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Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): The Home Secretary rightly made several points in his statement. One was that, although the security services have to work efficiently, they may make mistakes, and that it is incumbent on the Government of the day to support them even when that happens. However, he also rightly pointed out that, for there to be community cohesion, there has to be trust in the security services. That is a difficult balance to strike. I do not want to go into detail, but there have been recent cases in which we have not got the public relations right. Can he begin to
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change the culture so that we have a much more rapid series of conclusions when things go right and when they go wrong, and accept the fact that, when things go wrong, early admission should be made rather than denial, which leads to distrust, especially among minority communities?

John Reid: Yes. My hon. Friend and many other hon. Members could help by explaining the nature of intelligence to people. When a piece of intelligence comes before an intelligence officer, it is not often “right” or “wrong”. It is always fragmentary and partial. Even if it is right in its isolated area, it may be right or wrong in the general context. Putting together a series of such fragmentary pieces of information requires a great deal of judgment, so there is a gradation rather than a simple “right” or “wrong”. Some understanding of that helps people to realise the difficult position in which those in the police and the intelligence services are placed if, on the basis of information received, it appears possible or probable that an event may occur, the consequences of which would be disastrous for many human beings. In those circumstances, it is incumbent on us to support the actions that are necessary for our police and security services to protect life. As I said, all hon. Members could help to promote a better understanding of that. We must balance the sensitivities of all communities with a recognition that the police sometimes have to act to protect all communities.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): The Home Secretary has told the House and the wider world that the Home Office is “not fit for purpose”. How have the Government’s legislative proposals failed the test of our civil liberties and their Human Rights Act 1998? The right hon. Gentleman did not wish to refer to control orders but central problems call into question the Government’s interpretation of those basic rights. Does he propose to alter the Human Rights Act?

John Reid: I know that the hon. Gentleman prides himself on the accuracy of his words. Let me therefore correct a factual inaccuracy. I said not that the Home Office was “not fit for purpose”, but that elements—areas—inside it were not. I said that after commending the Home Office for transforming the speed of treatment of asylum cases and—previously and subsequently—for transforming the UK Passport Service, which was the most disastrous aspect of Government in 1999. It has been transformed, with a consumer satisfaction rating that is higher than that for Tesco. I know that the hon. Gentleman would want to begin his question on a correct factual basis.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point was about tackling misrepresentations, misinterpretations or any administrative or other implications of the Human Rights Act to try to rebalance matters. Yes, that will be part of the third review, which I mentioned. Proposals on all aspects of rebalancing the criminal justice system will be introduced before the end of the parliamentary term.

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Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give the strongest possible support and encouragement to those law enforcement agencies engaged in intercepting the financing of terrorist acts? Does he believe that criminal activity is a source of funding for such activity? If that is the case, will he encourage the law enforcement agencies to expose such links, so that those young people to whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) referred earlier, who might otherwise be attracted to join in such activities for misguided religious or other reasons, can see the true nature of the organisations to which they are attracted?

John Reid: I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. Given her experience as a Security Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, she will probably know as well as anyone in the House how what is sometimes portrayed—and sometimes, in the eyes of its adherents, even begun—as a noble cause can degenerate into money-manufacturing criminality for gangster organisations. That is the true nature of all extremist terrorism, when it goes unimpaired and unaddressed. Part of our dialogue with young people therefore involves discussing why they believe that they ought to become sympathetic towards such processes, and to engage with them by explaining not only the underlying political reasons that they believe drive them in that direction but the terrible consequences involved, including the corrupt criminal activities that are often related to such terrorist practices.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): There has, quite rightly, been a great deal of discussion on the importance of intelligence in the battle against terrorism. Will the Home Secretary confirm that, in regard to national security and intelligence matters relating to Northern Ireland, it is still his intention that the lead agency will be MI5, reporting directly to governmental authorities and Ministers?

John Reid: It was when I left Northern Ireland, because that is the direction in which I pointed it, and I think that that is still the case. In fact, I will say to the hon. Gentleman that that is the direction, but I will write to him to correct myself if it is not. However, I think that it is.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Is it my right hon. Friend’s opinion, based on his knowledge, that we are safer today than we were on 7 July last year?

John Reid: In terms of the general threat level, we are at the same level as we have been since after July. I would like to say that I believe that there is a period of guaranteed safety, but there is no such thing. However, I can give my hon. Friend a guarantee that those who are working to protect this country from the threat of terrorism will give 100 per cent. dedication, 100 per cent. commitment and, I hope, 100 per cent. professionalism. They cannot give us 100 per cent. certainty, but everything possible is being done to ensure that, even with a severe level of threat, the terrorists do not get through.

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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I express the hope that those responsible for the planning of policy, the enactment of legislation and the deployment of operations will keep well in mind the principle of proportionality, the importance of not infringing civil and political liberties, and the need to maintain the good will of the law-abiding community? Some of us think that that has not been the mark of Government policy over a number of years.

