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Of course, support for our troops is not just about numbers of people and equipment; it is also about pay, conditions, welfare and medical care. In all those areas, we are constantly reviewing what more is needed, and for some weeks now I have specifically been looking at pay levels for forces on operations. Our forces are some of the best paid in the world—only Canada pays more
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across the ranks—but forces from other countries do not pay tax when on operations, and this has led some to demand that we do the same for our people. I think we can do better.

I am pleased to announce today that we intend to introduce a new tax-free, flat-rate operational bonus, which, for a six-month tour, would amount to £2,240. For an average private or lance-corporal, that is equivalent to the amount of tax that they would pay during a six-month tour. It means that half our people on operations will be better off than under a tax exemption—increasingly so for the lower paid. The most junior will be more than £500 better off after a six-month tour than if we simply exempted them from tax. As important, everyone on operations will be equally better off than they are now—by just under £100 per week, free of tax. I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for making more than £60 million of new money available so that we can fund this new bonus without taking any existing defence funding away from front-line needs.

This is a complex area. I have been looking at these questions for weeks, but I can assure the House that the troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan over the summer will not lose out as a result. The payment will be backdated to 1 April 2006, as an adjustment to pay arrangements in the current financial year. Full details of eligibility will be made public shortly, but I can confirm that, besides Afghanistan, the payment will apply to our forces in Iraq and in the Balkans.

Finally, let me deal with the issue of medical care for those injured on operations. First, I want to challenge the notion that the current system is in any way inferior to what went before. In particular, the relentless attack on the work of the outstanding medical staff—military and civilian—at Selly Oak hospital is both unfair and misplaced. I have been there twice in recent months. It is one of the highest-performing and most successful hospital trusts in the NHS and provides major specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience.

Our primary concern is to give our injured people the best medical care available. That is to be found inside the NHS. While some have been calling in public for a return to military hospitals, we have been quietly getting on with the job of establishing a military managed ward at Selly Oak in partnership with the NHS. I can confirm that this will be operational before the end of the year.

I have been open about the nature of the challenges that we face in our operational theatres. I do not seek to hide from the House the difficulties we face in overcoming them, but I am convinced our strategy remains the right one. In Afghanistan, we have to tackle the south and the east if we are to secure what has already been achieved in the rest of the country. We have to make the comprehensive approach work, with all Government Departments acting together to achieve our objectives. We have to get NATO to live up to its commitments. In Iraq, we have to support the Iraqi Government and their army and police in taking responsibility for their own security and in holding the line against sectarian violence. We will do all these things—we cannot afford not to.

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I have spoken many times about the debt we owe the men and women who serve in our armed forces and who carry out this hard and dangerous work on our behalf. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to them again today.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Let me begin by associating myself and my colleagues with the Secretary of State’s condolences to the families and friends of all those who have given their lives for our security. Let me pay tribute to all those servicemen and women who have performed so well under such difficult circumstances in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As I have said several times in the House, the Opposition fully support the Government’s aims in Afghanistan: to prevent the recurrence of a failed state and the re-emergence of al-Qaeda and the effects this would have on Britain’s security. It is more true now than ever that NATO’s reputation in on the line. Our collective security requires a properly collective response—a response that has been notably lacking from some quarters of our allies.

It is, however, the duty of the Opposition to hold the Government to account for the means of achieving these objectives. From the outset of the deployment to Afghanistan questions have been raised about whether too much planning was done on the basis of the most optimistic potential outcome. Public opinion was prepared largely for a mission that was about peacekeeping, not war fighting. From the very beginning, questions were asked about the level of manpower and equipment being deployed given the difficulties that might be faced. In the event, the realists, rather than the optimists, have been proved right. Resistance from the Taliban has been fierce and the deployment under-strength. As a result, not only were a further 900 troops sent by the Government in July, but NATO commanders on the ground still believe that they are undermanned. I certainly do not agree with the assertion made by the Secretary of State for Defence in July that:

These major strategic questions require a great deal of analysis, which I am sure that the House will want to give them in due course. Today, I have a number of specific questions for the Secretary of State, relating to our deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These include the safety of our troops, the need for more equipment, the calculation of casualties, the treatment of those injured, the inadequacy of the inquest system and the lack of reconstruction.

