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House of Commons

Monday 30 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Air Transport

1. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What plans he has to upgrade the troop-carrying capacity of the Royal Air Force. [97409]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Before I start, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our sincere condolences to the friends and families of Lieutenant Tom Tanswell of 12 Regiment Royal Artillery, who died in Iraq last week, and those of Marine Gary Wright of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who died in Afghanistan the week before.

The RAF’s fixed wing troop-carrying capability is provided by a mix of RAF aircraft and, when required, by civilian chartered aircraft, which are used during times of peak tasking. We are planning to enhance the RAF’s strategic troop-carrying and air tanker capability, currently provided by the VC10 and Tristar aircraft, with the future strategic tanker aircraft. We are also enhancing tactical troop-carrying capability with the procurement of 25 A400M aircraft.

Mr. Vara: May I first associate myself with the Minister’s comments with regard to the two very brave men who lost their lives? Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and loved ones.

Is it true that owing to a lack of RAF capacity as regards transport those who are serving on the front line and wish to come home for leave sometimes have to wait days before they can do so? Does it not add insult to injury that those men should have that time deducted from their leave? I should be most grateful for the Minister’s comments.

Mr. Ingram: I would remind the hon. Gentleman that there are men and women. There is an issue relating to the reliability of the operational bridge to Iraq and Afghanistan, which is why the RAF tries to make it its highest priority. We regret any disruption that those air bridge difficulties may have caused to the plans of personnel. I was recently in correspondence with one of the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friends, who as a serving Territorial Army officer experienced significant difficulties in Cyprus. We have dealt with that. Today I wrote to respond to all the detailed questions that he raised in his letter. He is not in the House today; I understand that he is in Cyprus with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. It would be useful if that correspondence were placed in the Library to make all the details available.

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): What action is the Minister taking to deal with the shortage of helicopter lift capability? In particular, given the excellent performance of the Merlin helicopters in Iraq and elsewhere, is he considering the possibility of an early procurement decision to increase the number of Merlin helicopters available in the early part of next year?

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Mr. Ingram: I am inclined to say that there is not the problem that the hon. Gentleman describes. We have looked into this. Commanders are not asking for more helicopters. The hon. Gentleman looks quizzical. I understand that he may want to get business for his constituency, but we have to listen to what is required on the ground. We have asked for a full review of the situation and we are trying to see whether any remedial action can be taken in sufficient time to deal with any such matters that may have arisen, are arising, or may arise in future. This is all under review, and it is too early to say what the conclusions may be.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Hercules aircraft based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency is the workhorse of the air bridge with Iraq and Afghanistan. As the Minister knows, one of the conclusions of the Government’s inquiry into the tragic crash of the Hercules in Iraq more than a year ago was that it is vitally important that foam suppressant should be fitted around the wing tanks of the planes so that, were they hit by small arms fire, there would be no repeat of that tragedy. What progress has been made in the fitting of foam suppressant to the remaining Hercules fleet, particularly the five that are currently deployed in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ingram: As ever, when we have to learn lessons, we do. That is the principal purpose of boards of inquiry, although sometimes another examination of events may give us additional information. We have taken on board all the recommendations by the board of inquiry that deals with the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. The programme to fit explosive-suppressant foam to the aircraft continues as planned, and two aircraft have been fitted so far. We will continue to work through that programme. It takes time because aircraft have to come out of service for fitting to take place, but we are on target to achieve the objectives that he mentions.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Conservative Members join the Minister in sending our condolences to the families of those who have recently given their lives for our country, showing yet again the bravery of British troops on operations around the world.

The Minister will recall that I wrote to him in March, warning that the lack of

That point was graphically reinforced six months later by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster). Does the Minister accept that responsibility for the fiasco lies not with the Royal Air Force but with Ministers, who have cut RAF numbers by 7,500 and require them to operate clapped-out old kit? In his reply in April, the Minister said—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. He is asking a question, which he must not turn into a speech. It is simply not on to quote from a letter.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): He is still learning.

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Mr. Howarth: The Minister gave me an assurance that investment would be made. When can our troops cease to feel let down by the Government and have the kit that they need to do the job that is being asked of them?