John Reid: Of course, the whole question of proportionality is something that we should always bear in mind. That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman would want, as a lawyer as well as a parliamentarian. As an historian, he will also be aware that situations change. In regard to both the criteria of assessment—intention and capability—that are used against the new threat, we now face an enemy that is utterly unconstrained in its wanton wish to destroy humankind on the largest possible scale. That differentiates it from many enemies in the past. It is also unconstrained in its potential capability, because having the technical means to produce radiological, nuclear or chemical weaponry now means that an unconstrained intention can be conjoined with an unconstrained capability. We have to remember that when we talk about proportionality.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Home Secretary is right to tell us that the majority of Muslims here wish only to live peacefully and do not support terrorism in any form, but is he worried about the result of a recent public opinion poll, which indicated that 13 per cent. of British Muslims view last year’s suicide bombers in London as martyrs rather than criminals? Will he work more closely with moderate Muslim leaders here explicitly to condemn such attitudes and to support and work for the concept of a separation between allegiance to a state and allegiance to a religion—a concept that is rare in the Muslim world, but not unique, as shown by the good example of Turkey?

John Reid: Yes, I think everyone would be worried about the percentage that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. On the other hand, we should not assume that general sentiments expressed in an opinion poll are
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an indication that people wish that they were engaged in such terrorist activity. It is not unknown in respect of past terrorist acts that the allegiance of young people—whether it be here, in Northern Ireland, Spain or Italy—can sometimes be attached in theory to something that they would never support in practice. We should not underestimate the problem and we cannot be complacent, but we should not brand large sections of the Muslim community as inveterately committed in that direction. I think that that would be wrong. As I said earlier, the dividing line is not between Muslim and non-Muslim, but between evil terrorism and those of us who hold a set of values in common throughout all religions and all civilisations. I merely point out the fact that many of the victims of these terrorist acts—not only in London and New York, but in Saudi Arabia, Amman, Turkey, which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, Egypt or in many other areas where terrorists are inflicting their ills on societies, including Afghanistan and Iraq—are themselves Muslims. Not only that, but many victims are often women and children as well as men, so we are all at threat. Terrorism threatens us all and only by a united response will we ultimately defeat it.

Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): Following on from that, does the Home Secretary accept that some of the statements from Ministers, including the Prime Minister, over the last year have served only to heighten the alienation? What does he propose to do to re-engage the majority moderate members of the Muslim community who, like everyone else, want to get rid of terrorism?

John Reid: No, I do not accept that in respect of the Prime Minister and I would say to the hon. Gentleman that engagement does not mean patronising. The vast majority of Muslims in this country—just the same as everyone else—want to live in a free, decent society where their children do better than they did. They value the freedoms that we protect here and they find terrorism abhorrent. When we engage with people in that community who may not be part of that mainstream, we should be not just engaging them but prepared to enter into discussion and, if necessary, debate with them over values. A values-based discussion will sometimes lead us into debate, which I believe is a good, not a bad, thing.

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Afghanistan (Troops Levels)

4.28 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about UK deployments to Afghanistan. On Thursday, I spoke about Afghanistan during the defence debate. Today, I reiterate the enormous debt that we owe to the British soldiers who have given their lives and who have been injured while serving there. I also salute the bravery of all of our forces who are working to bring about lasting change in Afghanistan.

On Thursday, I said that we had received requests for additional forces in Helmand and that I would announce our response as soon as possible. I will do that today; but first, I want to place that response and indeed the whole of our deployment to Helmand and to Afghanistan as a whole in its proper context.

On 11 September 2001, a devastating terrorist attack was launched against the west from within Afghanistan’s borders. That happened, at least in part, because we abandoned Afghanistan to become a failed state after the Soviet occupation, and that is why it remains overwhelmingly in our national interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to a haven for terrorists. It is also in the interests of the Afghan people, the vast majority of whom have no sympathy for terrorism or violent extremism. There are many malign influences holding back the Afghans and we need to fight them, but we should be under no illusion about what is required to succeed.

Only by rebuilding Afghanistan, by strengthening its Government, its security forces and its legal system and by tackling its desperate poverty will we be able to help Afghanistan to make real and lasting progress. I have heard hon. Members on both sides of the House agree that we should help. The UN agrees. NATO agrees. Thirty-six countries are providing troops to seal their agreement. We all agree, and everything that we do and say should reflect that consensus.

It is also important to recognise where our efforts in Helmand stand in relation to the strategy for Afghanistan as a whole. NATO has been in charge of that mission for three years. It has helped to generate the confidence for millions of refugees to return, and improved access to better medicine and education. It has followed a clear plan to expand security and reconstruction from the north to the west, and now to the more challenging south. We have been engaged in that process throughout, having until recently provided a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. The south is more challenging, but that was always well understood, which is why NATO sought a firm platform of progress in the north and west first.

