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Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): When the former Secretary of State for Defence, now Home Secretary, made the original statement about deployment, many of us warned him that the capacity of the force is driven by the definition of the mission, and that this mission was ill-defined from the word go. I am supportive of what our forces are trying to do, but I have always felt—and now feel even more strongly—that until we look again at the
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mission and decide that it does not cover the reality on the ground, and try to see it through the eyes of the Taliban, we will continue to underperform in the sense of not giving our forces the right equipment and support. If the Minister does not wish to be accused of complacency, he should do two things. First, he should not wait for the Chiefs of Staff to come to him, but go to them and demand to know what the forces need to deliver the mission. Secondly, he should then give it to them.

Mr. Watson: The Chiefs of Staff are no shrinking violets, and they are not backwards at coming forwards, as they say on West Bromwich high street, but the right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I reread the debate in January when my right hon. Friend the then Defence Secretary announced our deployment. He said that the mission was clear and that there could be no security and stability if insurgents, illegal armed groups and the drugs trade were not tackled. Our role is to help the Afghans to do just that. Only then will the Afghan Government, with support from the international community, be able to set about the long and difficult task of reconstruction and development. I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman joins us in that goal.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am glad that my hon. Friend has given this response, because it is important that both sides of the House show our sympathy for those troops who have lost their lives and their families. We also express our strong support for the troops serving out there. Will he ensure that those troops are not left wanting equipment? The biggest breaker of morale is overstretch, so will he also ensure that the troops get the leave to which they are entitled? That is the biggest boost we could give them.

Mr. Watson: I take my hon. Friend’s point. I am sure that our troops will know that they have the full support of Members on both sides of the House, and I hear the point that he made about overstretch.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): In many conflict situations, people start to want revenge more than they want peace. In the battle for hearts and minds, the danger is of creating vast resentment. Would it not be sensible for the Government to revisit their strategy from the perspective of how we can persuade people, instead of increasing the use of force?

Mr. Watson: Our commanders on the ground understand the need for civic engagement. They are responsible for security building in Afghanistan and they understand that if ordinary Afghans do not buy in to what they are doing, our security objectives will not be met.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister has outlined the fact that the troops have been in Afghanistan for four and a half years and will be there for at least another three. In addition to the tragic loss of British troops, can he tell us how many Afghan casualties there have been in the four and a half years? He said that the troops’ position has huge public support, but that is not obvious from
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what is happening in Helmand province and the rest of Afghanistan. Is my hon. Friend aware that many people in the region, including Pakistan, and in other parts of the world simply do not see the British presence in Afghanistan as anything more than an occupying army that should not be there?

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend makes his customary point, but the operation is backed by UN mandate. Our coalition partners are clear that our objectives are never again to allow al-Qaeda and the Taliban to build a terrorist capacity that is a threat to the way of life all over the world. I would have thought that even my hon. Friend would wish us to achieve those objectives.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): If the worthy aims of the mission are to succeed, it is essential that command and control be better synchronised, as has been mentioned by the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), as well as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), the former Foreign Secretary. Would the Minister therefore agree that, when General Richards comes to take over his command, it should be a command of the whole mission in the whole area?

Secondly, does the Minister agree that, as it is a NATO mission, it is important that our other NATO allies cough up a great deal better than they have done so far, with proper fighting brigade-level formations to enable the mission to succeed?

Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman always makes a forceful and wise point to the House, and I will reflect his views back to the Chief of Staff, but our 34 coalition partners should play their role in making sure that our objectives are achieved.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Contrary to the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), many service families in my constituency are entirely behind the mission in Afghanistan and entirely understand the need for it, but one of the things that they are understandably anxious about at the moment are the recent deaths. It would relieve their anxiety if they were absolutely certain that the methods of communication between them and their loved ones serving in theatre were open at all times. Sometimes there have been difficulties in getting parcels, letters and e-mails through. Will the Minister make sure that that communication, which is important to morale both for troops and families, is guaranteed?

