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Defence

Volume 503: debated on Monday 11 January 2010

The Secretary of State was asked—

National Security

1. Whether his Department's forthcoming Green Paper will include an assessment of the contribution to national security of the UK's EU and transatlantic relationships. (309564)

Effective international partnerships are crucial to our security as a nation and we will benefit from strengthening multilateral and bilateral co-operation. We expect to build further on both our European Union and transatlantic relationships. Those who think that it is a choice misunderstand where our interests lie. The EU, NATO and our bilateral relationships are complementary one to another. The Green Paper will address that issue.

The world faces threats from global terrorism, global warming and global poverty. Those international issues require international solutions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK’s defence is best served by strong alliances with mainstream parties in Europe, not with those on the lunatic fringe?

Totally. Those who believe that the EU has no effective role to play in our security, of whom there appear to be some in the House, really miss the point. As I said, the EU is complementary to our other alliances and relationships and can play a very significant part in our security. We should welcome that and build those relationships.

Although I agree with the burden of what the Secretary of State says, it is nevertheless true that because of the European Union’s poverty of ambition and its disorganisation, it needs to be directed towards the military operations for which it is equipped and in which it is able to take part. Does he agree that stabilisation operations are ideal for the EU, but that we need to look to NATO for the serious war-fighting operations?

I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but not exclusively. The EU can play a role. We should not build concrete alternative structures, but what the EU can do and is doing should be complementary to NATO. After all, most of its members are also members of NATO. I was at fleet command in Northwood only a few days ago, where the EU is working well with NATO on anti-piracy and making a real contribution.

Although the transatlantic relationship will obviously remain our most important alliance, does the Secretary of State agree that in the 21st century the Americans will increasingly look towards the Pacific and less towards the Atlantic? Will the Green Paper offer an opportunity to reappraise the military relationship with some of our key European partners and move it on to a scale that we have not seen in the past?

Our bilateral relationship with the United States is, as the hon. Gentleman said, the most important security and defence relationship that we have and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. However, no serious people in the US expect us to do anything other than build good working relationships with our European neighbours and the European Union. They see that as a positive thing, so there is no competition in that regard, as some people appear to think there is or should be.

Given the state of the defence budget, the fact that we are fighting a war and the possible danger of duplication by investing sums of money in European alternatives to NATO defence structures, what possible justification can there be for spending any significant sums at all on the duplicatory European defence capability?

The hon. Gentleman would have to explain exactly where we have done that and where there has not been effect from European Union involvement in the operations that it has undertaken. As I said, I recently visited fleet command, where we have run Operation Atalanta without any structures and without building any unnecessary bureaucracy. We have got that operation up and running in pretty short order, under a European flag and co-operating with NATO. Why is his party so totally opposed to such effective operations?

Force Levels (Afghanistan)

2. What recent discussions he has had on the contributions of NATO and other allies to force levels in Afghanistan. (309565)

8. What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on their contributions to coalition forces in Afghanistan. (309572)

We continue to press our international security assistance force allies to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. We will encourage a focus on what they can realistically deliver, including military and non-military assets and other contributions.

Will the Secretary of State indicate in a little more detail how the London conference could be used to ensure greater military and political burden sharing across the alliance?

There has already been a significant response to General McChrystal’s requests for additional forces for Afghanistan, and we are getting pretty close to the number that he asked for. Of course, we will try to address burden sharing even more to ascertain how people can co-operate and help one another and the contribution that they are capable of making. As I have said in the House previously, not all our partners can make the contributions that others can, but there are things that they can and should do to help. There will be other issues to address at the NATO conference, such as trying to get a framework for transition and maintaining momentum and progress in Afghanistan, but burden sharing will be an important part of the discussions.

For those NATO countries that either do not contribute troops or do so with restrictive caveats, what other forms of assistance are being requested, such as police training, money and development professionals? What are those countries pledging?

I heard “Not a lot” from a sedentary position. We are approaching the figure of 40,000 additional troops that General McChrystal requested. The Americans have overwhelmingly provided them and we have made a substantial contribution, but so have other partners—it is wrong to deny that. The countries to which my hon. Friend refers are providing all the things that he mentioned, such as money—sometimes nations have the ability to make a military contribution in Afghanistan but cannot finance it, so bringing different partners together to try to help finance things that others are prepared to do is another aspect of burden sharing that we are encouraging and getting into in detail with some of our allies.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it has taken considerable courage for an Arab country such as the United Arab Emirates to play the role that it plays in Afghanistan? What moves is he making to encourage other Muslim countries to take part in Afghanistan?

