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3. Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): What support his Department gives to peace support training in Malawi. [116791]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Peace support training in Africa is a high priority for the Ministry of Defence, in support of the Department’s conflict prevention policy. In Malawi, our focus is on assessing the development of the peace support operation’s training wing at the armed forces college. We also fund the attendance of Malawian armed forces personnel on relevant courses in the United Kingdom and in Africa.

Mr. Jones: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Having visited Malawi last year, I know that the Government of Malawi value the support that they are getting. Similar work is being done in other African countries, including Ghana and South Africa. Will my right hon. Friend explain how that effort is growing the capacity of the African Union’s peacekeeping forces, which are so badly needed in areas such as Darfur?

Mr. Ingram: A commitment was made at the G8 summit at Gleneagles to seek to grow the capacity of the African Union peacekeeping support forces by 75,000. The United Kingdom pledged to meet something like 10,000 of that commitment. Over the training years 2004-05 and 2005-06, approximately 2,250 African personnel were trained at operational and staff level as a result of our training support, and approximately 3,000 African troops were given tactical pre-deployment training by UK training teams based in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. We expect the equivalent figures for the present training year to be
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2,600 and 3,100 respectively. This is a significant measure of our contribution to growing the capacity of the African Union peacekeeping forces, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome it.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): In acknowledging the exceptionally valuable work that is being done in Malawi and across Africa by British servicemen and women who are playing a vital role in ensuring that the armed forces there are properly run, does the Minister agree that, given the considerable overstretch in our armed forces because of the operational tempo, it is becoming harder to find the personnel to send on those important missions, which are likely to be an insurance policy for this country against future work that we might have to do in Africa? Will he assure the House that he will continue to provide the necessary men and women to fulfil those demanding obligations across Africa?

Mr. Ingram: The answer to that would be yes. We consider each request on a case-by-case basis. The level of contribution is significant in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Malawi, and as part of a multinational effort. Our commitment also depends on the host countries and regions offering ideas and commitments. We are pursuing an extensive programme.

I do not accept the initial premise on which the hon. Gentleman’s question is based, but I understand the importance of his point. Such work is vital; it is an insurance policy, and it is paying dividends. We have some considerable way to go, because the African Union’s strategic transport capacity has significant shortfalls. The EU and other coalitions of interest must consider how best we can provide assistance in that regard. Ultimately, however, African problems must have African solutions, as African nations make clear. We are helping considerably, and we will continue to do so.


5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What assessment he has made of the appropriate size of the Army. [116794]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The size of the Army reflects the current requirements, and the future Army structure as announced in December 2004 is designed to produce an agile, balanced and robust Army, capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century. Of course, we keep the size and shape of the Army, like the other two services, under review.

Mr. Robathan: That was not much of an answer. We are fighting two dangerous and difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet the Government, in their wisdom, have seen fit to reduce the size of the Army, most recently cutting four infantry battalions from the order of battle. At the same time, people have been leaving the Territorial Army in droves. I was delighted that the Secretary of State said in a recent article that he believed that the Army should be bigger. Can he tell us what he intends to do about it and how much bigger it should be?

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Des Browne: If the hon. Gentleman looks at the article concerned, he will see that that phrase, which was never attributed to me, was actually the work of the sub-editor— [Interruption.] I just say to him that he should read the article. He will also notice that the newspaper that carried the article omitted that headline in later editions, when it was pointed out that I had never used those words. He is right that the size of the Army has been cut, but not by this Government. The size of the Army was cut by the Government whom he supported by about 50,000 between 1983 and 1997. Since 1997, the size of the Army has been broadly the same as that which we inherited, at about 101,000.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): May I say to the Secretary of State that the figures given to me by MOD sources seem to indicate that those numbers have dropped by some 1,900 in total over the past 10 years? Can he explain why some Members of the House believe that they have dropped by some 10,000?

Des Browne: Frankly, that figure is in the public domain because the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) put it there in October last year. Immediately after he did so, I wrote to him and pointed out that it was inaccurate to suggest that the size of the Army had been cut by 10,000 since 1997. Thankfully, in his briefing to the press this month, he corrected that, and indicated to them, privately I have to say, that the figure is broadly the same as that which we inherited. He also had to admit that his Government had cut the size of the Army by too much.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): If the cuts to the Army following the end of the cold war were so bad, the Secretary of State had better explain why the Government cut the budget in the strategic defence review by £500 million a year—a cut that would have been £1 billion had it not been for the personal intervention of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Given that the assumptions that underlay the defence review have been bucked for the past five years while we have been sustaining such an operational tempo, the Secretary of State’s statement that the size of the Army reflects the current requirements is astonishing. The simple fact is that the Army is not large enough for the current requirements. What will the Government do about it?

