in my constituency. He was, sadly, killed in Afghanistan on Saturday, and that is a salutary reminder of the dangers that that regiment faces every day. To follow up on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb), I should mention that a distinguished former serviceman in my constituency attempted to access NHS services recently and discovered that the John Radcliffe hospital, his local community hospital and his own GP’s surgery were completely unaware of the protocol between the Veterans Agency and the NHS. It took him five months— (296707)

The question is: given that it took this man five months to see a consultant, will the Minister do the most that he can to ensure that all our GPs and hospitals are aware of this important protocol?

The commitment to priority access for veterans was part of last year’s Command Paper. We have made great strides and will be producing the annual report shortly. I will also be announcing on Wednesday that the welfare pathway pilot will be conducted first in Kent, to ensure not only that local government takes the case of veteran servicemen and women as a top priority but that local NHS service providers do so too.

T5. Could my hon. Friend give me an update on the progress being made generally with the implementation of the Command Paper to which he has just referred and the work of the external reference group? (296711)

The annual report will be produced shortly but, as I have said, that is a first step. Building on that, I want to ensure that the service Command Paper is embedded at a local level so that local councils, the NHS and other providers think of veterans when they are formulating policy, and the commitments that we gave in the Command Paper are carried out in practice. Clearly, in some areas that is not happening.

T4. Is the Secretary of State confident that Pakistan can extinguish the threat from al-Qaeda and the Taliban on its side of the border? (296710)

As I have said, the Pakistanis should be congratulated on the efforts that they are making, but we should not underestimate the degree to which they have a problem. We have seen a concerted attack by terrorist organisations on the population centres in Pakistan over the past few months, so although the Pakistani military has made considerable progress, the terrorists are far from prepared to give in to the kind of assault to which they are being subjected.

Is it not necessary, after eight years, to consider what precisely can be achieved by the British troops in Afghanistan? I am against further troops being sent and I believe that a reappraisal of our entire position there is necessary and what the public want.

Although we have been in Afghanistan for eight years, we have only been there in any numbers in the south of the country for the past three years. There has already been a very substantial troop uplift, largely as a result of American troop uplifts in the south in the past year or so. To retreat from a counter-insurgency operation at this point would, I think, be a big mistake.

T6. On Afghanistan, the Secretary of State has spoken about the inadequacies of the Afghan National police, the corruption of the Government, the difficulties in Pakistan and equipment deficiencies. Although our strategy might be broadly correct, after eight years, does he think that it is working? (296712)

The hon. Gentleman talks about equipment and does so within the frame of eight years. Enemy tactics change—they have changed considerably and massively in the past year—[Interruption.] Yes, ours must change too. To suggest that the equipment that we had eight years ago is applicable to the campaign as it is run today is nonsense.

The Government’s hope is that the endemically corrupt Karzai regime, which has already stolen $20 billion of international aid, will now eliminate corruption among the depraved, drug-addicted thieves of the Afghan police. How will it do that?

My hon. Friend preaches a notion of despair as regards anything that can be done in Afghanistan. We need to accept, first—I am not sure that my hon. Friend does—that Afghanistan poses a direct threat to us in the United Kingdom and that something therefore needs to be done, and, secondly, that the entire region, and Pakistan in particular, is massively important to our security in the United Kingdom. I resile from the despair that he preaches.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the money that was restored to the Territorial Army training budget last week will be committed beyond April next year into the following financial year? When he is looking forward to training budgets, will he bear in mind that units that are based in island communities have needs that relate to recruitment and retention because of geography?

We are aware of the geographical needs of the island communities, and we showed that with regard to the decision that was taken on the ranges not so far away. We have not yet settled our budget for next year.

Would my hon. Friend the Veterans Minister like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Royal British Legion on the 2009 poppy appeal and the benefits that we receive from it?

I certainly would, and I should like to draw the House’s and public’s attention not only to the poppy appeal, but to the work that the Royal British Legion and other service charities do throughout the year. I should also like to put on record and thank the army of volunteers who work for the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association and for the Royal British Legion who—week in, week out, without pay—assist and help service veterans.

