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26 Jun 2006 : Column 8

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The requirement for a continuing coalition presence in Basra will persist until clearly defined conditions are achieved. As with all 18 Iraqi provinces, it is the achievement of those conditions that will ultimately determine when Iraqi security forces can take over responsibility for security.

Harry Cohen: Is not the purpose of UK forces in Basra to maintain order and to ensure basic amenities? If so, why did a state of emergency have to be declared after a surge of killings, and why is Bill Neely, ITN’s international editor, reporting on limbs amputated for lack of basic medical supplies, children dying from preventable diseases, and no treatment for cancer patients for three years in Basra’s main hospital? Why are Ministers sleep-walking when they should be waking up to their responsibilities? If they say, “Can’t do”, should not it be a case of “Can’t stay”?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend’s position on the presence of British forces in Iraq is well known, as it has been over the years. The fact is that British forces in Basra have seen an improvement in a significant number of the services available to the people of Basra. There has been an increase in violence over the last few months, but that is entirely coincidental with the period between the election and the formation of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government are now in place and the Prime Minister, the new Defence Minister and the new Minister of the Interior have publicly stated that security in Basra is a priority. They have developed a plan that will be led by the Iraqi security forces themselves, in the form of the Iraqi army. There are significant difficulties; the Iraqi police have been significantly infiltrated by violent groups who are part of an outside process and there is a degree of corruption, but the plan addresses those issues. To suggest that the situation for the ordinary people of Basra is no better since British forces have been there is not true—it has improved for them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Whatever the time scale for our armed forces in Basra, the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on possible replacements for the Snatch Land Rover in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq are welcome, provided they lead to early action. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the grievous gap in our capability for clearing mines for light forces, which in practice means most of our forces in Iraq, and indeed in Afghanistan. Both those factors are putting lives at risk unnecessarily.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. I have already made my position clear to the House, so it is unnecessary to repeat it. I shall take into account the hon. Gentleman’s second point, although I am not aware of a level of risk immediately generated by the absence of capability that he suggests.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): When the members of the Select Committee on Defence were in Iraq recently we met members of the 10th Division and General Latif. As well as giving the Iraqis support in training, did my right hon. Friend hold discussions
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with the Iraqi Government about how they can be resourced in terms of equipment and other things they need to do the job that they are eager and willing to take over in neighbouring states, as well as playing their part in bringing security to Basra?

Des Browne: I, too, met General Latif and visited the 10th Division. At that stage, he was proudly showing off to me the equipment allocated to him. The indications were that if there had been a blockage in relation to the necessary equipment, the equipment was now forthcoming. The 10th Division was deploying forces in Basra city when I was there, giving security in the city a clear Iraqi face, which was welcome both to our troops and to the people of the city.

Veterans’ Day

5. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): If he will make a statement on Veterans’ day. [79714]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): I am pleased that the first-ever national Veterans’ day is taking place on 27 June. Not only will a major event be organised at the Imperial War museum in London, but we know of 150 events that are being organised locally across the UK. More than 70 events have received financial support from the Department at a total cost of about £130,000. I am delighted that this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of our veterans is being embraced so enthusiastically by organisers, veterans and the general public.

Ben Chapman: While many congratulations are due on the introduction of Veterans’ day and all that has been achieved, may we turn our attention to how we recognise those involved in more recent conflicts, such as the Falklands, now approaching its 25th anniversary? But a more pressing point—at least for me—is the situation of those interned by the Japanese during hostilities in the second world war. Can my hon. Friend update me on how we are settling that debt of honour?

Mr. Watson: I shall answer both parts of that supplementary question. I can confirm that there will be a major celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Falklands. I probably speak for both sides of the House when I give the reason why. Today, many of us were in the company of the most remarkably brave people, who have served their country in military and civilian capacities. Some of them served in the Falklands and they deserve a commemoration 25 years on. My view is that the anniversary should be celebrated in the UK and the Falklands. I am not in a position to sketch out the detail yet, but I will report to the House when we have more information.

On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am pleased to say that the criteria for the new 20-year residence criterion for the far east prisoner of war scheme have been agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) and the chairman of the Association of British Civilian Internees Far East Region. They will be implemented with effect from
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today. I hope to place the detailed rules in the Library of the House. Those who were British at the time of their internment who think that they meet the criterion of 20 years residence in the UK between 1945 and 7 November 2000, whether they were civilians or members of the armed forces of the British empire, should apply to the Veterans Agency. We expect the first payments to be made very shortly.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Minister’s answers to both those questions will be warmly welcomed throughout the House and the country, but would it not focus attention on what we owe to the veterans, and also enable young people to be taught just what is involved, if we had the commemoration as a public holiday?