Des Browne: I am on record as saying, and I repeat, that we are asking the Army to do more than was planned. I accept that. [Interruption.] I accept that, but it does not mean that the Army is not capable of doing it. The advice that I receive from those who know best—the chiefs of staff—is that the Army is capable of carrying out the functions that it has been asked to do. In the very interview that the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) raised, I explained that I have an understanding that if we continued at this tempo for a period of time, we would be in danger of damaging the core of the Army, but we do not intend to do that.

On the budget, perhaps the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) will share with his hon. Friends the knowledge that he has that the real cuts to the defence budget took place under the Government whom he
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supported up until 1997 and that, in fact, there have been real cash increases in defence since we came to power in 1997.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention that since the last Defence questions we have had the Prime Minister’s speech of last Friday week in which he reiterated his vision of us having a global reach, which for many of us seemed to bear no relation to the available resources—to our logistical capacity, equipment or service personnel? Will the Secretary of State use this occasion to explain how we can achieve the objectives set by the Prime Minister with those limited resources and, if there was a crisis in an overseas territory this afternoon, requiring the swift deployment of a significant number of armed forces personnel, will he explain where they would come from?

Des Browne: On advice, I remain confident that the Army is fully capable of meeting the current levels of commitment. Indeed, the Navy, which we discussed a few questions ago, is also capable of meeting the current levels of commitment. It has a global reach, as do the Army and the RAF, as we heard. We retain the ability to respond to additional urgent requirements, but we have to plan for the future.


6. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): If he will make a statement on recent developments in the security situation in Afghanistan. [116795]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Afghanistan remains stable. Overall levels of insurgent activity have decreased significantly since October. The UK forces have recently engaged in a number of missions to extend the authority of the Government across Helmand province and to inhibit the freedom of action of the Taliban.

Patrick Mercer: I am told that the Government are preparing to deploy another full infantry battalion to Afghanistan, bringing the total up to three. The last two deployments have been plagued by scarce and faulty ammunition, dodgy radios and wholly inadequate air support. Extra troops means extra resources. Will the Secretary of State assure us that our brave men are not going to have to face their enemies without the firepower that they need?

Des Browne: Let me start by referring to a quotation from the commanding officer of our forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Thomas. I have not produced the quotation for this occasion, but it was reported in his local newspaper, the Western Morning News of 10 January 2007. When commenting after British troops had been involved in an operation on a Taliban training camp, he said:

It does a distinct disservice to those troops who are carrying out this work bravely, competently and successfully in Afghanistan for the hon. Gentleman
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and others constantly to peddle dishonesties about what is happening out there. There was no— [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not think that any Member of the House would be dishonest.

Des Browne: I withdraw the word, Mr. Speaker, and substitute it with “inaccuracies.” No substandard ammunition was supplied for our troops, for example. That has been made clear. The relevant information has been provided to the media on a number of occasions. The fact that they keep repeating that inaccuracy does not allow the hon. Gentleman, who should know better, to repeat it.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is reported in this morning’s press that General Richards, the NATO commander, has said that the west should think again about imposing western solutions on an Islamic society that is in the early stages of development. Given that statement, and given the influence that Iran has from Iraq to Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to solve the problem in Afghanistan we need to start talking to the Iranians?

Des Browne: I do not agree that if we are to solve the problem in Afghanistan we need to start talking to the Iranians, but I do agree with what I understand General Richards to have said specifically in the extensive interview from which my hon. Friend gave us a very selective quotation. He said that solutions to local problems that had grown out of the community and respected the culture of the community were more likely to be successful than those imposed by a foreign culture. That is precisely why we do not seek to do that in Afghanistan, particularly in Helmand province, and that is why it is so important that the success we have enjoyed has been embedded in political relationships between the governature in Helmand province and the local communities.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State will be aware of the important role played by Nimrod aircraft and crews in Afghanistan, but he will also know of the tragic accident that cost the lives of so many personnel from RAF Kinloss. Will he update the House on the investigation of that accident, and on changes in procedure relating to the fuel system, pressurisation and air-to-air refuelling?