Let me turn specifically to Helmand. We began deploying to Helmand in February, building up to full operating capability on 1 July. It has been said that we have been over-optimistic about that deployment, that we told the House that it would not be difficult and that we sent the wrong force. None of that is true. We said from the start that it was going to be a challenging mission. My predecessor’s statement to the House on 26 January included a sober assessment of the threat. The force package, which was designed by the military and endorsed by the chiefs of staff, reflected that. It
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contained attack helicopters, artillery and armoured vehicles. We deployed tough, capable units, with robust rules of engagement, because we expected violent resistance.

We knew that the Taliban, the drug lords and certain tribal elements would resist any attempt to bring security to the people of Helmand. We knew that the kind of people who behead teachers, burn schools, smuggle drugs and assassinate Government officials were not likely to stand by and allow progress to happen. Yes, we have taken casualties, but we have over-matched the opposing forces every single time that we have faced them. They have tried to block our deployment, and failed. They will continue to try to disrupt our mission, and they will continue to fail.

Let me turn now to that mission. Some say that it is confused and that it is spurious to say that it is about reconstruction, when the reality for soldiers has been fighting. We always knew that there was a probability of violent resistance. That is why we sent soldiers to do the task, but that does not change our overriding purpose, which is to rebuild. We have been accused of naivety by drawing a distinction between the ISAF—international security assistance force—mission to spread security and the US-led mission focused on counter-terrorism. But that distinction is not naive at all. In both cases, soldiers will have to fight, but the nature of the ISAF mission reflects the fundamental fact that we will not reach a lasting peace by force alone; we will reach it when Afghanistan has changed and when the Government have been able to deliver such security, development and prosperity that the ordinary Afghans will no longer tolerate terrorists and criminals in their midst. That is why rebuilding is our mission. Our forces on the ground understand that, and the Afghans understand it. In that sense, the mission is simple, but its delivery is complex. That complexity arises from the situation. Three decades of conflict have stripped the south of all signs of governance and robbed many Afghans of hope. And in that uncontrolled space, violence, criminality, narcotics and extremism have flourished. We have confronted those threats and learned much about them since we deployed. As with any deployment, those experiences have allowed us to review our forces and approach. That is what we have been doing in recent weeks.

Let me now explain why we need to adjust and strengthen our force structure in Helmand. The original intent was to tackle the challenges incrementally, spreading security and reconstruction from the centre of Helmand out. But the commanders on the ground grasped an early opportunity. They saw the chance to reinforce the position of the local governor and the Afghan army and police by going into northern Helmand and challenging the impunity of the Taliban there. In doing that, we moved faster towards achieving our ultimate objectives but also extended ourselves.

We must respond to that development. But it is our actions—our decisions and our determination to grasp the challenge—that have brought about the development, and not, as some suggest, a failure to anticipate a violent response to our arrival. Yes, the violence has increased, but that was inevitable. We are challenging the power of the Taliban and other
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enemies of the Afghan Government, and they are reacting. But despite their efforts, we are spreading security.

Our commanders have asked for additional forces to secure the early advances in the more remote communities in the north, while also enabling more progress to be made in central Helmand. Last Monday, I said that I was aware of ongoing work on such additional resources. I was also aware that, as part of that process, the chiefs of staff were going back to operational commanders and urging them to ensure that they had asked for everything that they needed. As I said in the House on Thursday, that iterative process produced a recommendation, which I received on that day. I and the chiefs of staff have considered the recommendation, and I have now endorsed it. I am grateful for the support and assistance of other Departments, especially the Treasury, in working through the necessary detail of this process as quickly as possible.

Let me outline the key elements of the additional force. In order to accelerate the reconstruction effort in the current security environment, we will deploy 320 engineers from 28 Regiment Royal Engineers to start projects to improve local infrastructure. A company from 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines will provide force protection for them. Those deployments will take place in September. We will deploy an additional infantry company, drawn from 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, to provide more mobile forces, and two platoons from 1st Battalion the Royal Irish Regiment to provide additional force protection. There will be small increases in headquarters staff. We will also boost our medical and logistical support to reflect the increase in troop numbers.

We will step up our efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan national army. Its brave soldiers have fought side by side with us in recent months, and they are the key to our eventual exit strategy. We are therefore deploying additional staff to Helmand, and to the regional Army headquarters for the south. Great strides have already been made in that essential task and, following forthright discussions that I had with the Afghan Defence Minister, Wardak, additional Afghan troops have been sent to Helmand, and more will follow. There are also about 2,300 Afghan police and military in Helmand, building to about 4,800 in 2007.

As with previous deployments, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists. Some 150 reservists are serving in the joint operational area, including members of the sponsored reserves. Some 450 call-out notices will be served on individual reservists in order to fill approximately 400 posts in theatre. One of the main reasons for the increase in reservist numbers is the planned deployment of 100 reservist personnel from 212 field hospital.

Those enhancements—totalling some 870 personnel—will place additional demands on our air transport. We have already increased the flying hours available for attack and support helicopters, as requested by commanders, and today I can say that we will also make available more support helicopters and one additional Hercules C130. We also plan to deploy a radar installation, provided by No. 1 Air Control Centre, Royal Air Force.

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