Mr. Watson: The granting of a public holiday is not in my gift, but the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people, for whom the Falklands war is something that they learn about in history, is well made and I hope that, as part of our commemorations of 25 years, we can involve school and youth groups up and down the country.

Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab): The Stockport British Legion was presented with a cup for its outstanding fundraising last year. This year, it will surpass even last year’s effort. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the British Legion, the Normandy Veterans Association and the Combined Services Association in Stockport on the valuable work that they do in helping veterans? His announcement on extending the veterans medal has been warmly welcomed.

Mr. Watson: The whole House will wish to congratulate Stockport British Legion. My hon. Friend failed to invite me up to visit the British Legion personally, but if she were to do so, perhaps I could do that during the summer recess.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the far east prisoners of war. I know that that has taken a good deal of time, and I hope that that will deal with the rest of the outstanding cases. As for the suggestion from my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) about a veterans day, it may not be within the Minister’s power to grant a day’s holiday, but since there has been some criticism this year of the extent to which the Chancellor has tried to involve himself with veterans day and since he appears to be all-powerful in the Government, perhaps the Minister could have a word with him to see whether he could grant such a day.

Turning to next year’s celebrations, veterans day in 2007, which will be coterminous with the 25th anniversary of the Falklands conflict, will be particularly poignant. I urge the Minister to assert the primacy of the Ministry of Defence on that issue and to work closely with Opposition Front-Bench Members to make sure that we have a day that will truly be worthy of our veterans.

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Mr. Watson: Let me give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that we can do that. The whole House needs ownership of that commemoration. I hope that his input and that of his colleagues will be paramount. As for the Chancellor granting a bank holiday, I am not sure whether that is in his gift either, although, of course, he is all-powerful.


6. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): What the mission statement is for United Kingdom troops in Afghanistan. [79715]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): UK forces in Afghanistan are primarily deployed as part of the international security assistance force. The ISAF mission, as published, is to help the Afghan Government to create a secure environment in which their authority can be extended across the entire country and reconstruction of the country can be taken forward. Of course, that objective will not be achieved by military means alone, and consequently the British Government have undertaken an unprecedented degree of cross-governmental co-ordination to ensure that we deliver a fully integrated package that addresses governance, security, economic development and political and social change.

Mr. Mackay: I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that that objective will also not be secured with only 6,000 NATO troops in the southern part of Afghanistan. Is it not essential that more troops are made available, and what is he doing to ensure that that happens?

Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that no one is yet at full operational capability in southern Afghanistan. We are in southern Afghanistan with several international partners—Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Estonia, Denmark, Romania and Australia—and for our part, in Helmand province, we believe that we have deployed an important and appropriate force. I do not necessarily accept that there are insufficient forces in any other part of southern Afghanistan. However, the issue will need to be kept constantly under review by ISAF and NATO. It will be incumbent on us to ensure that we deploy sufficient forces to enable us to carry out the task in hand. However, the right hon. Gentleman should not forget that the Afghan army itself is increasingly deploying forces to that area. The assessment of those soldiers that I am given is that they are of the highest calibre.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I know that the Secretary of State will agree that central to a successful deployment in Afghanistan will be the heavy-lift capability provided by the Hercules aircraft from RAF Lyneham, which is in my constituency. In that context, he will know that one of the contributory factors to the tragic crash of a Hercules in Iraq last year might have been the absence of foam flame retardant in the wing tanks. Will he tell us how quickly the retardant will be fitted in the Hercules fleet and
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how many planes will be fitted with it? Will he confirm that all the planes that are deployed in Afghanistan will have that safeguard fitted to them?

Des Browne: I am happy to accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to pay tribute to the contribution that the Hercules—and, more importantly, those who fly the Hercules—have made to military operations in not only Afghanistan and Iraq at present, but elsewhere. He knows, as I am sure that the House does, that we intend to fit the flame-retardant foam into Hercules and to ensure that those that are deployed to the theatre are fitted with that. I have said in public, so I have no reason to say anything different from the Dispatch Box, that we hope to be able to do that by August for the first of them. We will ensure that sufficient numbers of Hercules are fitted with the appropriate retardant foam so that operations can be conducted.

Royal Marine Corps

7. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the likely future structure of the Royal Marine Corps within the UK’s defensive capability; and if he will make a statement. [79716]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Royal Marines make a unique and essential contribution to our armed forces and have done so for more than three centuries. We remain firmly committed to maintaining a world-class Royal Marine force and amphibious capability.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise and applaud the work of the Royal Marines, especially in the deployment to Afghanistan that will take place shortly. What thoughts do the Minister and the Department have about the formation of a future additional fourth commando of the Royal Marines? Has he thought about the formation of a new special operations group with commandos from the Royal Marines, the Parachute Regiment and others who have done the commando course at Lympstone?