Des Browne: It would be entirely inappropriate for me to speculate on the outcome of the board of inquiry into that dreadful tragic accident in which so many brave men’s lives were lost. I understand why the hon. Gentleman, as Member of Parliament for the constituency in which RAF Kinloss is situated, is eager to reach the point at which some information can be given to his constituents—I am eager to reach that point as well—but as he knows, inquiries such as this are conducted independently of Ministers, and we must await the report.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is necessary to remind people
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time and again that one of the principal reasons why we are in Afghanistan is that 90 per cent. of the heroin on the streets of this country comes from its poppy fields?

Des Browne: It is important that we do not allow Afghanistan to become a state that is dependent on narcotics, as too much of its GDP currently is. Narcotics can fund the forces that undermine the Government of Afghanistan and allow it to become a failed state, and have allowed it in the past to become a training ground for terrorists. However, our fundamental objective is to support the democratic Government of Afghanistan and allow their writ to run across the country, so that never again will we, the developed world, be subject to the possibility of terrorist attacks emanating from the failed state of Afghanistan.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Were there security implications in yesterday’s announcement of significant changes in our diplomatic representation in Kabul? If not, why are those changes being made?

Des Browne: This is not Foreign Office Question Time, and I am not in a position to go into the detail of decisions that are properly the province of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but it seems to me that if we are to be consistent with the priority that we have given to Afghanistan—and we are, in terms of our foreign policy and the military policy that supports it—it is appropriate for representation of the United Kingdom in Kabul to be pitched at a level that reflects that priority. I believe that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made the changes in order to achieve that.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Secretary of State did not answer the essential point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) in his question. Can he confirm that two battalions in Afghanistan are to be replaced by three, and that the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, the 1st Battalion the Grenadier Guards, and the Sherwood Foresters are preparing for deployment?

We have heard about problems with multi-purpose vehicles, a shortage of armoured vehicles and a lack of night-vision equipment. If we do not have enough equipment for two battalions, how will we have enough for three? Can the Secretary of State tell us how many urgent operational requirements have been made of the Ministry of Defence in the past year from Afghanistan, and how many have been turned down?

Des Browne: All urgent operational requirements that have been approved by the chain of command have been acceded to. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] That is entirely as it should be, and the process of urgent operational requirements has been approved and commented upon favourably by independent investigations on a number of occasions. Contrary to media speculation over the weekend, no such requirements have been turned down on financial grounds. Indeed, over the past couple of years more than half a billion pounds have been invested in urgent operational requirements in relation to supporting our
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troops in both theatres. It is part of the nature of urgent operational requirements that they continually come forward and are approved. We continue to keep our force levels under review. No amount of speculation in the media is going to draw me into speculating with them about who will be deployed in Afghanistan. There is a process to be gone through, and when it is completed I will report to the House; that is the appropriate thing to do.

Dr. Fox: Time will tell whether the House feels that it was given a full and frank answer to that question.

As the Secretary of State knows, modern military helicopter operations require a layered approach: the Chinook, Merlin and Sea King to move troops and equipment; the future Lynx as a reconnaissance helicopter; and a smaller helicopter—that is what is missing. All Members will have been impressed by the pictures that we have seen of the mission carried out over the weekend by our Marines, but what we saw was Royal Marine commandos clinging to the side of an Apache helicopter because nothing more appropriate was available. How can that situation still not be properly sorted out after all the time that has passed and the warnings that the Government have been given? It is simply unacceptable, and the whole country wants to know when something will be done about it.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentlemen’s account of the very brave actions of our Marines on the Apache helicopter is fundamentally incorrect. An alternative helicopter was available and could have been made available, but a tactical decision was made by the commandos to deploy the Apache in this particular way. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman of what Brigadier Thomas said. The hon. Gentleman might want to contradict me, but why would he want to contradict Brigadier Thomas? He said:

So why does the hon. Gentleman continually peddle the suggestion that there is a shortage? [Interruption.] I accept that there is, going forward, a challenge to meet our future requirements in relation to helicopters, and we in the Ministry of Defence are doing everything that we can to deal with that. However, the hon. Gentleman and I both know that we cannot get helicopters in the same way as we can buy other equipment. Let me also say to him that there is no truth in the suggestion that urgent operational requirements in relation to night-vision goggles were turned down for financial reasons, as was reported in the press.

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