We welcome all contributions and I agree that it is a brave but appropriate decision to support our operations in Afghanistan. If we can get Muslim countries involved in the Afghan operations, that will be a real boon, so we will do anything and everything we can to widen the coalition as well as seeking appropriate support from those who are already part of it.

Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that some NATO alliance members, particularly in mainland Europe, will not risk the lives of their soldiers for anything but their national defence? At what point should we as a nation start to reassess the principles of article 5?

There are some of our allies who take a different view of what they can contribute and what they ought properly to contribute to those operations. We have tried to give them as many opportunities as possible to make a contribution. Many have seized it, and although it is not often in the form of force capability that can do the job in Helmand province, those matters are and will continue to be discussed in NATO.

Our armed forces value political consensus on Afghanistan when possible, so let me begin the new year on that basis. Counter-insurgency is about protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand province—that is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops is welcome. Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand, with only one third of coalition troop strength. Does the Secretary of State agree that that has to change? Would it not be sensible to have a better equalisation of troop densities as the number of US troops in Helmand increases?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome and agree with his comments. As Major-General Nick Carter, who commands the whole of Regional Command South in Afghanistan, has said, he has already had an additional 20,000 troops. He will receive another 21,000 troops and it would be strange indeed if he were not considering how to balance the force in areas in the south. That is primarily a military decision. No decisions have been made yet, but it is appropriate that he looks at the matter.

Further to that, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a rebalance between UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand’s assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand? Does he agree that that should be interpreted not in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort, but as representing a better match between resources and commitments? It is essential that the UK play a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but one that is proportionate to our force strength and configuration.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of whom are in Helmand province, and it is right, as he says, that we currently have a responsibility for the majority of the population in Helmand province. With the kind of inflows of troops that General McChrystal will have, and that Major-General Carter will have in the south, the latter is going to have to look at force densities to try to make sure that he is properly using those troops where they are needed. If that means that there is a concentration of British effort in part of our current area of operations and some handing-on to American forces, we should look at that. Major-General Carter is looking at that, and I would encourage him to do so. I know that he has talked to the hon. Gentleman about that, and he has certainly talked to me about it as well.

Military Objectives (Helmand)

3. What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on military objectives in Helmand province; and if he will make a statement. (309566)

I regularly discuss the mission in Afghanistan with my NATO counterparts. Afghanistan is an international security assistance force mission and all the objectives in Helmand province are directly related to the objectives laid out in the NATO comprehensive political-military plan.

Is it not the case that our superb military forces have regularly achieved their military objectives, but that that has regularly proved unsustainable because of the political vacuum at the top? Is not the most important task of the London conference to frame a political settlement with which our military objectives will need to be aligned? Otherwise, we are wasting our effort in Afghanistan.

A good political arrangement, an effective Afghan Government and good governance in the local provinces are absolutely vital to progress in Helmand, and everyone in the military understands that they alone cannot make progress in this area and that they need the political structures and development to come in behind. It is true that the London conference must address those issues, as it must address reintegration where that is possible, because the insurgency has many different aspects to it. We must also address transition to effective Afghan control and have some mechanism in order to deliver that.

Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how it helps any conceivable military objectives to be propping up a discredited Karzai regime which, at the very highest level, is deeply involved in the drugs trade?

I do not think that anybody has tried to suggest that the Afghan Government are perfect or that the elections that we had recently were perfect, but my hon. Friend almost suggests that some alternative to the current Afghan Government is there and available to us. There are people in the House—a minority—who sometimes suggest that there is support for the Taliban among the Afghan people, but there is not. We must work with and improve the Government structures in Afghanistan. That is how to deliver a better Afghanistan, and thereby more security for us back here in the United Kingdom.

Body Armour (Afghanistan)

4. What his most recent assessment is of the adequacy of provision of body armour to UK front-line forces serving in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. (309567)

The Osprey armour, which we began to issue to our troops in 2006, is second to none in the world. We are now in the process of issuing a new version that is more comfortable but equally protected—Osprey Assault—together with the mark 7 helmet, to all those who are liable to deploy outside the wire in Afghanistan. That is another example of the concept of a continuous pipeline of improvement in the equipment provided to our forces in Afghanistan in operation.

When my constituent Marine Corporal Danny Winter died in action, he was the first casualty from Stockport for 30 years. That has much increased local concern about whether we have the right equipment in the right place and at the right time. Will the Minister say clearly to the House when he believes that we shall have good force protection equipment in place and avoid the casualties and the terrible injuries that are now occurring?