Let me begin with the question of body armour. On 18 September, the Secretary of State said in a written answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) that Osprey, the body armour that provides extra protection for the neck and shoulders, would replace ECBA, which provides only minimal chest protection. How many sets of Osprey armour have already been provided for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and what proportion of our troops can receive it when necessary? The correct answer should be 100 per cent.

Let me next turn to helicopters. The Prime Minister said recently that our commanders can have “all that
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they want.” They immediately responded by saying that they wanted more helicopters. The worry is that the Government may promise what they are unable to provide. How many helicopters do we have that could be used in Afghanistan, but are not being used? How many helicopters do we have that are not fit for purpose? For example, the Ministry of Defence’s own figures suggest that only 41 per cent. of the Lynx and Gazelle fleets are fit for purpose. What requests have been made to our NATO allies for extra helicopters? Which nations currently have the capacity to provide appropriate helicopters, but have not done so? How many military helicopters have we earmarked for sale to foreign countries and why did the Government cut the battlefield helicopter budget from £4.5 billion to £3.2 billion as recently as 2004? On available vehicles, how many of the Mastiff and Vector vehicles announced in the July package have now been delivered in theatre?

On the issue of casualty numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan, we want to see greater transparency. At the moment, there are discrepancies between the way in which UK and US casualty figures are compiled. In particular, only casualties who are admitted for in-patient treatment or casivaced are included in our official figures. What we are not told is the proportion of our troops who are injured sufficiently to make them unfit for duty, but who do not require hospitalisation. The US provides figures on those who are injured, but return to duty within 72 hours. Can we please have the same?

Of those who are injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is essential that they are treated by those with the best medical skills, but in the most appropriate environment. No one has attacked the excellent work of the medical and nursing staff, and to suggest that is deplorable, but to have injured servicemen and women and reservists treated in wards alongside civilian patients is just not acceptable. Part of the healing process is about coming to terms with the nature of their injuries and that is best done among their comrades. We want an assurance today from the Secretary of State that everything possible will be done to ensure that those who return to the UK will be treated in exclusively military wards. The British public will expect nothing less.

Back in May, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the unacceptable level of outstanding inquests for those killed in action. The backlog results in families being unable to achieve closure of the tragic events that have occurred. At the time, in response to the request, the Government made more resources available to the Oxfordshire coroner, yet the situation remains completely unacceptable. The Coroners Act 1988 gives the coroner the ability to delegate the responsibility of carrying out an inquest to another county. Why is this not being used? Do Ministers have the power to instruct the coroner to make that happen? If not, and if a ministerial order is required to make that possible, the Government will have the full co-operation of the Conservative party to make that possible.

Let me welcome the announcement of extra money for those on the front line. They deserve no less. I am delighted that the Government have responded so quickly to the Leader of the Opposition’s initiative. If we can achieve this much in opposition, how much
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more could we achieve in government? Will the payment have a minimum qualifying period; will it apply to all three services; will it be repeated for every deployment; and what impact will it have on tax credits for those at the lower end of the pay scale?

Finally, let me ask about reconstruction. In respect of Iraq, the Secretary of State is right to concentrate on the need for a political solution and the establishment of an independent judicial system. However, can he remind the House today who is responsible for the training and development of the police service in Iraq, and why it is so far behind schedule?

In Afghanistan, we are about to enter a crucial phase. We have seen fierce fighting and an enormous commitment to defeat the Taliban. But without substantial reconstruction on the ground, and after five years of a foreign military presence, those in the south of Afghanistan might rightly question why they have seen no improvements to their infrastructure. Two hundred schools in Kandahar, and 165 in Helmand, are closed for security reasons, and DFID has withdrawn its only representative in Helmand.