Mr. Ingram: I heard one of my hon. Friends say as an aside that the hon. Gentleman is still learning. I thought that he would have learned the valuable lesson that it takes time to procure new equipment.I mentioned the A400M—I know that the hon. Gentleman supports the programme—but it takes time for that aircraft to be procured and put into theatre. The strategic tanker aircraft is also undergoing its final procurement analysis. The complex programme will ensure that we have a long-term solution for many decades to deal with some of the problems. Is he genuinely suggesting that, given that we do not have those aircraft, we should not use our existing aircraft? I think not. If he believes that they are not suitable and fit for purpose, he is wrong. The aircraft that go into the theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan must have appropriate defensive aids suites. So as to ensure that we get the best support, we have to lift them out in troopers and put them on through a mixture of RAF aircraft or hired civilian aircraft. We are now doing that. We understand the associated problems. We regret every incident when we have failed. However, such failures are not through want of effort or, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, because of clapped-out old kit.


2. Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): What progress is being made with engagement with the local population and elders in Helmand. [97410]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The Afghan provincial government under the leadership of Governor Daud has made progress in engaging with local community leaders in Helmand. He sought and gained backing for his negotiations from President Karzai and, as part of the process, UK forces handed over security in Musa Qaleh to provincially raised forces. Such engagement has strengthened the governor’s position and he continues to develop relations throughout Helmand.

Mr. Brown: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. There is no doubt that UK forces are second to none in carrying out their duties wherever they are required. Is there any aspect of that engagement with the local populace that he would wish to be improved and strengthened?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments about our troops. I am sure that all hon. Members share his view. He asks whether I would like any aspects of the engagement with the communities in Helmand province to be improved. I would like the processes to be built upon. The key to that is to let Governor Daud, whom I met last week when I was in Helmand province, continue with the process that he has already started in Musa Qaleh—where he has proper political control—in other parts of northern Helmand, including the Sangin valley and other
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communities. The process is difficult, but ultimately, Afghan solutions to Afghan problems will deliver the answers for the Afghan people. We should support their properly constituted and elected government in achieving those solutions.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): Notwithstanding the excellent work of our troops in tough conditions in Afghanistan, has the Secretary of State seen the reports in The Times today that say that, where our troops are pulled back, the Taliban have moved straight back in? Would he like to comment on that?

Des Browne: I read those comments, which are attributed to a man called Khan, whom I do not recognise as a spokesman for the community of Musa Qaleh. All morning, I have heard PGHQ in Helmand province inquiring as to who the spokesperson actually is. I am mindful of the fact that I have repeatedly had comments quoted to me from alleged spokespeople from Helmand who turn out to be members of the Taliban. Only last week, I spoke to the commanding officer of the British forces and the head of the Helmand taskforce who told me that they were keeping the situation in Musa Qaleh under daily observation. In his view, the deal done with the local community—between the governor and the local community—was being sustained. Of course it is a very delicate situation and we can only observe. There are associated risks, but unless we take them, the people of that part of Afghanistan will not secure the improvement that we are deployed there to achieve.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend shed any light on reports that up to 60 Afghan civilians were killed in a NATO bombing at the end of last week? Can he say what help, if any, NATO is making available to survivors? Does he agree that, if we make mistakes like that, there is not the slightest chance of our winning hearts and minds in Helmand or anywhere else?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He will have followed the story as it developed last week. Only over the weekend we had reports—public, open reports in the media, which I read—that General Jim Jones, who is known as SACEUR, theSupreme Allied Commander in Europe, apologised to President Karzai for the inadvertent casualties created. As he explained it, the Taliban had been using these individuals as a human shield. He clearly put the responsibility on the Taliban and I have heard from our own troops of circumstances in which the Taliban have used innocent individuals as a human shield—indeed, specifically lining up women and children in front of paratroopers on one occasion, not long after we were deployed in Helmand province. They do that because of the effect that my hon. Friend identifies: if there is accidental injury or death caused to innocent civilians, the Taliban will play that out. We are mindful of that fact, which is why we take the greatest care to ensure that there are no civilian casualties.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): With 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of Britain coming from the poppy fields of Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that in the interests of our young people, our armed forces should be fully supported in Afghanistan?

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Des Browne: My hon. Friend identifies one of the reasons why it is important that the world, not just the UK or the developed world, which is specifically represented in Afghanistan, sees through the support and development of the Afghan economy so that the people of Afghanistan will not be exploited, as they have been by drug dealers and others in the past and forced to grow poppies for opium. It is a long-term problem and those who understand how it has been dealt with in other countries will realise that we have to build governance, build the rule of law and security and build economic prosperity. Only in that context will very poor people be dissuaded from growing poppy when they are in many cases being forced into it by violence.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Rather than trying to find Mr. Khan’s identity, would we not do better to recognise the evidence of our own officers and soldiers, particularly those who have been in discussions with village elders about arrangements in the villages. They have identified among those village elders potential supporters of the Taliban who they believe have been giving them the once over during the course of the negotiation. Should we not recognise the truth of the situation—that the Taliban are very much stronger six months after we started our deployment in Helmand than they were before?