T7. In Crewe and Nantwich, there are a number of veterans who were affected by the British testing of nuclear weapons in Australia and Christmas Island during the 1950s and 1960s. Will the Secretary of State tell the House what progress has been made, as part of the investigation into the health needs of those nuclear-test veterans, with the follow-up to the Rowland report on chromosomal damage, as the Ministry of Defence promised? (296713)

I announced in a written answer earlier this year that we would set up a study of the health effects and health needs of nuclear test veterans. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association has been meeting my officials to scope the study. We are now putting it out to tender, to ensure that we get a competent organisation to undertake it, and I will keep the House informed as that work goes on.

I had the privilege of being in the Gulf with the Royal Navy during the summer recess. The temperature was about 90 to 100°, yet on level 2, naval personnel still have to wear heavy-duty gear all through the summer. Can we not talk to the Australians, Japanese or someone else to consider fireproof, lightweight uniforms, so that naval personnel can be not just comfortable but more effective?

We look at all those issues to ensure that we can do things most effectively, but there is no substitute, and we will not take shortcuts on the safety of our personnel in operation. We will keep looking, but we will not come up with a quick-fix solution that would put people at risk.

T8. Apart from the United States, what representations have been made to other NATO Governments about increasing troop numbers in Afghanistan? (296714)

Representations have been made and discussions have been held across the piece, not only in NATO but in other ISAF-supporting nations. Some commitments have been made, although they are small at the moment. We await the outcome of President Obama’s deliberations on the McChrystal review.

T9. The tragic death of Colonel Thorneloe brought back to our minds the scandalous shortfall in helicopters. Over the weekend, it became clear—the Secretary of State himself said—that the Government had had offers of helicopters. So it is clear that this involves a financial resource and therefore a political problem. It should have been answered by a Minister. Why did they put up Sir Jock Stirrup to answer the question? Will they continue to compound their strategic incompetence with political cowardice? (296715)

The right hon. Gentleman should have watched the weekend television with a bit more care—my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces answered questions in this regard as well—and it is clear that we have offers of helicopters for supplies and logistics. What we do not have, and have not had, is an offer of helicopters of the kind of capability and with the defensive aids that would be necessary to ferry our troops around in a very dangerous theatre. That is the point, and the claims made over the weekend are not true.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly and rightly said that many things have changed in Afghanistan since our original intervention in 2001. May I put it to him that one of the things that have changed is that Afghanistan is no longer a threat to this country? Al-Qaeda has moved elsewhere; it does not need caves in the Tora Bora mountains now, because it is able to operate from safe homes in four or five different countries, probably including Britain.

But the only reason that they are not in Afghanistan is because our troops are there. If they were not there, the Afghan Government would not be capable of standing up on their own. They would fall. There is a high risk that the Taliban Government would be back, and those camps would therefore be welcomed back in Afghanistan and would resume the position of threat that they once held.

The statement on helicopters last week suggested to the House that we are seriously looking at cutting expenditure—those were the reports in the press over the weekend—and that the MOD staff are not on top of the issue. I would like reassurances that those reports are nonsensical.

The position on helicopters is clear. Let me say solemnly to the House, because this is an important matter, that no commander, no senior officer, has ever said to me in Afghanistan or here—that includes Sir Richard Dannatt, who I think has a certain credibility with those on the Opposition Benches—that there are insufficient helicopters in theatre to enable our troops to fulfil their mission, but all the commanders would like to have more. That is why we are supplying more. The House has already heard the figures for the past three years—an increase of 60 per cent. in helicopters and of more than 80 per cent. in helicopter hours available. On top of that, in the past year or so, we have refitted the Lynx helicopters with new engines—22 of those, which will be available next year—

In October 2007 the Government ranked the Ministry of Defence as the sixth most important Department. Last week it was revealed that it is now the 21st most important Department. Why on earth have the Government taken this action?