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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that basic services in Helmand could be improved more if our European NATO allies were doing rather more? Does he agree that they would be better able to fulfil their
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commitments in Helmand and Afghanistan if they were to raise their spending on defence—and would he like to take this opportunity to invite them to do so?

Des Browne: As may become apparent later, I regularly seek opportunities to discuss with our NATO allies our collective ability to do more, and their contribution to that. However, the right hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly correct to say that if we were able to do more as an alliance, especially in the south and east of Afghanistan, we would have more effect.

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab): One of the key indicators of success for our reconstruction effort in Afghanistan will be the number of peasant farmers whom we can unshackle from their dependency on the narcotics economy. However, does my right hon. Friend agree that if there is a large-scale increase in poppy eradication in the short term, we might drive those peasant farmers into the hands of the drug warlords and extremists whom we are in Helmand to remove them from?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend is correct, in that we have to get the right balance between eradication, as an aspect of counter-narcotics, and force security. In my view, as I have already said to the House, there is no point in seeing that aspect of counter-narcotics outwith the other more complex aspects of the counter-narcotics regime. The answer to this will be our ability to improve the governance of the province, the engagement of that governance with the farming community and its people, and the ability of the local government to offer people alternative livelihoods that can support them through the transition from poppy. The process is complex.

However, there is undoubtedly a connection between narcotics and those who wish to attack our forces and to prevent development in the region. That is the case for very obvious reasons: those people take advantage of the chaos that has been there hitherto. The fact of the matter is that there was an increase in poppy cultivation last year in Helmand, where we have significant responsibilities. That was disappointing, but the early signs are that the Afghan eradication force is making some progress this year. However, we should be neither over-optimistic nor over-pessimistic about that. Our ability to deal with the problem will be seen over a longer term than most people would wish, and it will also be a function of our ability to improve governance.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): May I urge the Secretary of State to take a little more notice of what the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) just said? The hon. Gentleman was, like the Secretary of State, a Defence Minister—but sadly, for all too short a time—and he shares the views of senior military commanders, who believe that suppressing the poppy trade is counter-productive at this stage, in terms of counter-insurgency doctrine. Does the Secretary of State not realise that Taliban commanders are reported as saying that the reason why they support the poppy farmers is that it will make it impossible for NATO to defeat them if they have that support, going both ways? Will he do everything that he can to urge a reversal of the counter-productive strategy of poppy eradication?


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Des Browne: Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that I do not think I can be accused of not understanding the subtlety of his point, which is on an issue that we have discussed in the House on a number of occasions. The fact is that the picture varies between and within provinces in Afghanistan. In some areas, where there is access to governance, security and development, reductions have been achieved and sustained, and in some cases, the ambition this year is to reduce poppy production to nil. Whether that is achieved or not, it is at least an appropriate target. I have said repeatedly that counter-narcotics needs to be seen in the context of security and the economic challenges facing Afghanistan, and that is exactly what the hon. Gentleman says. We are currently helping the Afghan Government with a number of their shorter-term counter-narcotics activities, but ultimately we can do that only where the environment is secure, and where it leads to a strong, legal economy. That is what will break the hold that narcotics have over the people of Afghanistan. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not need any lessons from him on the challenges and issues in relation to security that that work involves. Indeed, at the beginning of the answer that I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), I made that perfectly clear.

Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South) (Lab): Following on from the question that the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) asked, does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have any further plans for discussions with NATO countries regarding additional troops for Afghanistan, bearing in mind the idea that according to press reports over the weekend, the troop reduction in Iraq could mean further British troops being sent to Afghanistan?

Des Browne: I am aware of the speculation that there has been about force levels, not just in the theatre that we are discussing but in others. Later this afternoon I will make a statement to the House, and rather than hon. Members making guesses, I suggest that such questions would be better dealt with after I have informed the House of the decision that the Government have made on deployment in Afghanistan.

Iraq

5. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): In what operations in Iraqi Kurdistan British troops are involved; and if he will make a statement. [122583]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): British troops are not involved in operations in the northern area of Iraq governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The UK has lead responsibility for Multi-National Division (South-East), while other members of the multinational forces have responsibility for other areas of Iraq.

Bob Spink: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that response; he is having a very busy afternoon. He knows, of course, that the Kurdish sector of Iraq—the other Iraq, as it is known—is making excellent progress economically, socially and politically. Does he agree that we need to ensure that the Kirkuk referendum, which must take place some time this year—probably in November or December—takes place without any
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interference or distraction from insurgents or bordering countries, and will he do all in his power to ensure that the referendum proceeds securely?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding the House of the progress that has been made in northern Iraq. Sometimes one could be forgiven for thinking that it did not exist, but many millions of people live there. It has made quite good progress, not just since action was taken in Iraq by our forces in coalition with others, but prior to that, because of the protection that we granted people from the actions that Saddam Hussein had perpetrated in the area. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct to identify the importance of the referendum in Kirkuk, but it should be seen as one of a number of agreements that were made in the political context of the settlement that brought the national unity Government to power in Iraq. That is not to underestimate in any way the challenges that they face. All the elements of that deal need to be taken forward politically, with the support of other countries in the region, and it should not be allowed to be undermined by insurgency. The hon. Gentleman urges the Government, and me, to do everything that we can to support that deal, and he can rest assured that we do that daily.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The Kurdish areas are one of the success stories in Iraq, but does the Minister accept that in other areas we have reached a tipping point between the Sunnis and Shi’a? It is time to look at the blueprint for Iraq and consider a three-state nation, perhaps based on the United Arab Emirates.