Des Browne: I do not accept that the Taliban are much stronger now than they were before. I believe that they were significantly present in those communities. We also saw, as I mentioned in response to the previous question, a significant increase in the growing of poppy in the year before we deployed into Helmand province. That, among other indications such as the beheading of teachers and closure of schools because they were teaching girls, suggests exactly what they were doing. There was much evidence that the Taliban were in those communities. The fact that we deployed into those communities brought them out very quickly, as it did in northern Helmand.

The essence of the hon. Gentleman's question is that I should pay regard to what the commanders on the ground tell me, and that is exactly what I do. It will be instructive for him to know that we have accepted, and indeed Governor Daud has entered into, only one agreement, although there are discussions going on across northern Helmand. He is bravely holding out to ensure that, as in Musa Qaleh, he deals with people who properly represent the community, and not the Taliban.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome the agreements with village elders that have been struck in various parts of Helmand province, but will the Secretary of State give us an assessment of how well he thinks they are working on the ground? To what extent has the combination of Ramadan and the poppy-planting season contributed to a lull in activity? What impact has the air strike last week had on relations with the Afghan population? What can he tell us about the longer-term future of the security elements that the village elders have been able to summon to the cause? What prospects are there for integrating them eventually in the Afghan auxiliary police?

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Des Browne: The first point that I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there are no agreements—there is one agreement. That is the point that I was making in response to the previous question. There is one agreement thus far. There are negotiations going on in Sangin, in the Kajaki area and in other parts of northern Helmand. Those are being conducted in a canny and expert way by Governor Daud, who is ensuring that he deals with the appropriate people in those communities. It was only when he identified that he was dealing with the appropriate people in Musa Qaleh and those who represented the community, and not the Taliban, that he struck the deal.

The second point I make to the hon. Gentleman is that the incident involving the inadvertent loss of life—it was not as much as people are reporting—did not happen in Helmand province. It happened in Kandahar in the Peshwar valley. That can have an effect on Helmand, but it will not have a direct effect. The blunt answer to his question is that the view of those on the ground who know is that the Musa Qaleh agreement is holding and that, if it holds and spreads in Helmand, that will be to the good of the people of Helmand, whatever other activities they may have been involved in. If we establish the strength of the local communities and they can hold out the Taliban, that is exactly what we went there to do.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Are there not two threats to our relationship with the Afghan people? Governor Daud said last week of British help:

Secondly, politicians abroad have been calling for more action to destroy poppy crops. Do not the failure of DFID and the intention to destroy poppy crops in the short term—the only income for subsistence farmers— risk pushing the local population into the arms of the Taliban and undermining the efforts of our armed forces?

Des Browne: In the first place, Governor Daud is a man who represents his community and consistently asks for more, as indeed almost every hon. Member probably does in relation to their own constituents at one stage or another. It is not surprising therefore that he should focus on what more he wants for his community and not necessarily on what has already been achieved, and a significant amount has been achieved in Helmand province in road building, in other significant reconstruction work, in health and in schools. Indeed, we plan to do much more work, particularly in Musa Qaleh and in other parts of the north, in order to reinforce the deal that has already been struck in that part of the country.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman was wrong about the absence of a DFID representative in Helmand. Last week, I was in Lashkar Gar, where I met and spoke to a DFID representative present on the ground. The challenge is whether the security in the part of the province where we want to do the reconstruction work first is sufficient for us to deploy into those areas people who are not soldiers or troops, for the purposes of reconstruction work. That is a difficult judgment to make. Consequently, we need to reconfigure the way in
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which we do the construction or reconstruction work, and that is exactly what we have been doing across government. That is why in July I announced the deployment of 300 engineers into Helmand province, and we are beginning to see the work that they can do across the province. That work will build further security. We will then, on that basis, encourage non-governmental organisations and others to build their representation in Helmand, or to come back into the province to do what we went out there to do in the first place. We have, in my view, a programme now in place, principally as a consequence of the work that the Paratroopers did while they were there in regularly overmatching the Taliban.

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