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Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What assessment has been made of the extent of militia infiltration of
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the Iraqi security forces and police, and what is being done to deal with that? Does the Minister believe that a programme, along the lines of those which worked successfully in the Balkans, of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, would be the logical next step in Iraq?

Des Browne: My understanding is that the new Iraqi Government include just such a project—as well as a general proposal to deal with militia—in the description of security priorities. Part of the programme that they describe concerns the demobilisation, disarmament and integration of militia into the security forces of Iraq. That process must be dealt with very carefully, ensuring that one does not integrate into those forces elements that one would want to eradicate.

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that the Iraqi police force and, to a lesser extent, the Iraqi army, had been infiltrated by forces that were there for, shall I say, less than benign purposes—in fact, quite malevolent purposes. The capacity to deal with that in the area for which we have responsibility had for some months been impeded by the lack of a proper relationship with the provincial council in the south-east. Ironically, the process of re-engagement came to fruition the day after the horrific crash of the Lynx helicopter. Last week, I was able to see and hear from our commander on the ground in Iraq that that process is moving forward. Through that process, and by supporting the provincial Government and the chief of police in Basra, we will be able to deal with the problem that the hon. Gentleman identifies.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I have seen first hand in Basra the work of British armed forces and police forces in training the Iraqi police and security services. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the work that those individuals do, sometimes in very dangerous personal situations? Does he agree that that training is bearing fruit? My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) cited the example of the downing of the Lynx, where the Iraqi security services were able to take control of the situation very soon afterwards.

Des Browne: My hon. Friend speaks from some experience. Let me emphasise to hon. Members who have visited our forces in Iraq to see the position there that our troops on the ground greatly appreciate that. Sometimes they believe, for whatever reason, that their work and achievements are not fully appreciated in the United Kingdom, and it is helpful when parliamentarians take the time and trouble to go and see for themselves.

The capability of the Iraqi police force in particular has recently improved significantly. That is substantially down to those who have trained them. A significant representation of police officers from throughout the United Kingdom is involved in that, and I have no hesitation in paying tribute to their work. I rely on those people’s assessment of the improvement in the Iraqi police force, and not on my observations, in reporting any improvement to the House.

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Military Deployment (Afghanistan)

5. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): If he will list the security tasks being undertaken by the UK armed forces in support of the Afghan Government. [72199]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Our armed forces undertake a range of tasks in support of the Government of Afghanistan through the international security assistance force, the coalition and bilateral arrangements. Those are aimed at helping to create a secure and stable environment in which the rebuilding of the country can proceed.

Mr. Holloway: Why are our armed forces still planning to conduct joint police patrols when the police in Helmand province are wildly corrupt and, as yet, unreformed? To what extent is the Secretary of State encouraging President Karzai to use the detailed coalition intelligence material that we possess to support the prosecution of major drug traffickers with close political connections?

Des Browne: I say to the hon. Gentleman, who I know takes a significant interest in those matters, through not only his membership of the Defence Committee but his recent experiences of visiting Afghanistan, that I appreciate his informed interest. I reassure him that, in our communications with President Karzai, we encourage rooting out corruption, wherever it may be in the structures of the Government of Afghanistan. I have no personal experience of that, but the reports that I receive from my Cabinet colleagues who have met President Karzai are that he is a ready interlocutor on such matters.

The first part of the question was about patrolling with the Afghan police. Just as in Iraq, the process of our engagement with the Afghan police means that we can identify their training needs, improve their performance and help to root out the sort of behaviour that the hon. Gentleman identifies as unacceptable.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend send a clear message today from the Government to the Taliban, who watch and read European media, that NATO will not be a soft touch when it takes over from the Americans? Will he also send a message to our European colleagues to ensure that the rules of engagement that they allow their troops to use remain robust and that any attack on NATO forces will be met with strong resistance and retaliation?

Des Browne: I have every confidence in our NATO allies and their ability to carry out the tasks that they have accepted in the various parts of Afghanistan to which they have been deployed. I have enough concern about my responsibilities, without directing those who are responsible for delivering those tasks and in whom I have confidence.

