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Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Can the Leader of the House find time in the near future for a Government statement on the ombudsman's report, published at the end of last year, on access to official information? The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the ombudsman found that this was the only occasion when a Government had failed properly to respond to a report of his on access to information. As a result, he laid it in the Library of the House, but there is still no Government response. Can the right hon. Gentleman ask the Deputy Prime Minister, who is responsible for relations with the ombudsman, to come to the House and make a response so that we can question him about what the Government are trying to hide?

Mr. Cook: The Government are not trying to hide anything; indeed, as the ombudsman's report accepts, the Government were acting entirely within the principles of the code and the decision concerned was not wrong, even though he himself may have chosen to disagree with it. The hon. Gentleman will have many opportunities to pursue the matter, and I am sure that he will do so.

Bob Spink (Castle Point): I became aware yesterday of some of the issues surrounding the withdrawal of a question to the Prime Minister by the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). We heard more about that today from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). The matter raises serious issues about Back Benchers' ability to hold the Government to account, Government control freakery,

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which is becoming all too apparent, and the status of Parliament itself. We ought to have a debate so that we can investigate all those issues.

Mr. Cook: Whatever can be said about the matter concerned, I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that it hardly seems to be an example of Parliament failing to hold Ministers to account; on the contrary, it demonstrates the Government responding quickly, expeditiously and appropriately to a Member's concern.

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International Assistance Force (Kabul)

1.11 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In my most recent statement about Afghanistan, on 19 December, I set out the encouraging progress that had been made towards the deployment of an international security assistance force to Kabul and its surrounding areas. I am grateful for this early opportunity to bring the House up to date with the considerable progress that we have made since then.

First, however, it is important to repeat why the United Kingdom is participating in and, indeed, leading the international security assistance force. That is entirely consistent with the objectives for the campaign against international terrorism that we set out last October. Those objectives have not changed. They are being achieved, and coalition military operations will continue until they have been achieved in full. The United Kingdom continues to support the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders.

We have always made it clear, however, that our commitment to Afghanistan was not simply for the short term. One of the longer-term campaign aims that we set out in October was to secure the reintegration of Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community and an end to its self-imposed isolation. That is vital if we are to ensure that the link between Afghanistan and international terrorism is broken.

An essential part of achieving that longer term aim is supporting the establishment of a new representative Government in Afghanistan—a process that was agreed at Bonn on 5 December. That means providing support to the Afghan Interim Administration. That support was clearly demonstrated by the Prime Minister's visit to Bagram on Monday.

The Bonn agreement called for the deployment of an international security assistance force to Kabul. One month on, troops are already on patrol in the streets of the Afghan capital. As the lead nation for the security force for the first three months, the United Kingdom has been responsible for putting the ISAF together. To have put together a major international force and agreed the terms of its deployment with an Interim Administration who have only just taken office—all in less than a month—is a remarkable achievement. I pay tribute to all the other nations who have offered troops—both those who will be contributing from the outset and those who will not—and to the Afghan Administration and to the United States. Without their help, we would never have achieved that in such a short time.

The way forward for the deployment of the force was cleared by the signing of the military technical agreement on 4 January by the commander of the ISAF, Major- General McColl, and the Afghan Interim Administration. That agreement, a copy of which I have placed in the Library of the House, sets out the relationship between the ISAF and the Interim Administration. It defines the status of the security force and gives it the powers that it requires to operate freely and without hindrance. It covers the legal status of the ISAF, its deployment and authority, and the support that the Interim Administration will provide. It specifies the location of the barracks in Kabul to which Afghan forces will be confined. Most important, it makes clear what the ISAF will do and where it will operate.

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The ISAF is there to assist the Afghan Interim Administration, and the military technical agreement sets out what that might mean in practice. In addition to taking part in joint patrols with the Afghan police, the ISAF may assist the Interim Administration in developing future security structures; assist the Interim Administration in reconstruction; and identify and arrange training and assistance tasks for future Afghan security forces. The ISAF will operate in Kabul, and Kabul alone. The military technical agreement includes a map that clearly delimits the security force's area of responsibility.

In putting the security force together, we have made a careful assessment of the military capabilities that are needed to complete these tasks. Major General McColl and representatives from other troop-contributing nations have already carried out essential reconnaissance to that end. The ISAF headquarters is now operational and the first elements of the ISAF main body have already deployed. British forces have been on patrol in Kabul for nearly two weeks now. French troops began to patrol yesterday and those patrols have been extremely well received by the people of Kabul.

In total, the security force will be about 5,000 strong. Putting it together has not been easy, but not because we lacked offers of help. The international community responded swiftly and generously to our request for troops and at the planning conference on 19 December, 21 countries offered forces. Many nations offered infantry, but we had to construct a balanced and capable force able to get to Afghanistan quickly, support itself and do its job. The ISAF needs logistics support, explosive ordnance disposal troops, signallers, engineers, medical units, helicopters and, given that it will deploy and be supplied by air, it needs air transport.