Let me put the following question to the Secretary of State: what sort of security environment do the NGOs expect there to be before genuine reconstruction begins? Do they expect a zero-risk environment? If they do, we will never have the basic requirements of what is needed to win the hearts and minds of the peasant farmers in south Afghanistan. Will the right hon. Gentleman take the earliest opportunity to impress upon the Secretary of State for International Development the need to get the NGOs operating? If we do not do so, the sacrifices of our men and women in Afghanistan could be in vain, and that would be a completely unacceptable outcome for the House and the country.

Des Browne: If I were to answer all the questions the hon. Gentleman has put to me, I suspect that I would incur your wrath, Mr. Speaker. However, I will endeavour to deal with the principal issues raised and, to the extent that I do not answer them, I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place the answers in the Library. That will allow other Members to ask questions today.

At the outset, let me repeat something that I have said to the hon. Gentleman on more than one occasion: I value the support that he and the majority of those who sit on the Conservative Benches give for the operations in Afghanistan and for their objectives. It is important to those whom we charge with the responsibility of carrying out those very dangerous operations that they know that they have that support.

Let me deal with the body armour issue, because I know that the hon. Gentleman has a specific interest in it, and he has expressed a view in the media about it: 15,000 sets of Osprey armour have been deployed into the operational theatre, and anybody who can do the simple arithmetic required will know that that is more than the number of people who have been deployed into both theatres. However, that does not guarantee that there is a set for every individual, because soldiers, like Members of Parliament, come in different shapes and sizes.

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I undertook that the new Osprey body armour would be deployed into theatre by late autumn, and I suggest that the figure of 15,000 confirms that that has been achieved. I now tell the House that there will be sufficient body armour for absolutely everybody in theatre by January of next year, but I can also give the reassurance that nobody who is deployed in theatre into a situation where they are exposed to the possibility of being under fire is denied the use of Osprey armour. There are more than enough versions of that advanced system of body armour for everybody to have them. Therefore, I am confident that we have achieved the objective that we set, which reflects the answer that was given to the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples), and that we will achieve our overall objective by January of next year.

The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) asked a number of specific questions about helicopters for which, candidly, I do not have the information to be able to answer. However, I will have those questions researched and answer them in writing. However, let me say in relation to helicopters that the hon. Gentleman is of course right to suggest that we should not promise what cannot be delivered, but he should also be careful not just to read what the newspaper headlines state that those in theatre say about helicopters. The headlines relating to the alleged request for more helicopters were not supported by the body of the actual interview with the commander of the British forces; that is not what he said in response to the Prime Minister’s remarks. That having been said, we are constantly reviewing helicopter numbers, and there has been a significant increase in helicopter capability, particularly for Afghanistan. Along with senior members of the Department and my fellow Ministers, I am reviewing what we can do to increase the availability of helicopters not just by generating further air frames, but by generating the crew, spares and other support necessary to provide that further capability, if that is at all possible.

On medical care, I point out that, as the House already knows, those who call for the reopening of military hospitals ought to remind themselves how we came to no longer have such hospitals. The defence cost study 15 of 1994 was responsible for the closure of our military hospitals, on the basis of saving money. In fact, in the light of developments in medical practice, closing those hospitals was the right thing to do. It is entirely appropriate that the best care be provided to our forces, and that is to be found in the national health service.

As I said, we are seeking to provide a military-managed ward in an appropriate environment within Selly Oak. The hon. Gentleman associated himself with the criticisms that others have made of Selly Oak hospital by intervening in the debate in the manner that he did. If he is going to comment on the quality of NHS care, he should visit the hospital. I invite him to visit Selly Oak, to see the wards for himself and to speak to the troops, as I have done. I visited it very recently, and the troops who are getting that NHS help and service spoke with glowing praise for those providing that care.