We are all bitterly sorry about the death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, and about that of every other man and woman who has fallen for the country in the difficult conflict in Afghanistan. However, my answer to him and to the House is clear: we provide, and will continue to provide, the very best equipment that we can—the very best armour, the very best weapons, the very best communications equipment, the very best vehicles, the very best helicopters and the very best of everything else. We regard that as a sacred task.

Does my hon. Friend agree that although we can design body armour that gives more protection, there is a risk that it will be heavier and more difficult to move about in? There is a tension between the amount of protection that can be given and the mobility of our soldiers in the field. If we are not careful, there is a danger that some soldiers will not wear all their body armour in order to get more mobility.

My hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field and a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, has got it absolutely right. There are always trade-offs in such matters. Quite simply, no human being could carry the weight that would be required to provide ballistic protection all over the body. That is a physical impossibility, and we will just have to face it. There are already trade-offs made, in circumstances where troops are carrying electronic counter-measures and communications equipment. They might be carrying 60 kg or even 70 kg each, often in appalling weather conditions, with temperatures in the 40s, and so on. There are genuine limits, and we are looking all the time at how we can provide the essential equipment as lightly as possible, consistent with the best possible outcomes.

I am grateful to the veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for our meeting before Christmas to discuss body armour. I know that he appreciates—presumably his colleague does as well—the capabilities and limitations of body armour. The United States increasingly relies on aerial reconnaissance to detect improvised explosive devices, which, despite personal protective kit, kill more soldiers than anything else in Afghanistan. Is the different approach to force protection down to the Minister’s failure to get the US to share technology or the withholding of funds for equipment, which was discussed over the weekend in connection with the then Defence Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister?

The suggestion of a lack of co-operation with our American allies, like the suggestion of the withholding of funds, is utter rubbish, complete nonsense, totally libellous and without the slightest foundation in fact. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes those words on board. In fact, we have very close co-operation with the United States on counter-IED measures and force protection. Indeed, we use the same methods, based on various air vehicles, which have been very successful and which I have seen for myself in real time in theatre.

Conflict Resolution (Afghanistan)

5. What recent discussions he has had with Pashtun representatives on conflict resolution in Afghanistan. (309569)

As the Secretary of State for Defence, I regularly visit Afghanistan. During those visits, I take every opportunity to engage with the members of the Afghan Government, in their role as the elected representatives of the Afghan people, and to discuss issues that are important to us all, conflict resolution being one of them.

The allies did virtually everything wrong in Iraq, but at least they ended up siding with the majority of the population, the Shi’as. In Afghanistan, we have alienated the majority of the population, the Pashtuns, who have a long history of fighting whoever they perceive as occupiers. Does it not make military sense to enter into serious negotiations with Pashtun leaders and to bring them to power?

Reintegration is an important part of any counter-insurgency operation. We are more than happy to get involved in the reintegration of all parts of the insurgency that are prepared to revert to peaceful means. We need to provide methods to allow them to do that, but the process surely needs to be led by the Afghan Government, not by us as the international support force in Afghanistan. Of course we want to see the reintegration of those parts of the Pashtun population who feel alienated but who are not irreconcilable. Indeed, the title of Taliban applies to irreconcilable international jihadists on the one hand and to poor disgruntled farmers on the other, so there is a good opportunity for that to happen.

Given the very small number of Pashtun speakers in Her Majesty’s armed forces serving on the front line in Afghanistan, and the small number of Pashtun speakers in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, will the Secretary of State please explain how the British Government communicate with local communities in Afghanistan? Do they use local interpreters or is there a growing body of civil servants being trained to speak Pashtun?

We use local interpreters, but we also seek to use the local government arrangements in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me describe the excellent relationship that we have with Governor Mangal in Helmand province, where most of our forces are. He is right, however, to suggest that we need to look seriously at how many Pashtun speakers we have, and to seek to develop that capability.

Since there must be very few people who really believe that an outright military victory in Afghanistan is possible, is it not absolutely essential to put much more emphasis on a political solution, which must involve a good number of those who are, sadly, fighting the coalition forces? Simply to work on the assumption that military victory will be achieved in another four or five years is not to live in the real world.

Equally, that is a caricature of what people actually believe. Nobody believes that a purely military outcome is going to deliver victory in Afghanistan.

I do not know why my hon. Friend is so surprised at that. I have said that reintegration is a necessary part of the process. We want to see the Afghan Government holding a hand out to all those who are reconcilable and whom they can bring back into the fold—of course we do.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the Afghan Taliban have no ambitions beyond Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, while, by contrast, Osama bin Laden is the protagonist of an international caliphate? Instead of lumping them together, would it not therefore be wiser to try to separate them by offering the Taliban an early withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for their permanently excluding al-Qaeda, with which the Taliban have always had an uneasy alliance?

