The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): We are working closely with the Electoral Commission to improve awareness in the service community of the options to register to vote. An internal information campaign will begin in the next few weeks to coincide with the publication of a new Defence Council instruction providing full information and practical help on how to register and explaining the various voting options.
Mr. Gray: Since the Minister introduced annual reregistration for service personnel in 2000, the number of service people registered to vote has collapsedin my constituency from 4,500 to 400, in Gosport from 3,500 to 200, and across the whole of Scotland from 18,000 to 2,000. If his intention was to encourage service people to vote, his stratagem has been a demonstrable failure. Will he now acknowledge that fact, and the fact that implementing some little initiative such as the one he mentioned will not be enough? He must now act decisively if large parts of our armed services are not, in effect, to be disfranchised.
I am not sure that I was personally responsible for the legislation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but I accept that the Government, of which I am a member, were. In the Westminster Hall Adjournment debate with the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) that took place before
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Christmas, I acknowledged that there had been a decline in the numbers. However, that is not an indication of the number of service personnel who register to vote, because under the Representation of the People Act 2000 we are asking people to register in the same way as we all doannually. That significant change is the reason why in many constituencies the numbers today are different from those seen in 2000.
Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that armed services personnel serving abroad will not be in receipt of all the information that the rest of us in this country take for granted. Will he ensure that they are made aware of the choices, and of the consequences for industry should the unthinkable happen and a Labour Government not be returned?
Mr. Caplin: I am sure that a Labour Government will be returned, whenever the general election takes place. One of the decisions facing those serving overseas is whether to vote by proxy or by post. As I said in the Westminster Hall Adjournment debate, I think it best for those serving overseas to seek an effective proxy vote in this country, to make sure that their votes are cast.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Among those who know of the situation, there is a widespread perception that the Government are deliberately dragging their feet because of the strong tendency among armed forces personnel not to vote Labour. Will the Minister therefore pledge to ensure that by May this year the number of members of the armed forces registered to vote will be the same as in May 1997?
Mr. Caplin: That's it, is it? Labour's two periods in office have witnessed the biggest consistent increase in defence spending, and the hon. Gentleman's assertion and assumption that armed forces personnel vote in a particular way is wholly ridiculous. As I said, we are engaged with the Electoral Commission and examining other ways of dealing with the issue, and I am confident that we will succeed.
Mr. Robathan: In my dealings with him, I have always found the Minister to be straightforwardand I know that he is not standing for Parliament again, but that answer is not good enough. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer says that he will never again believe a word the Prime Minister says, why should anybody in the country believe anything the Government say? Will the Minister now take action to ensure that all armed forces personnel are registered to vote by May? Otherwise, the country will draw its own conclusionthat the Government are happy to send armed forces personnel to dangerous spots such as Iraq, but not happy for those troops to cast their verdict on the Government's position and policies at the ballot box.
The hon. Gentleman is getting very excited this afternoon, and I do not understand why. I am a democrat and I want to encourage as many people as possible to take part in elections. The new Defence Council instruction, which is to be published at the end of the month, will be specific and will help to encourage people to register to vote in time for an election, whenever it is called.
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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence routinely discusses with NATO allies the role of the NATO-led international security assistance force in Afghanistan, including its support for Afghan counter-narcotics initiatives.
I appreciate that eradication is not the entire answer to the problem, and that the Afghan authorities have to take responsibility for themselves. However, we have NATO troops in Afghanistan, and they are highly trained and highly professional. Does my right hon. Friend agree that following the clear lead given by the Prime Minister, we should be actively pursuing, as part of our policy, making eradication of this killer crop part of NATO's core activities in Afghanistan?
Mr. Ingram: Shortly after my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced NATO's initiation of ISAF's expansion across northern Afghanistan last June, a new NATO plan for ISAF came into effect. For the first time, ISAF had a counter-narcotics role. That is limited, because ISAF expansion relies on provincial reconstruction teams, which are not designed for aggressive operations such as eradicating poppy crops. The force supports the Afghan Government's counter-narcotics strategy. For example, it collects intelligence and disseminates the intelligence that it encounters on narcotics. The security provided allows Customs and Excise to sponsor interdiction projects by the Kabul city gates and enable them to operate effectively.