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There has also been uninformed speculation about the way in which we record injuries and put our casualty figures into the public domain. It was suggested this week on the front page of a local newspaper that 5,000 injured troops were unable to be deployed on the front line because they were on an NHS waiting list. None of this is true. There may well be about 5,000 people in that medical category, but that does not mean that they are all injured. Some of those people are just being treated by their GPs, just as anybody in civilian life might be who was signed off by their doctor. The way in which we record and publish casualty figures—I am looking at that process, and I am prepared to consider the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion—has been consistent over the years and is consistent historically with the way in which British forces have published such figures. Of course, had we changed it, we would have been accused of doing so in order to hide something else.

I am very keen to have a system that puts the information that we have into the public domain as openly, freely and quickly as possible, and I will do everything that I can to get to that. But what I will not do is to ask those responsible for the safety of our troops on the ground to take part in some sort of bureaucratic exercise designed to serve the purposes of people who want to make political capital out of those casualties.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement this afternoon and confine my brief remarks to just two areas? First, I totally associate myself with what he said about Selly Oak hospital. Anybody who visits it will see that it is a first-class, professional caring environment, and it does a tremendous job in looking after the injured, who served our country so well in many theatres. Secondly, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement about the new payments; this underpins the value agenda, which is so important. We as a country have to demonstrate how much we value our servicemen and women. Our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are often under critical scrutiny, some of it very unfair, and his statement today on the new payments will do more to boost their morale than anything else that he could have done.

Des Browne: I thank my right hon. Friend for his support. By asking a question on pay, he gives me the opportunity to indicate that the answer to all the questions on pay asked by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) is yes. The payment will apply to all those who are deployed. It should not affect tax credits, but I will examine the detail of that.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): May I echo most sincerely the words of condolence to the families of those who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan during the summer recess and express my good wishes to those who are recovering from injuries?

I thank the Secretary of State for his wide-ranging statement, but I urge the Government to make time available for a full debate on the foreign policy implications of the developments that are taking place. The Leader of the House has called the situation in Iraq “pretty dire”, and the Secretary of State referred in his statement to this being a decisive period,
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although he rightly said that military means alone will not be decisive. What is the British strategy in Iraq? What is our attitude to the work of the US envoy, James Baker, and to the widely discussed possibility of a US strategy to divide Iraq into three parts? What role do we now see for the UN? Those may be Foreign Office questions, but that proves my point about the need for a fuller debate in the House.

I warmly welcome today’s confirmation that there will be a rebalancing of our forces in Afghanistan, with the Afghan army and police taking over the platoon houses in the northern areas, which will enable us to concentrate our forces in the central area around Lashkar Gah. Does the Secretary of State agree with General Richards, who said in his radio interview yesterday that we must improve the lot of the Afghans in the next six months if they are not to turn back to the Taliban for support? Indeed, might we have been further advanced in winning over the support of the Afghan people if we had not diverted so much effort into Iraq in 2003?

How quickly can the Prime Minister’s welcome promise of additional kit and equipment be fulfilled? Brigadier Butler said that helicopters were his top priority and pointed out how much faster our progress would be if we had more helicopters. Can the Secretary of State confirm newspaper reports in Demark saying that some of its new Merlins will be diverted to the UK? If that occurs, will they be available over the winter months, when land travel is difficult? When will the Chinooks that are so scandalously grounded be available for use, and how will all that fit into General Richards’s six-month window of opportunity?

Last but not least, I warmly welcome the tax-free operational bonus that the Secretary of State announced today. That option is better, more logical and more transparent than a messy tax rebate scheme. It is welcome that it will be backdated to 1 April. Nevertheless, there may be complaints from those who miss out. Will he confirm that the pay review body will not adjust the X factor downwards in any way to compensate for that?

We should all commend the excellent work of those who have served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, including 16 Air Assault Brigade and 3 Commando, with people from my area who have gone out there to take over. However, I say again that a substantial debate on where this is all going in foreign policy terms is long overdue.

Des Browne: It is not in my gift to grant time in the House for a foreign policy debate, but the hon. Gentleman knows that I would welcome any opportunity to explain our policy on Iraq and Afghanistan from the point of view of the Ministry of Defence and the Government. I am proud of the work that we are doing in both theatres.

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