As I have said, elements of the Afghan Taliban are precisely as the hon. Gentleman describes. But let us not forget that they are still led by Mullah Omar, who ran Afghanistan. In that capacity, he welcomed al-Qaeda into his country and was an arch ally of Osama bin Laden. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, if we were to pull our troops out of Afghanistan in a precipitate way, the likelihood that Mullah Omar would again control large parts of Afghanistan, if not the entire country, would be pretty high—as is the likelihood that he would do again as he did in the past, bringing a threat back to us in the United Kingdom.

Chinook Crash (Mull of Kintyre)

6. If he will meet representatives of the families of personnel killed in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash to discuss identified computer software failings. (309570)

First, may I offer my sincere condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash? I will meet representatives of the families of those who were tragically killed in 1994, to explain why there is no new evidence to lead the Ministry of Defence to revisit the board of inquiry’s findings.

As the Minister knows, I represent the family of one of the deceased pilots, Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper. Obviously, the family are still very distressed indeed about the finding of gross professional negligence against their brave son. Will the Minister confirm that, since the crash, there has been a change in the rules governing the attribution of blame, so that deceased pilots cannot now be found guilty of gross negligence? Surely it is only fair and just that the two Chinook pilots who were killed—Flight Lieutenants Cook and Tapper—should benefit from that change of rule.

I reiterate that I am willing to meet representatives of the family. The change in the rules governing inquiries was brought about by this Government in July 1997, but it was made abundantly clear at that stage that that would not be retrospective and that it would not affect previous rulings.

As both pilots were found grossly negligent, how does the Minister know with absolutely no doubt whatever that both pilots agreed with the route and the course of action being taken?

Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a detailed interest in this matter, that in all the publicity surrounding this case—and certainly that produced by the BBC in recent weeks—there has never been any evidence of technical failure. The clear reality of the situation, demonstrated by a clear and diligent analysis, was that the pilots flew their aircraft at low level and high speed towards rising ground and in poor weather, which was contrary to the flight safety instructions. It is for that reason that the board of inquiry reached the conclusion it did.

Surely the fact that the board of inquiry itself did not entirely rule out the possibility of some kind of technical failure, together with public unease at the verdict of gross negligence on pilots and the number of calls for a review from all sides of the House, militates in favour of having such a review. If this Government will not hold such a review, let me tell the Minister that an incoming Conservative Government will.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous Conservative Government who accepted the board of inquiry’s findings in the first instance. This is a very sensitive issue and I fully understand the concerns of all the families that have lost their loved ones, but I do not think that we should play politics with this issue. The substance of the case is that absolutely no evidence of a technical failure has been produced that would lead to a different conclusion from that of the board of inquiry.

Heavy Lift Capability

7. What progress has been made on developing a heavy lift capability; and if he will make a statement. (309571)

Since the last strategic defence review, which identified the requirement for strategic lift, we have made a lot of progress on this front. Six C-17s are currently in service together with the 24 C-130Js and 14 C-130Ks. We signed a contract for a further seventh C-17 in December 2009. As the House knows, we are also on contract for the delivery of 25 A400Ms. That project has run into well documented difficulties, and we are in the process of re-examination with partner nations and the firm of possible ways forward.

Of course there is a great demand for the A400M across the world. It is a much-needed aircraft, but we also need deep maintenance of that heavy lift capability, which ought to take place at either Warton or Woodford. Will the Minister look to ensure that the tanker programme and all the heavy lift can have deep maintenance that is done in the north-west?

If and when we have sorted out the problems of the A400M—and we have official and ministerial meetings on that subject later this week—we will need to focus on the support arrangements, and at that point I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.

Considerable concerns exist about the looming capability gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the arrival of the much delayed A400M. Will one additional C-17 really plug that capability gap?

The answer to that question is no it will not entirely, but we are taking other measures, including improving infrastructure at Brize Norton, increasing contractor support, which will give us greater availability of the C-130Js, building a new hangar and so forth. I am advised that the measures we are taking will, in combination, maintain the existing air bridge capability.

Helicopters in Afghanistan provide an essential capability due to the unforgiving terrain and the dual threat from IEDs and mines to our troops. However, in 2004, the current Prime Minister as Chancellor cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. Over the weekend, it was suggested in leaked letters that that cut was against the direct advice of the then Secretary of State. Will the Minister confirm that those letters exist, and will he release them to the public to save us the trouble of submitting a freedom of information request in order to get to the bottom of a matter that has hugely impacted on the safety of our forces?

