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4.30 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): The purpose of this contribution is to raise one subject and one subject only, which is this: what on earth are we now getting into in Afghanistan? It does not matter at all that some of us thought we should not have gone in in the first place, and that the way to deal with the situation was by intelligence and, frankly, by bribery. That is the past, and we are in a here and now situation.

We have a choice this spring or summer. Either we bring it to an end, or we reconcile ourselves to something that may be unpalatable and uncomfortable; a long-term commitment in Afghanistan, certainly for my lifetime and probably for the lifetime of the youngest among us. There is an awkward fact—the Taliban have not gone away. Members of the Taliban, I am informed, are sitting sipping tea in the tea houses of Peshawar across the Pakistan border. I am not sure that there is even a border, which I gather is very elastic and permeable. People go to and fro and there is not much supervision of the border.

In those circumstances, it may be that they are just biding their time, as they always did. If I had a personal interest to declare, it would be that the bones of some of my relatives are somewhere to be found in Afghanistan as a result of what happened in the century before last and at the turn of the last century. The whole history of the British among these people is a pretty sad one. The truth is that the Pashtun adore fighting. It is what they are about, and what they live for. The idea that they have gone away is, I fear, fanciful.

Jim Knight (South Dorset): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Father of House for giving way to me, and I intervene on him with great respect. I was one of the party that went to Kabul. Does he accept that the presence of our armed forces in Kabul as part of the ISAF mission has had a positive effect on the local population? On the streets, we were told that they were rejoicing because they had peace and security in their city for the first time for

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decades. Markets were opening and women were walking about without their burkas on. These are positive developments of civil society.

Mr. Dalyell: There is no substitute in this House or elsewhere for first-hand information and I certainly respect that view. In a sense, I hope that my hon. Friend is right and that somehow it has solved a situation. But is that true outside Kabul? I have not been to Afghanistan, but I have been to Iran, its neighbour. That gives me a perspective. One wonders how long the commitment will last, and I would like an assessment from Ministers with regard to what my hon. Friend and I have said.

On 20 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said that

They have been dealt a heavy blow maybe, but the leaders have not been found. My right hon. Friend continued:

That was on 20 March. On 11 April, are we quite so sure that the Taliban regime is no more? There must be comment on the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) and, indeed, on the qualms of some of the rest of us.

Harry Cohen: The nation-building in Afghanistan has to be done, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that it is a costly, difficult and lengthy process. Does he agree that it would be foolhardy for this country to try to do that nation-building in two countries simultaneously: Afghanistan and, for example, Iraq?

Mr. Dalyell: This is one of those cases on which I could not agree more: it would be folly, as my hon. Friend and I think, to embark on commitments against Iraq.

I wish to refer to the whole nature of the British involvement. Again on 20 March, my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) asked:

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State replied:

What I wonder is: can we remove any threat without occupying ground?

I undertook, as is my wont, to be short. My question to be answered in the winding-up speech is this: what is the Government's thinking on the timing of the Afghan operation? Do they think, as I do, that there is an either/or situation? When we give way to the Turks, do we make it clear that Britain does not follow the Turks, and that perhaps someone else—or no one else—does? Or do we

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face up to what may be the horrendous obligation of being in Afghanistan for the lifetime of the youngest among us? That is a question that at least must be addressed, as it is vital in terms of our commitments on service personnel and the future of the deployment of personnel, which is what the debate is about.

4.39 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): It is a great pleasure to follow the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I declare an interest as, since 1981, I have been a member of the defence medical services, first as a regular member of the Royal Navy and now as a member of the Royal Naval Reserve.

In March, the Secretary of State announced that 45 Commando would be deployed to Afghanistan—about 1,700 people. At about that time also the Czechs announced that they were deploying a field hospital to that theatre of operations. It is poignant to note that we can provide only four field hospitals out of a requirement of 14. Our men and women are willing and able to put themselves in the line of fire but in return they expect us to ensure that, if the worst comes to the worst, there is the wherewithal to ensure that they are treated adequately. Given the present state of the defence medical services, I fear that we cannot give them that commitment.