I fully agree with the importance that my hon. Friend accords to these matters. I give him the assurance that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Defence Ministers take them extremely seriously, as do all Ministers. We shall continue to look for ways to deal with this evil crop.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
(Con): Since NATO and specifically Britain were given responsibility for eliminating poppy crops in Afghanistan, production has rocketed. Some people think that that has happened by as much as 80 per cent. The result is that a fix of heroin on the streets, I am told, is now as cheap as a cup of coffee. That is condemning many of our youngsters to a life of absolute misery. What are the Government doing to give this issue much greater priority?
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Mr. Ingram: We are taking the matter extremely seriously, but the way to take it forward does not rest solely with the United Kingdom's armed forces. Multinational forces are present. We must encourage everyone to move forward progressively in meeting the objectives. There cannot be a solely military solution; I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that. It is necessary to cut across the whole of Afghanistan society, and that requires the commitment, the determination and the support of the Afghan authorities. They are showing a greater willingness and preparedness to do that. That does not relate only to crop eradication. Account must be taken of livelihoods. There is a range of activities that will take time to bite and take effect. This is being experienced elsewhere in the world where there have been successful programmes that have been taken to a conclusion. They have not been based solely on a military solution, and in this instance too, that is the best way forward.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As at 6 January 2005, approximately 8,850 United Kingdom armed forces personnel were serving on Operation Telic. Of these, approximately 8,050 are based within Iraq. The remainder are either based elsewhere in the region, or are at sea in the Gulf. Around 300 Royal Navy personnel normally allocated to Operation Telic have been temporarily allocated to Operation Garron relief efforts in the far east. The forthcoming deployment of the extremely high readiness reserve battalion, which I have today announced to the House, will increase those figures by about 400.
Bob Spink: Will the Secretary of State lead the House in paying tribute to the professionalism and courage of those serving in the additional 400 from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Highland Fusiliers? Having felt the mood of the House today, will the right hon. Gentleman show the same professionalism and courage by changing his mind even at this late stage, and making a formal statement on this matter so that we can question him on the equipment that the troops will have, where they will be based, when they will be going, and so on?
Mr. Hoon: I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to all Britain's armed forces wherever they are serving, and particularly those serving in Iraq. I am sorry that he appears more interested in the constitutional process than he is in the substantive issue. Had he wanted to ask questions along the lines that he has outlined, he could have taken the opportunity to do so.
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
(Lab): What role can the armed forces play in Iraq in protecting Iraqi trade unionists, especially in the light of the brutal murder of Hadi Saleh and the theft of names and addresses of members of the Iraqi Federation of
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Workers Trade Unions, the major trade union, from his home? There is a need for considerable protection of workers inside Iraq.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the courage of the people who are working to rebuild Iraqi society in every possible way. Certainly, coalition forces continue to work alongside the Iraqi security forces in seeking to protect those efforts.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I am sure that the Secretary of State would not want to leave the House with the impression that the Royal Highland Fusiliers in Cyprus were poised to go to Iraqalthough that was the implication of his earlier statement. The high readiness reserve must be replaced with another battalion when it is deployed. Who will that reserve be, and can the Secretary of State explain the contradiction between his speech on the Loyal Address on 24 November 2004, when he said, as is recorded in column 108 of Hansard, that there were 220,000 trained Iraqi security personnel, and the figure of 115,000 personnel that he gave the House today? Would it not be better to make a proper statement? The Minister of State came to the House to make a statement on the deployment of seven liaison officers to the Congo, but the Secretary of State is proposing to deploy 50 times as many people without making a statement.
Mr. Hoon: The extremely high readiness reserve was specifically placed in Cyprus for the purpose that it is now about to undertake, as I have made plain to the House on previous occasions. I therefore want to correct the impression that the hon. Gentleman gave.
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): While recognising that murderers and torturers are carrying out crimes in Iraq against civilians as well as against our troops, would it not be wise to tell the United States that if there is any truth at all in the suggestion about assassination squads, that would not only add to the serious mistakes that America has made in Iraq, but would be counter-productive, assisting suicide bombers and so on? America is our friend and ally in this project, but we must speak frankly to it.
Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that I speak frankly to our American allies, just as I do to our other allies. However, it is in the nature of that frankness that that is best done privately rather than publicly.