Mr. Watson: One of the sad parts of my being at the Dispatch Box today is that I have had to cancel a meeting with representatives of families of the three services; I would like to go on record as saying that I will rearrange that meeting as quickly as possible, and those points are just some of the issues that I intend to discuss with them.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Minister will know that, from the Secretary of State’s original statement, it would be fair to say that the level of
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violence encountered by British troops has been greater than was expected. The main mission was to bring in civilian support teams to bolster the Afghan civilian infrastructure in Helmand province. Can the Minister tell the House how many of those support teams—with Foreign Office, Department for International Development and non-governmental organisation volunteers—have actually been deployed in Helmand, and whether any of them have as yet suffered casualties?

Mr. Watson: I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman that information right now, but I will write to him about it in more detail. On his point about capacity building, I do not recognise his description of the mission as being in some way tougher than we thought it would be; we knew it would be dangerous at the start, but we knew that we had to capacity-build the security forces of the Afghan Government, as I have already said. Perhaps the request coming from theatre to which I alluded in my statement suggests to the hon. Gentleman that we are addressing that point.

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I am grateful for the assurances that my hon. Friend has given this afternoon that the mission is part of the support that is necessary to build the capacity of the new Afghan state and the new Parliament and—crucially for us in the Chamber—to support the parliamentarians as they seek to build democratic institutions throughout the whole of Afghanistan. Is it not important that the Minister’s Department should do everything that it can to argue that, despite the difficulties and the terrible loss of life that we are experiencing, we must stay to see through reconstruction and a viable Afghan state? Is it not important that all Members of the House support that position?

Mr. Watson: Yes, is the short answer to my hon. Friend, but let me give two quick answers. First, she is right that our presence has allowed the first democratically elected Afghan Government for many decades to be put in place, and secondly, our goal now is to make sure that their authority can be enhanced and improved.

Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): There are increasing reports of large-scale civilian casualties resulting from US air strikes in southern Afghanistan. What discussions has the Minister had with his US counterpart, as whatever the short-term military advantage that flows from taking out Taliban fighters embedded in civilian areas, the resultant loss of civilian life has potentially a corrosive effect on local sympathy and support, and could make the already difficult task of the British forces on the ground nigh-on impossible?

Mr. Watson: We talk to our American colleagues regularly about these issues, but the Taliban and the drug traffickers are killing people—innocent civilians—every day in Afghanistan, as a result of their terrorist aims, and until we can give the Afghan Government the capacity to deal with that, we have to be there.

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Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned the numbers of Foreign Office and other civilian Government staff working in Afghanistan. I understand that they will only travel outside their offices in armoured Warrior vehicles. Given the absence of adequate air cover at the moment, should not those Warrior vehicles be reserved for the Army on the ground, so that they can get the full benefit of them?

Mr. Watson: The way in which such people travel varies in different parts of Afghanistan, but our advice from the Chiefs of Staff is that our capacity is appropriate for current circumstances.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Several hon. Members have spoken about the mission. Soldiers understand that it is absolutely essential that one has a clarity of mission, which all energies are devoted to fulfilling, yet the Minister has spoken about narcotics, the economy, the Government and all sorts of things. What exactly, succinctly and clearly, is the mission that our soldiers are pursuing, and to which their energies should be devoted?

Mr. Watson: This seems to be round 2 of the defence debate the other week and I know that the hon. Gentleman does not give his support to our Chiefs of Staff, but they tell us that our mission objectives are clear and that they will be met.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. May I tell the hon. Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey) that he should stand up to try to catch my eye from the start of the statement, to give me an indication of who wants to speak?

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will the Minister admit that the lives of everyone in our armed services—men or women—in Afghanistan and Helmand province are very valuable indeed? Will he therefore perhaps go a little further in indicating that all the equipment that is required by our armed forces to ensure that their lives are put in as safe a situation as possible will be provided? In the light of the additional opposition to our personnel in Helmand province—this is along the lines of the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—is it not right that the original mission should be reviewed?

Mr. Watson: The hon. Gentleman always stands up for our services, and I commend him for that. When the Chiefs of Staff put a request to Ministers, we always take them seriously. If we get any request in these circumstances, his point will be well made and we will take it on board.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order.