Sierra Leone demonstrated that we are not only falling short in offering field hospitals, but woefully inadequate at ensuring that people are fit and able to be deployed in the first place. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me that on this occasion our troops are fit in all respects.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Although I am not replying to the debate, the defence medical services are my responsibility. There were mistakes made when the regiment deployed to Sierra Leone, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that they have been taken on board. Nowadays nobody is deployed who has not had their vaccination and health status properly checked.

Dr. Murrison: I thank the Minister for that reassurance.

Indifference to military medicine in the near east has caused Governments real problems in the past and I fear that the Government might be heading for problems in this theatre. It is now 60 years since McIndoe pioneered his important surgery on Spitfire pilots and it is salutary to remind the House that the defence medical services has three burns specialists against a requirement of 11. Particularly in this theatre of operations, we should remember that we do not have dedicated chemical warfare medical specialists. Fortunately the Czechs do—indeed they are renowned for that area of expertise—and that may be one reason why they are deploying to Afghanistan. They are very welcome indeed.

A Ministry of Defence source recently said:

That is emotive and graphic, but the buck stops with the Government and although we have heard some facetious remarks about 1997 and year zero, the Government cannot shelter from their responsibility in this respect. They are

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responsible for ensuring that the defence medical services and the field hospitals on the ground are up to the task of protecting our service men in a particularly dangerous theatre of operations.

On 10 February, on the BBC's "On the Record", the Secretary of State said:

Those strong words gave us some insight into what is actually happening in terms of overstretch. Since then, troops have been deployed to the middle east in the largest numbers since the Gulf war. Taking the Secretary of State's comments to their logical conclusion, he is saying that we are overstretched. Perhaps the Minister will reflect on that in his reply. Words mean what they say. In February, we were

Where are we now?

This week the Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Army Medical Corps was laid to rest. The Queen Mother took a special interest in defence medicine and it is fitting that we should discuss it here today as part of this important debate on defence personnel.

No doubt we will hear that recruitment into the defence medical services has improved. It has improved slightly, but the difficulty lies with the retention of staff and in that respect, we have real problems. The Royal Army Medical Corps needs 882 officers. At the moment it has 661. If we drill down further, the picture becomes much worse because the problem lies predominantly in the middle ranks, among those who have recently completed their specialist training. It is particularly acute among surgical support teams. For example, there are only 26 anaesthetists—whom we colloquially call gas men—in the defence medical services, when there should be 120. There are 16 general surgeons against a requirement of 44; there are just 10 orthopaedic surgeons against a requirement of 28. The Queen Alexandra Royal Army Nursing Corps is short of 270 nurses. Florence Nightingale in her alma mater just across the river would have a sense of déjà vu, bless her, particularly when we consider our troops in the near east.

There is some good news, however. The Royal Army Veterinary Corps is very nearly up to strength. I am told that it is short of just two vets. No doubt veterinary manpower will be improved even further given the Government's current assault on the countryside and country pursuits. Every cloud has a silver lining.

Recruitment to the defence medical services is improving, but people are leaving in droves. That suggests that a military career for medics is attractive—people want to join—but at some point they become disillusioned. They become so disillusioned that they are prepared to enter that other cauldron of discontent—the national health service. At a time when service in the NHS also has its problems, people view it as a more attractive option than the defence medical services. That is something of an indictment.

I am a reasonable man and I am certainly not about to pretend that the problems started in 1997. They started well before then. I joined the defence medical services in 1981—more than two decades ago—so I have seen good and bad. The strategic defence review and the implementation of the Lawrence report have made matters a lot worse.

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The centrepiece of new Labour's thinking on medical provision for the armed forces is the creation of the Centre for Defence Medicine. I have no objection to the CDM—I thought that it was called Fort Blockhouse in Gosport—but its reinvention in Selly Oak was truly inspirational, even for this Government. It is unloved, it is definitely unmilitary and it is in truth the unsung millennium dome of the west midlands. The forces have been sold a pup. They thought that they were getting something to be proud of; they did not expect to be shunted into an obscure corner of a peripheral hospital. Service men joined the DMS to be part of the action. They want to exist in close approximation to the teeth elements of the armed forces. Those front-line units are concentrated in Hampshire and Wiltshire, not Selly Oak.

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