However, I agree with the first part of my hon. Friend’s question. A strong message is being conveyed, not only to the Taliban but to others who are engaged in violence in southern Afghanistan where deployment
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is taking place, that we will meet violence with a robust response when necessary to protect not only our troops but Afghan troops who are deployed in that area to deliver security to it.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): The original parliamentary statement said that the Afghan deployment was to be for three years, at a cost of £1 billion. Now that Ministers and commanders are talking about being there for the long haul, what are the Government’s working assumptions about the length of time and the cost involved?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the Defence Select Committee’s report on the supplementary estimates, a request was made for a breakdown of the £1 billion cost so as to give Parliament some information on how the money was being spent. In response to that request, the MOD produced such a breakdown. The hon. Gentleman will know, as I do from my previous job, that we make plans for public spending for three years at a time, at the most. I believe that the role of our troops in Afghanistan lies at the heart of his question, and there is significant clarity about that role. I also accept, however, that we will not be able to deliver the outcome that we hope to deliver within a time scale of three years.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The geography of Afghanistan dictates that helicopters will be absolutely essential to delivering secure outcomes on the ground. However, there have been rumours that the military have been asking for more helicopter support than has been made available. Will the Secretary of State comment on those rumours? Is he absolutely confident that the people on the ground in Afghanistan have the helicopter support that they need?

Des Browne: I have no intention of commenting on rumours. However, I can say to my hon. Friend that the deployment of our total resource—including troops on the ground, and attack and support helicopters—is based on the advice given to the MOD by people with experience of such troop deployment. I am satisfied, because they have told me specifically that they have the necessary resources to carry out the task in hand.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Secretary of State will be aware of last night’s attack on Panjwayi, a known Taliban stronghold. He will also be aware of the changing security situation in southern Afghanistan, where more than 200 rebels have reportedly been killed in the past two weeks during the fiercest fighting since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The right hon. Gentleman’s predecessor confirmed that our troops were engaged not in counter-terrorism but in counter-insurgency, where we may have to strike first. Are the Taliban considered to be terrorists or insurgents, for the purposes of our mission in Afghanistan?

Des Browne: I do not think that it assists the definition of our task to categorise a group of people in one way or another. The role of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, particularly in
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regard to our deployment to the Helmand province, has often been stated. Indeed, its role and tasks are described on ISAF’s website. In summary, we are there to support the provincial reconstruction team. Our focus will be on assisting the Afghan Government to create the security that provides the space for reconstruction. Clearly, the local environment is complex, as the hon. Gentleman’s question suggests, with narcotics, criminality, the Taliban and tribal rivalries all present. The House should be in no doubt, however, that our forces have the capability and the freedom to do what is required to safeguard the reconstruction effort in that challenging environment. The hon. Gentleman is correct to say that there has been a recent increase in violence, but that response was to be expected from those insurgents and other elements in southern Afghanistan who wish to resist the deployment of ISAF troops to the area.

Dr. Fox: That answer will do nothing to dispel the fears that the mission in Afghanistan is less than clear. In a recent written answer, the Secretary of State’s predecessor said that the

There is clearly a risk that the counter-narcotics measures taken in Afghanistan will push farmers into the arms of the Taliban, and that that would undermine the whole mission. Obviously, to avoid that, alternative incomes must be made available, and the cost of that is likely to increase as the destruction of poppy crops increases. Can the Secretary of State therefore explain why the Secretary of State for International Development has said of alternative livelihoods:

What implications does that statement have for the progress of counter-narcotics operations?

Des Browne: The answer is that those projects will be conducted differently in different places. Some of the projects will require significant investment at the outset to build the infrastructure required to enable local capacity to deliver such alternative livelihoods. I do not know the detail of the timeline of that expenditure, but £45 million will make a significant contribution towards offering alternative livelihoods to those engaged in the growing of poppies and other related activities. Of course, I should add that we are not the only people who are making contributions to fund alternative livelihoods in Afghanistan.

The suggestion at the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s question is perfectly correct: unless those who are currently involved in poppy cultivation can be engaged in other activities that will provide a livelihood for them and their families, we will not be able to turn them away from that production. The focus of our forces in Helmand province is therefore clear: to create a security situation that will allow us to do just that.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): In spite of the courageous professionalism of our troops, the poppy
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crop in Afghanistan this year is likely to be at a record high. Are we not on a mission impossible that has already led to increased violence, will certainly drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban and could lead us into a British Vietnam? Surely a practical alternative would be to divert poppy crops into the manufacture of diamorphine, of which there is a world shortage.

Des Browne: That specific alternative was considered in detail and rejected by those who have experience in such areas. However, the development of democratic control of Afghanistan is at the heart of our mission, because that will prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a training ground for international terrorists. While we have had success in the northern and western parts of Afghanistan, the southern part poses a much greater challenge. At the heart of that challenge, of course, is our ability to retain the consent of the people of the south by providing them with practical examples of how proper governance, security and alternative livelihoods can offer a stable and better economic future. I believe that that is a noble cause, which deserves the support of both sides of the House. For as long as I have the responsibilities of Secretary of State for Defence, I will continue to support those troops whom we have asked to perform that role and those others whom we have asked to deliver reconstruction projects.

