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Iraq and Afghanistan: Military Casualties

Volume 685: debated on Monday 16 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

How many British military personnel have been killed or seriously injured in Afghanistan and Iraq during the past 12 months; and how many ofthose injured remained in hospital for longer than 30 days.

My Lords, since 1 October 2005, 36 British forces personnel have died in Afghanistan, of whom 18 were killed in action,14 were fatalities on an RAF Nimrod, and four died from other causes. Twenty-four died in Iraq, of whom 23 were killed in action. In the period 1 October 2005 to 30 September 2006, 25 personnel were seriously or very seriously injured on Operation HERRICK, and 14 on Operation TELIC. Of these, nine from Operation HERRICK and five from Operation TELIC were still hospital in-patients more than30 days after first being declared casualties. Casualty figures for October 2006 will be published next month.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Is the Minister aware that, sadly, there is some scepticism about the accuracy of the figures that the Government have released in this matter, or perhaps, to be fairer, about the way in which serious injury at least is defined? Will he publish a more detailed account of the injuries and deaths that have occurred in the circumstances that I have described so that we can all know for sure exactly how the figures that he has given were arrived at?

My Lords, I recognise that there is concern. My understanding is that that concern centres on the perceived difference between our forces and, for example, the US forces in the relative numbers of those killed in action to those wounded in action. I will see what further detail we can present, taking into account medical confidentiality and so forth, but we must recognise, when we compare the UK and the US, that there are real differences in NATO in the definitions that are used and in the way in which coalition forces record the wounded. There are also differences in the intensity of operations that are carried out, which are reflected in differences in the ratios.

My Lords, when I was a soldier, we used to have a saying, “Big thumbs on little maps; that’s the way to kill the chaps”. I intend in no way to second-guess the decision of commanders on the ground, but willthe Minister confirm that, when we moved into Helmand province, the highly successful policy that we had been following of “take, hold and build”—that is, rebuild the administration and reconnect the infrastructure—was changed in favour of a forward-base policy? Will he tell us the reasons for that, and will he reassure us that those reasons were military, not political?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct in that there was a change early in the campaign in terms of the support for certain northern outposts in Helmand province in respect of requests from Governor Daud, who wished us to ensure that the rule of law and local governance was maintained in those areas at an early stage of the campaign. That has proved to be successful. It has been a hard battle, and we need to recognise the courage and dedication of those men who so fought. But it has been effective in those northern towns, which are regarded as a bellwether for the area, and we can build on that success over the next six months.

My Lords, as I said last week in answer to Questions, personnel who are wounded in operational theatres are treated in military field theatres in Iraq or Afghanistan and, when they are brought back to the United Kingdom, they are cared for in NHS units throughout the country. In doing that, we make sure that they get the best possible care because, thankfully, we have a small number of personnel who need to be cared for in this way.

My Lords, given the casualty figures that my noble friend has outlined, could he comment on the viability of a separate military hospital or military wards?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that point. As I have said, the numbers that we have are, thankfully, so small that it would not be viable for us to have a dedicated military hospital. To give noble Lords some idea, I should say that, as of this lunchtime, we have a total of 21 in-patients in all the Birmingham hospitals, including 12 people in Selly Oak Hospital. It would not be viable for us to hold these people in a military hospital because the throughput would not enable us to maintain the skills of surgical staff or provide the best possible care.

My Lords, in his answer of last Tuesday on hospitals, the noble Lord said that,

“the level of care that we provide for our service people is admirable”.—[Official Report, 10/10/06; col. 121.]

How does he reconcile that with the criticism made by the Chief of the General Staff, who I understand enjoys the complete and full support of the Prime Minister, in his Daily Mail interview on the arrangements for the injured who come back to the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I have read carefully the transcript of the Chief of the General Staff’s interview with the Daily Mail, in which he made several very positive comments about the level of care provided to our service personnel in Selly Oak. It is important for us to emphasise the practicalities of the situation. If we are to provide the best possible care for our people, using the full range of specialist facilities available in the modern NHS, that must be within the NHS units, as I have described.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the differences in the definition of casualty among NATO members. How does the MoD define a casualty?

My Lords, I shall write to the noble Lord and place a copy in the Library, because this is a complex area. There are a number of definitions, which it is important for us to fully understand. In terms of the differences, there is a programme going on in NATO to harmonise the standards in order to enable us to make the comparisons. I understand that it will take NATO some time to reach that position.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the operation in Afghanistan would be carried out more quickly, efficiently and effectively if our NATO allies, who intimate that they will support the effort in Afghanistan, came up with the troops? Would opposition spokesmen not be better employed, instead of making niggling attacks on the British Government, trying to encourage some of our NATO allies to put the troops on the ground and get the conflict over as quickly and effectively as possible?

My Lords, I agree absolutely with my noble friend that it would be very worth while for us to continue to put pressure on our NATO allies to provide the forces that our commanders request.