First, I was not around in 2004—[Laughter.] I was about to say “in my present capacity”, and I have certainly not seen any letter of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Secondly, of course helicopters are vital to operations in Afghanistan. I remind the House that we have doubled the number of helicopters there since 2006, and that we are in the process of increasing helicopter numbers substantially. This summer there will be 50 per cent. more helicopters in theatre than there were in the summer of 2009. That is a remarkable achievement. If Opposition Front Benchers were not so utterly churlish and inclined merely to play party politics with important issues such as this, they would acknowledge those dramatic facts.

Armed Forces Accommodation

10. What recent progress he has made in improving the standard of accommodation for the armed forces. (309574)

14. What recent steps he has taken to improve the standard of accommodation provided for members of the armed forces. (309578)

To make good a legacy of underinvestment, the Department has significantly increased spending on living accommodation in recent years. That has resulted in the delivery of 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and it is planned that a further 19,000 will be provided by 2013. Moreover, 14,000 service family homes have been upgraded. All occupied houses in the United Kingdom will be of the highest standard by 2020. Homes in condition 1 and 2 meet or exceed the Government decent homes standard. No families are expected to live in service family accommodation of the lowest standard except as a result of personal choice.

Has not progress been far too slow, and should the Government not redouble their efforts to improve accommodation for our brave soldiers, sailors and marines, particularly in units such as Royal Marines Poole?

I will take no lessons from the Conservatives, who sold off armed forces housing and created some of the problems, such as lack of investment, that we are trying to rectify now. Eighty properties at Royal Marines Poole are in the current central heating replacement programme, and 56 more will be included this year. That demonstrates that we are investing in Royal Marines Poole. Of the 178 properties there, 82 are in the highest-standard condition, although the charge is in the lowest-standard category to take account of, for instance, their proximity to noise from helicopters. The daily charge is £2.38.

While the upgrades are more than welcome, people such as my constituent Andy Hibberd, a recent ex-serviceman, have direct experience of seriously substandard accommodation. What can my hon. Friend do and say to reassure my constituent that much more is being done to ensure that every single serviceman—and, more to the point, the family of every single serviceman—has a decent home in which to live?

Our record speaks for itself, in marked contrast to that of the Conservative Government. We are investing real money in improving both family and single living accommodation. Between 90 and 95 per cent. of family accommodation is in the top two grades, 1 and 2, both of which meet or exceed the Government’s criteria for decent homes. We are committed to investment. This year I secured an additional £50 million from the Treasury, which is making a real difference in improving both single and family accommodation.

RAF Regiment

The RAF Regiment establishment is currently 2,220 personnel, which includes the additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Regiment Field Squadron formed in April 2008. In July 2009, we announced our intention to increase that by providing an additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Field Squadron. That currently remains our intention, but given the acute cost pressures facing the Department and given that operations in Afghanistan are rightly our main effort, all such measures remain under review.

I am grateful for that information, but will the Minister provide a more specific response in the form of an update on the recruitment of personnel for the post created by the establishment of the additional RAF Force Protection Wing Headquarters as well as the RAF Regiment Field Squadron?

The RAF Regiment currently has sufficient personnel to man its establishment fully and to meet the expanded requirement due to its new units. The training of personnel for these new units is currently under way.

Nuclear Deterrent

12. What recent progress has been made on procurement of the next generation of the nuclear deterrent; and if he will make a statement. (309576)

This is an incredibly important decision and we need to get it right. We have come up with one or two possible new technical options for the design of the successor class submarine, and we will need a few more months to evaluate those fully before we take a decision.

When will the Minister be able to tell the House whether it is possible to have continuous at-sea patrols with three submarines rather than four? When will the National Security Committee report back to the Prime Minister? Is not the whole timetable for replacing our strategic nuclear deterrent now getting extremely tight?

The answer is that we are very focused on achieving the 2024 deadline. We take the issue of the successor class submarine extremely seriously. The 2006 White Paper stated that if it is possible to deliver credible and continuous at-sea deterrence with three boats, we will, of course, want to do that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister repeated that recently, and he has instructed that a study of that subject should be undertaken. That study will report to him very shortly.

Does the Minister not agree that we would be much better employed by awaiting the outcome of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review, and making a real contribution towards global disarmament by cancelling the replacement of Trident and spending the money on something more socially useful and less divisive, and not on another weapon of mass destruction?

So long as the world remains as dangerous a place as it is, with some very difficult and dubious people developing, or threatening to develop, their own nuclear capability or weapons of mass destruction, this country will need to continue to have an independent nuclear deterrent. The fact is that we have said—we have committed to this in the NPT—that in the context of general and complete disarmament, we would close down our own nuclear deterrent capability.