Far East Internees

7. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): What progress has been made in finalising the settlements for second world war far east civilian internees. [72201]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): Officials have drafted detailed rules for the new 20-year residence criterion and held initial discussions on those with the chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees of the Far East Region. Revised rules reflecting those discussions will be considered by the working group—which my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), announced on 28 March—at its meeting on 25 May. We aim to implement the new criterion as soon as possible.

Mr. Burrowes: I welcome the new Minister to his post. Will he provide an assurance to my constituent, Diana Elias, and other former far east civilian internees, that, by the time of the meeting with her next month, her compensation will be settled? Will the Government adopt in full the recommendations of the ombudsman in relation to this matter and ensure that they bring to an end this sorry chapter in their history?

Mr. Watson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I am aware of the work that he has done in this respect through his contributions to the work of the Public Accounts Committee, and that he has a powerful constituency interest.

This week I shall meet Ron Bridge, chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees of the Far East Region, and I hope to meet the chairman of the all-party group on far east prisoners of war and
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internees. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency, and hope that we can deal with the matter as swiftly as possible. I can tell him that according to the evidence I have seen, Mrs. Elias will be eligible for the ex gratia payment.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend to his position, and pay tribute to his predecessor, who took a very positive attitude to sorting out this difficult problem.

The scheme has been largely successful: a good many people have received compensation. However, one group has been excluded—unfairly, in the view of the all-party group. Is it not important for their needs to be recognised by means of an alteration that is not too complex, is easy to understand and provides a fall-back position for any hard cases that may still be excluded? We need a solution as quickly as possible. I am pleased that I shall be meeting my hon. Friend, I believe on Thursday, to try to work out some of the details.

Mr. Watson: I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said. He will be aware of the context of the problem to which he has referred: 25,000 people have already received ex gratia payments, and about 500 more will receive them if we extend eligibility. I am very keen to get the system right. I understand the pressures from the House for a result, but the devil is in the detail. I hope that we can resolve the problem, and that I can report back to the House as quickly as possible.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Let me take this first opportunity to welcome the Minister to his post. I look forward to jousting with him across the Dispatch Box.

When the Minister’s predecessor made his statement about the 20-year rule on 28 March, he said that he would meet the working group immediately after the Easter recess and hoped to make a statement to the House a week or so later. We have been waiting for over a month now. Obviously there have been reshuffle-induced delays that may have been unavoidable, but can the Minister tell us when he will be in a position to outline the details of the 20-year rule? May I also pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), and ask whether he will ensure that each of the cases not resolved by the rule will be reviewed on its merits so that we can close this chapter once and for all?

Mr. Watson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. I shall be meeting the working group this week. I want to ensure that the matter is cleared up as quickly as possible, but I cannot give a date for an announcement until I have seen the details.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the new Minister to his post. May I ask him to pay attention to the dossier? It is 10 years almost to the week since I first raised, in an Adjournment debate, the issue of the internees. I took a delegation to meet members of the then Conservative Government, and was utterly rebuffed, because the Conservative party never looks after the people who have served our country. It took a Labour Prime Minister— [Interruption.]

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Mr. Speaker: Order.

Defence Industrial Strategy

8. Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the implications for defence research of the defence industrial strategy. [72202]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The defence industrial strategy clearly highlighted the importance of research and technology as a vital enabler of our national defence capability. As such, research and technology was embedded throughout the strategy. The chapter on “technology priorities to enable defence capability” draws together the critical underpinning and cross-cutting technologies that need to be sustained in the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Dorries: The defence industrial strategy clearly stated that the technology advantage we enjoy today is the result of past investment, and warns that we are now in danger of falling behind our allies and even the emerging economies. Why, then, have the Government halved spending on research and development since 1997, cutting it from £900 million to £450 million?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Lady should go back to those who advised her, and find out when the curve started to go down. There were significant cuts in research and technology investment in the 1990s, under a Conservative Government.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Labour has been in office for nine years.

Mr. Ingram: Yes, we have been in office for nine years, and we have now established a defence industrial strategy. It must deal with some difficult timelines in, for instance, ensuring that research and technology are specific to defence needs and secure value for money and the desired outputs. It must also take account of the role of the innovative sector and of small and medium-sized enterprises, which would argue that they have been neglected for too long. There are some key core capabilities in that sector, which are sometimes bypassed. Those capabilities should be identified, and the barriers lifted.

The important point is that out of the criticism is now coming something of substance. Expenditure is being stabilised, and the plan is to raise it in line with inflation in the coming years. Meanwhile, a review will be undertaken—it will report at the end of the year—to see whether more needs to be done. So, although we may collectively have taken decisions that, overall, have not been to our benefit, we are addressing that issue, and the hon. Lady should thank this Government for doing so.

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