As is always the case when putting a force together, we had to negotiate with the countries offering troops. Some were able to adjust their offers in the light of what we needed; others were not. For various reasons, some countries, such as Argentina, Jordan and Malaysia, have had to withdraw their offers to participate. There may, of course, be an opportunity for them to contribute troops at a later stage. There has been some comment about Canada's generous offer of an infantry battlegroup. It was not rejected; we were simply unable to accept it in its entirety from the outset. We had hoped to use its engineers right from the beginning, then replace our own infantry battlegroup with the Canadian battlegroup after several weeks. In the end, the Canadians decided to deploy their troops elsewhere—to Kandahar—to support continuing offensive operations in that region. While we would have welcomed them as part of the security force, we welcome their deployment to Kandahar where they will play an important role in the fight against international terrorism.

In total, we expect 17 countries to deploy troops alongside United Kingdom forces as part of the ISAF—Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. The participation of those nations will be formalised this afternoon with the signing here in London of memorandums of understanding. That represents the final step in agreeing the structure of the ISAF for its period under our leadership.

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The nature of the forces provided by those nations varies considerably in size and type. The Austrians, Danes and Dutch are deploying forces as part of a German-led multinational infantry battlegroup; others are providing vital specialist troops. New Zealand, for example, is to provide headquarters staff and support troops; Norway has promised explosive ordnance disposal troops and other support troops; Romania has offered military police and air transport assets; and Turkey will help staff the headquarters and will deploy other troops as well.

The security force is authorised by a United Nations Security Council resolution and will be led by the United Kingdom. The United States central command has authority over the ISAF to ensure that there is no risk of its activities interfering with the successful completion of Operation Enduring Freedom. The membership of the security force will probably change over the next six months. The ISAF is a coalition of the willing, drawn from forces that are needed, available and deployable in the time required.

The United Kingdom has agreed to lead the ISAF for its first three months. We took that on because our armed forces have the right capabilities; we have experience in expeditionary operations and rapid deployments; and we can provide effective command structures and enablers to get a force in and up and running in the time scale required. Being the lead nation means that we must inevitably provide the core of the security force, which is vividly demonstrated by the breadth of the forces that we have assigned to it. The force headquarters is drawn from the headquarters of 3(UK) Division. The headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade will exercise tactical command. Our infantry battle group is centred around the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and includes a company of Gurkhas. Elements of 33 and 36 Regiments, Royal Engineers, will deploy—so will 30 Signal Regiment, which will provide strategic communications. Support troops will be drawn from a number of units, including 13 Air Assault Regiment of the Royal Logistic Corps, and 16 Medical Regiment of the Royal Army Medical Corps. The Royal Air Force is deploying a range of airfield enablers from stations across the country. Those are simply the major force elements; we will also deploy many other smaller support units. We are now withdrawing the elements of 40 Commando Royal Marines who have helped to secure Bagram airstrip.

The United Kingdom's contribution to the ISAF will total up to 1,800 personnel. In addition and in the short term, we are deploying almost 300 Army and Royal Air Force personnel to help repair and operate Kabul international airport. That will help us in resupplying the ISAF and will be of lasting benefit to the Afghan people. We are able to make this contribution without any impact on our other operational commitments. Our commitment as lead nation is limited in duration. The ISAF mandate is for six months; we shall hand over our lead nation status to one of our partners after three months. I am delighted that Turkey has already expressed an interest in the responsibility. That does not mean that our commitment to participating in the security force will end completely at the three-month point. Certainly, we would expect to see a significant reduction in the number of British troops deployed, but we will not ignore the need to give continuing support to whoever takes over as lead nation.

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We and our partners have already begun to deploy the forces assigned to the ISAF. Others will follow over the next few weeks. The security force should reach its full strength by mid-February. This deployment is not easy: it can only be done by air; airport facilities in Afghanistan are limited and very basic; and weather conditions can be treacherous. Supplying the security force—also by air—will be difficult. So far, the deployment has gone well, thanks to the thorough preparatory work we have been doing over the past few weeks.

We have put together and begun deploying the international security assistance force while continuing our contribution to the coalition military operations elsewhere in Afghanistan. As I have indicated, the United Kingdom is continuing to support the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders. The Royal Air Force is still flying reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling sorties. The Royal Navy is now playing an important role in the coalition maritime force in the region and is patrolling in the Arabian sea to prevent those with links to al-Qaeda from escaping from the region. I pay tribute to the work that it is doing.

Neither we nor the wider international community have neglected the provision of humanitarian aid. The World Food Programme and other agencies have worked hard to ensure that relief supplies are in place for the winter months. The World Food Programme dispatched 116,000 metric tonnes of wheat in December, against a target of 100,000 tonnes. That is the highest monthly distribution into Afghanistan to date, reflecting the expansion in aid operations and improved access to most parts of the country.

The United Kingdom's commitment to the Afghan people as they set about the enormous task of rebuilding their country remains as strong as our commitment to them in removing the Taliban from power. Our contribution to the ISAF is a clear demonstration of that commitment. Our contribution could not have been made without the skills and abilities of our armed forces. I am confident that they will carry out this new task, on which so much depends, to the high standards that we have come to expect.

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