Veteran Support

13. What arrangements his Department has put in place to assist veterans injured in service to access the services of Jobcentre Plus employment advisers when the veteran is in receipt of a veteran’s pension provided by the Veterans Agency; and if he will make a statement. (309577)

The veterans welfare service is available through the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency to all veterans and their families. For those leaving the service as a result of serious injury or illness, locally based welfare managers, working closely with service charities, provide practical advice and assistance and will act as gateways for the services provided by other Government Departments, including Jobcentre Plus and the Benefits Agency.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he look again at the case of Mr. William Harvey? After 17 years of distinguished service in the British Army, during which he was injured on three occasions, in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland, he has been in receipt of Veterans Agency support as compensation for his injuries, but he is therefore unable to receive jobseeker’s allowance. The jobseeker’s allowance rules appear to bar him from receiving the support of jobseekers’ advisers in gaining new employment. This policy muddle should be addressed.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that issue, and a similar case was raised when I met veterans the other day. I am working on this, alongside other issues concerning overlapping policies, with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions, and we will make an announcement in February.

The Minister will no doubt be aware that in the Army, and in particular in the combat units, battalions and regiments are rapidly filling up with lesser-injured men and women who are nevertheless not capable of deploying on operations. What are we going to do with these people? There must be fresh thinking on this, and I wonder what the Minister has in mind.

This morning, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien) and I announced initiatives on giving a lifetime guarantee to the severely injured in respect of the transition into the health service and support for life. In respect of the individuals to whom the hon. Gentleman refers, I am currently engaged in a piece of work and an announcement will be made in February.

Afghan National Army

15. What the UK’s financial commitment to the Afghan national army is in (a) 2009-10 and (b) 2010-11; and if he will make a statement. (309579)

The UK does not provide direct financial support to the Afghan national army but does deliver assistance in other forms, including the provision of training through the “NATO Training Mission—Afghanistan”, in Kabul, and through a number of operational mentoring and liaison teams in Helmand province.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but does he not agree that unless an army is well paid, it does not get good soldiers? It is clearly crucial that the Government of Afghanistan have a good army, and if we do not help to fund that army, either now or in the immediate future, who is going to be responsible for that if that Government cannot provide the money?

I take it that that was another uncosted spending pledge from the Conservatives. I should say directly to the hon. Gentleman that there has been an improvement in pay in the Afghan national army and the issue remains under review, but that is not just a responsibility for this country; it is a responsibility for the whole of the international coalition and the Afghan Government.

Amazingly, a significant percentage of the officers in the Afghan national army are illiterate. How much is to be spent on the education of that army in the forthcoming period?

My hon. Friend’s comment underlines the lack of development in Afghanistan—that is a reality that we face. On education, the key priority that we have set out is to work alongside the Afghan forces to train, mentor and develop them. In addition, this country is committed to providing £500 million in development aid assistance over the coming four years to try to improve these conditions and the lot of the people in Afghanistan.

Topical Questions

My 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 military tasks in which they are engaging, either at home or abroad.

Given that the British public expect that a decent level of compensation will be guaranteed for service personnel who suffer injury, disability or loss of limb while on service, may I ask my right hon. Friend to take this opportunity to update us on the armed forces compensation scheme review that this Government initiated last year?

It was this Government who introduced the armed forces compensation scheme in 2005. Prior to that nobody received any kind of lump sum payment and people depended on a pension when injured in the service of the nation. We introduced the scheme and then in 2008 we doubled the level of up-front compensation for the most seriously injured personnel. We are in the middle of a review, which is being conducted on our behalf by Admiral the Lord Boyce. Various aspects of the compensation scheme are being examined and we hope that he will report in the near future.

T7. Yesterday’s Sunday Herald reported that the initial gate decision on Trident has been delayed—yet again—perhaps until after the general election. Will the Minister announce when he intends to take that decision or, preferably, that he is abandoning plans for the like-for-like replacement of this outdated, unnecessary and very expensive weapons system? (309597)

We are certainly not going to announce that we are abandoning that project, for the important reasons that I set out in response to an earlier question. As I said in that response, as soon as we have gone through all the various technical options—one or two have arisen recently and we have to examine them seriously and profoundly—we will come to a decision about the right technical solution for the design of the successor class submarine. We will then go through what we call “initial gate” and we will make an announcement to the House at that time, and that is a matter of a few months away.