The following Member took and subscribed the Oath:

Robert Neill Esq., for Bromley and Chislehurst

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estimates day

[3rd Allotted Day]

estimates 2006-07

Department of Health

[Relevant documents: Fifth report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004-05, HC7, on Human reproductive Technologies and the Law and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6641; Eighth Special Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2004-05, HC 491, on the Inquiry into Human Reproductive Technologies and the Law; the Department of Health departmental report 2005, Cm 6524.]

This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to a grant-in-aid to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (Resolution of 27 June).

Motion made, and Question proposed,

4.9 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): I welcome the opportunity to debate this important and topical issue on the Floor of the House. I once again pay tribute to the former Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), and members of the previous Committee on producing an extremely thorough and thoughtful report shortly before the 2005 general election.

Few areas of medical and social policy command greater interest or promote greater controversy than research and clinical practice in the area of human reproductive technologies. Producing the report was in itself a considerable challenge. It is no secret that at least half the membership of the Committee disagreed with the report. Well, some people disagreed with it, and it was a real challenge to agree on a final report to bring before the House. That reflects the divisions not only in the Committee but in society on these issues. There would have been something strange about an all-party Committee that did not have significant disagreements on this subject.

In spite of the difficulties in arriving at a consensus, the Committee was right to tackle the question. It is surely the job of Parliament to lead debate and not to shy away from key issues of public concern, however divisive they may prove to be. I would argue that this is a good example of the Select Committee system in operation: not simply scrutinising but helping to influence policy.

The Committee’s inquiry began in late 2003. It began because the Committee had serious concerns about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. The Government said that they would keep the HFEA
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under review. The Science and Technology Committee thought that that was not good enough. The Chairman said that the HFEA should be reconnected with the 1990 legislation. That was one of the reasons behind the inquiry. A year later, in 2004, the Department of Health announced its own review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. The Department sensibly waited for the Committee to produce its report before issuing a consultation alongside its response in August 2005.

The results of the consultation were published in March of this year, and further announcements are promised for the summer. The Government should be commended for the way in which they have responded to the Committee’s work. However, after a lengthy period of consultation—it is well over a year now—I think that the time has come for the Government to come forward with firm proposals, and, I hope, to produce a Bill in draft form.

A Bill is required anyhow to facilitate the creation of the new regulatory authority for tissue and embryos—RATE—from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority, which the Government have pledged to do by 2008. I commend to the Minister a draft Bill which would give the House an opportunity to debate and scrutinise some of the recommendations that will emerge from the Government’s consultation. I hope that today’s debate, and the Minister’s appearance before the Science and Technology Committee next week, will stimulate some decision making on the role of the new authority and related issues.

Before tackling some of the more controversial aspects of the Committee’s report, I shall outline the boundaries of the debate. I shall do so by stressing areas of agreement on the fundamental issues, which are unlikely to change. Both the Government and the Committee agreed with the gradualist approach to the status of the embryo adopted by the original Warnock Committee. I acknowledge that there are those who may disagree with this approach. However, I do not think that there is any realistic chance of it being dropped now for the purpose of legislation—so I think that we must start with the premise of the gradualist approach.

I think that there is general agreement that assisted reproduction is a legitimate area of interest for the state. It is only the extent of that interest that is in question. That in vitro fertilisation is now a common clinical procedure is not in question. The Government agree that legislation should take account of consequent changes in public perception, and that is what the debate is all about. The question is: how far are we prepared to accept assisted reproduction being regulated like other medical procedures, and what additional safeguards are required to protect the human embryo and the future child?

Other points on which the Government agree with the Committee are that there is a need for greater clarity in the policy-making functions of HFEA, and that legislation covering abortion should be removed from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. I will return to that point later. The Government also agree with the Committee that there is a need for some rationalisation of existing bodies. These areas of broad agreement provide a solid foundation for debate on other matters of principle, such as the extent and nature of Government intervention in reproductive health.

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