Mr. Ingram: On the latter point, the hon. Gentleman might be aware that a special support regiment has been stood up and is based at St. Athan. The question of the fourth manoeuvre unit of the Commando Brigade is being examined, although no recommendations have reached Ministers’ desks yet. I will wait and see what the recommendations are before giving the hon. Gentleman an answer to his specific question because I will have to see the merits, benefits and, perhaps, disbenefits of the proposal before reaching a considered opinion. Work is in hand to achieve that, however.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will know that there has been a lot of speculation in Scottish newspapers recently about the possible deployment of 45 Commando, which is based in my constituency, to Afghanistan. Those troops have
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special expertise—they are technology experts—in winter warfare. Given the Secretary of State’s earlier answer, will the Minister assure us that any such deployment would keep UK troops within the agreed ISAF parameters and would not represent an extension to the UK’s involvement in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ingram: No decision has been taken as to the next deployment, but 45 Commando clearly has particular capabilities and is trained for specific purposes, and that comes into play as part of the planning process, in both the medium and long term. However, I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing for it not to be deployed or he is in favour of it being deployed. I do not know where his party currently stands on that because we are talking about a NATO mission, and his party is of course opposed to NATO. Therefore, I am unsure where he is coming from on this issue. I meet 45 Commando personnel regularly and I can say that, in common with all other members of Her Majesty’s armed forces, they actually like being deployed. We have to make proper judgments accordingly as to when and how often that deployment takes place.

Dr. David Kelly

8. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): If he will make a statement on the role played in his Department by Dr. David Kelly. [79717]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Dr Kelly’s role in the Department, on secondment from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton Down, was as an adviser to the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities, the work of the United Nations Commissions dealing with inspections in Iraq, and on issues relating to the chemical weapons convention and the biological and toxin weapons convention. Dr. Kelly also advised the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission on training, and communicated Iraq issues to the media and institutions. All that was set out in the Hutton report.

Norman Baker: Dr. Kelly made an immense contribution to the security of this country and the world. As part of his work for the Department, shortly before his death he co-authored a report for the United States and the UK that was delivered to the US on 27 May 2003, and which made it clear that the so-called mobile biological weapons laboratories were nothing of the sort. However, two days later President Bush indicated,

which Dr. Kelly flatly contradicted in public afterwards. What discussions took place between the UK and the US regarding Dr. Kelly’s public statement about that matter, and what investigations have been conducted to establish where the fake trailers masquerading as mobile laboratories came from? If the Secretary of State cannot answer now, will he please write to me?

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Des Browne: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman will be surprised that I approach the Dispatch Box to confirm that I am unable to answer a question of such a nature without having had some prior notice of it. However, what I will say is that it is my understanding that although the hon. Gentleman has publicly said, in terms, that he is about to devote one year of his life to pursuing investigations in relation to Dr. Kelly and the circumstances surrounding his death, it is not my intention, periodically or consistently, to start an investigation from the Dispatch Box. The position is that Lord Hutton investigated fully the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr. Kelly and it would be entirely inappropriate for me to start picking up aspects of that case piecemeal. However, I will look carefully into the question he has asked to see if I can provide any information, despite the fact that my Department was entirely open in respect of Dr. Kelly’s role and all the evidence that it had for the Hutton report. If, contrary to my view, there is anything of assistance that I can communicate to the hon. Gentleman, I will do so.

Army Recruitment

9. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What recent trends he has identified in levels of recruitment to the Army. [79718]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): A combination of high employment, a prosperous and strong economy, attractive alternatives in further education and stiff competition from other employers have all increased the pressure on the Army in its efforts to attract young men and women. To counter this, the Army’s recruiting group has redoubled its recruiting effort through advertising campaigns. During recent months, its intensive marketing campaign has paid dividends and the number of applications has increased. The challenge now is to convert that interest into enlistments.

Mr. Dunne: With unprecedented numbers of Territorial Army soldiers and other reservists currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet with TA strength at its lowest level since its formation more than 100 years ago, what do the Government plan to do to fix the recruitment crisis now affecting all our reserve forces?

Mr. Ingram: As of 14 June 2006, some 574 members of the Territorial Army—about 1.8 per cent. of the TA—were deployed on operations overall, of whom 397 are serving in Iraq. Extensive efforts are being made to achieve better recruiting. As at April 2006, the TA’s strength was more than 2 per cent. higher than it was one year ago, and it is at its highest level since June 2004. Its strength has increased by about 900 since the beginning of the year, which could indicate a trend. However, in respect of the TA, the reserves and the regular forces, constant effort needs to be made to keep the marketing intensity high, because that is what the competition is doing to attract young men and women into their areas of interest. We are beginning to see some trends that are to our benefit, but we can maintain them only through such intensive effort.

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