T2. Can the Secretary of State bring us up to date on the defence advisory forum’s review of the future for modern warfare? (309591)

The defence advisory forum has been of great assistance in the preparation of the Green Paper. Not only have we allowed and encouraged various experts to give us the benefit of their views as we have been drawing up the paper, but we have managed to encourage the other two political parties to participate—we tried to ensure that the Green Paper has a broad political base for the propositions that it makes.

T8. Although the Royal Navy and our allies can tackle pirates off the horn of Africa, they cannot tackle the sources of piracy. What more needs to be done by the international community to tackle piracy at source? (309598)

This is a significantly acute challenge. The Royal Navy is doing an immense amount, but, as the hon. Gentleman rightly identifies, it is the source of piracy that needs to be tackled. That requires a comprehensive approach, including significant investment and governance action in Somalia.

T3. Given the importance of the aircraft carrier project to future national security and to jobs in my constituency, in central Scotland and in other parts of the UK, how safe is the carrier project investment with this Government? (309592)

The project is 100 per cent. safe in our hands. We are 100 per cent. committed to going through with the project to build these two vital 60,000 tonne carriers for the future defence of the nation. My hon. Friend will not get the same kind of ambiguous response on this matter, sadly, from the Opposition.

Over the Christmas holidays, I met serving military and their families in my constituency and they mentioned a whole range of welfare issues, from warm jackets being inadequate in Afghanistan to the lack of housing repairs. Will the Minister name an official in his office to whom we can go with these kinds of problems? Most could be resolved with a decent dose of common sense.

It seems to me that the hon. Lady is covering an array of issues. If she is concerned about welfare or housing, will she please contact my private office? Hon. Members on both sides of the House know that I take complaints very seriously.

T4. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, in which many brave Salford lads serve, has recently come home after a distinguished and courageous tour of Afghanistan. Like all our troops, in the years to come they will need the highest standards of care and support. On that basis, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State seriously consider supporting the excellent manifesto issued by the Royal British Legion on behalf of our troops? (309594)

Like my right hon. Friend, I support the excellent work done by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in Musa Qala and Sangin valley. I know that she has been a strong advocate of the work that it has been undertaking. I also agree that the manifesto of the Royal British Legion is a substantial document that contains many significant and positive ideas, a number of which are already being implemented, and I endorse it.

Ahead of the Afghanistan conference later this month, will the Secretary of State pay tribute to our Commonwealth cousins the Canadians, who have lost 137 armed forces personnel and had 400 injured, many of them seriously? Indeed, will he comment on supporting those of us who want to see that courage and commitment given beyond 2011?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am sure that the Canadian armed forces will too. They have provided a very capable high-end fighting capability in Afghanistan, which has been much appreciated by all those who have worked alongside them. We encourage and hope that the Canadians will continue to make a contribution in Afghanistan. They have been real allies in every sense of the word.

T6. Does the Secretary of State recall the very skilful operation in September 2008, which saw considerable loss of life, in which British soldiers took a turbine to the Kajaki dam? Why is it that that turbine has not functioned since its delivery? Can we be told why not? Is it still in kit form? What is the problem, because it cost us dearly? (309596)

There is a project to increase the electricity supply to the whole of Afghanistan and the turbine at Kajaki is an important part of that. It is not all that we have relied on, and there have been local generation schemes, too. Of course it took a great deal of effort to get that turbine up to Kajaki; it was a tremendous achievement to get it there. Although we have not made the kind of progress that we would have wanted to make within the time scales that we would have wanted to meet in order to get the benefit of that achievement, the Kajaki dam none the less delivers electricity, and we are hopeful that we can increase the amount of electricity that it provides.

Order. I want several more colleagues to get in, but I need very short questions and very short answers.

Do Ministers share the concerns that have been expressed to me by servicemen who have recently returned from Afghanistan that, although they welcome the arrival of new equipment, in many cases the first time that they get an opportunity to use it is in theatre because it is not yet available for training outside Afghanistan?

That is not true. People have equipment available during pre-deployment training for their operations in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will remember that just before Christmas we announced a diversion of resources from other programmes to ensure that the equipment that people are expected to fight in will be available to them far earlier. That diversion was opposed by many Opposition Members at the time, but I see from the newspapers that they are now prepared to cut the defence budget, albeit that they will protect the mission in Afghanistan.

Has the Secretary of State seen the report in The Times of India about a secret conclave of the Indian general staff in Simla last month in which a planned military attack on Pakistan was discussed openly? Is it really helpful for a Commonwealth partner and nuclear power to talk about attacking Pakistan at this stage? Will he write to ask his Indian opposite number to stop beating the drums of war?

I did not see the article. I think that we have made considerable progress in our relationship with Pakistan, which has begun to see the insurgency and terrorism as a big part of the existential threat to Pakistan. We want it to continue in that direction, and so good relations with India have a vital part to play if we are to achieve that.

One injured serviceman recently said to me that his fear for other injured servicemen in receipt of lump-sum compensation packages was that they got no financial advice on how to manage that money. For some of them, it is a large sum of the sort that they have never had before. Will the Minister consider that issue to make sure that they get the proper financial advice?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The issue has also been raised with me and is part of Lord Boyce’s review.

Can the Secretary of State describe any possible future situation in which this country will use its nuclear weapons independently?

Our independent nuclear deterrent exists to provide us with a response to the kind of blackmail that we could potentially face from other states that are armed with nuclear weapons. I therefore believe that while such threats exist we need to continue to possess a nuclear deterrent.

Major-General Andrew Mackay, the commander of British forces in Helmand, recently reported that the UK had “consistently failed” to understand the motivations of local Afghans, and called for a fresh “hearts and minds” strategy focusing on the local culture. When will we see that new strategy?

There is not going to be a new strategy. We have a strategy, which is a comprehensive and political strategy as well as a military strategy. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that our understanding of the reasons behind the insurgency, and of local culture, needs to be strengthened. In any conflict, we need to learn those lessons as quickly as possible and get to a level of skill and understanding as soon as we can. We are not perfect at that, as the Afghan and Iraq operations have proved. That is one of the issues that we need to address in a future strategic defence review.

In The Times today, Robin Greenwood of Christian Aid writes:

“senior military officers complain that aid workers spend too much time and money empowering Afghan women.”

That refers to a quote from an article last week by reporters from The Times. Is that an accurate view of Britain’s senior military personnel?

Our military personnel working in Helmand province—I have seen them working alongside their civilian counterparts—recognise completely the absolutely essential role that civilians play, and the need to empower Afghan institutions. We can do things on our own without any involvement from the Afghan authorities, but they will not be lasting, and they will fall apart as soon as we let them go.

Given the shortage of helicopters in Afghanistan, when are the remaining Merlin helicopters in Iraq going to be moved into theatre?[Official Report, 25 January 2010, Vol. 504, c. 3MC.]

We have already begun to deploy them. The first Merlin arrived before Christmas, and Merlins are in the process of being deployed there. Over the next few months, we will deploy not only more Merlins, but more Chinooks and the re-engined Lynxes, which can fly 365 days a year. As I said earlier, between July last year and July this year, there is to be a 50 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan, and an even greater increase in available flying hours.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), will be aware that a review is under way of the future of Navy buildings in Greenock. Given that the review is four months old, and given that the issue is extremely important to the people who work there, will he provide an update on that review? If not, will he agree to meet me to discuss the matter?

I refer the Secretary of State to the typically excellent question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell). What evidence is there that any of the Taliban whom we have killed in Helmand had anything to do with bomb plots against this country?

There is no doubt that the centre of al-Qaeda’s power remains in the area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It may well currently reside on the Pakistan side of that border, but if our troops were not on the Afghan side of the border, the threat would be bound to return, in my opinion, and a return of the direct threat to this country would result from that.

In my constituency returning veterans and their families are made homeless. That is no way to treat them. Will the Minister take steps to force recalcitrant councils to give housing priority to our returning heroes and their families?

The housing priority is already in place, but I shall roll out the welfare pathway, which was launched in Kent in November. That is about councils working together with other agencies, the Ministry of Defence and service charities to bring together maximum help for veterans, service personnel and their families. There is now one phone number for anyone who needs help; it is 08000 223366.

I, too, have a constituent who was tragically bereaved by the Chinook accident. Will the Minister indicate whether there are any circumstances in which he might reopen the matter and review a decision that is increasingly challenged and that looks more and more unhappy?

The Ministry of Defence has always made it clear that if new evidence is brought forward that directly focuses on the issues and provides evidence of technical failure, we would reopen the investigation. No such new evidence has been forthcoming.

Will Ministers learn the lesson from the tragic death last year of Andrew Watson, my constituent, who, having served in Iraq, had continuing mental health problems, and will they make sure that when servicemen and women return, they always have 24-hour-a-day access to mental health services that understand their past and their difficulties?

They already do, in terms of decompression at Camp Bloodhound in Cyprus, but I am pleased that today, my counterpart, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O’Brien) and I signed a memorandum of understanding with Combat Stress, concentrating not just on veterans but on their expertise, and on how we can ensure that the lessons from the six mental health pilots are included in mainstream services in the NHS.