Des Browne: In my view, and much more importantly, in the view of the Iraqi people and their Government, the break-up of Iraq is not in their best interests. The constitutional arrangement allows for federalism, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is referring to, in some circumstances, but the Iraqis need to work through that matter. As I told his hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), that is what politics is all about in Iraq. We need to support the people of Iraq and their Government in the menu of political challenges that they have set themselves, and not undermine their ability to see that through to the end.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Last week, the Prime Minister announced the beginning of the withdrawal of British troops, but does the right hon. Gentleman agree that when those troops are withdrawn it is extremely important that they are not exposed to unnecessary risk? Will he give the House an assurance that during the process of withdrawal proper steps will be taken to ensure the self-defence capacity of British troops?

Des Browne: I can give the right hon. and learned Gentleman that assurance. That is exactly what we plan to do, even in terms of the limited withdrawal that the Prime Minister announced on Wednesday. At the heart of that announcement, as my right hon. Friend explained to the House, is our ability to draw down our troops in Iraq, because the view was taken not just by us but by our coalition partners and the Iraqi Government themselves
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that their forces could take the lead in delivering security in areas from which we were drawing down. That process will be continually assessed and reassessed, and unless we can satisfy ourselves as we go along that we can meet the demanding standards that we set, we will not proceed with it. It is a conditions-based process, and one of those conditions is that we look after the security of our own troops there while we undertake it.

Service Personnel (Dentistry)

6. Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of access to NHS dental treatment for service personnel and their families. [122584]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Dental treatment for service personnel is provided free of charge by Defence Medical Services in the UK, at overseas garrisons and on deployed operations, including ships at sea. The families of service personnel who accompany them when serving abroad also receive treatment from Defence Dental Services dentists. Dental care for service families in the UK is the responsibility of the NHS. We acknowledge that some service families have encountered problems due to frequent relocation, but we are working closely with the Department of Health to monitor the situation, and it has informed us that it has taken a number of initiatives to improve access to dental care.

Mr. Jackson: Does the Minister agree that service personnel deserve access to the very best public services? At present, they are not equipped, armed or housed properly, so is not the lack of access to dental care another example of the Government’s neglect of service personnel and their families?

Derek Twigg: It is a bit rich of the hon. Gentleman to talk about the funding of public services, given that in his party’s plans for public services there are no guarantees of what will be funded. I accept that the provision of dental services for some service personnel has been a problem, which is why, as I said, we are looking at that and working with the NHS to introduce a number of initiatives to improve access to universal care. May I also say that on my recent visit to Iraq and Afghanistan I saw first-class quality dental care being given to our service personnel in theatre? In fact, I had a discussion with someone who was receiving treatment while on operations. That underlines the Government’s commitment to ensure that our service personnel receive the best dental treatment and the best health service.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Recently, I was told about a service family who could not access new dental care because of their rapid mobility around the country, and had to make a round trip of at least 300 miles to visit their previous dentist. The Minister mentioned a number of initiatives taken by the Department of Health, but given that service families are subject to enforced mobility because of circumstances forced on them by the Government, which they accept, what steps will he take to address that issue and make sure that they receive care that is at least as good as that provided for other British citizens?


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Derek Twigg: As I just said to the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson), our officials have regular discussions with national health service officials to review the initiatives that they are taking. The hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) will know that initiatives have been taken by Ministers in the Department of Health and reported to the House. For instance, there has been a 25 per cent. increase in the number of dentists since 1997. Following the discussions that we have had with our friends in the Department of Health, we believe that that increase will continue and the service will improve for everybody, including service personnel.

Afghanistan

8. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of numbers of military helicopters in Afghanistan. [122586]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): There remains a shortfall in the NATO combined joint statement of requirements against the number of helicopters available to commanders. NATO allies made a commitment at the Riga summit to provide the mission with the resources that it needs, and we are working with contributing nations to ensure that those resources are available to commanders. Where the UK is concerned, we assess that our forces have the helicopters that they need to do the task, having deployed two additional Chinooks and having increased flying hours last summer, but we keep this under review.

Mr. Hollobone: Will the Secretary of State tell the House how many military helicopters there are in theatre and fit for purpose to support British troops? Is it true that the Ministry of Defence has been forced to seek out commercial helicopter operators to fly non-combat missions, to free up military flying time in support of our front-line troops?

Des Browne: The answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that in Afghanistan we operate eight Chinook, eight Apache and five Lynx helicopters, plus others that are assigned for the support of other forces. I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman as to how many of them could fly at this time. If he had given me notice of that question, I could have asked the present commander of those forces, Colonel Ian Huntley, when I was speaking to him today. He confirmed the position in relation to helicopters—indeed, he volunteered that information. Like Brigadier Thomas before him, he confirmed to me that commanders could do more if they had more helicopters, but they have not asked for additional helicopters. I will quote the very words that Col. Huntley used to me:

On the other part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, although we have no ideological objection to releasing helicopters for tasks that might enable our assets to be freed up for front-line use, we have not sought the sort of support that he suggests from the private sector.


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Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I am sure my right hon. Friend is well aware that we ought to have a contingency plan to ensure that when helicopters are needed, we can call upon them. If our NATO partners will not share the weight of the operation in Afghanistan, should they not at least provide helicopters as and when they are required by our front-line troops?

Des Browne: As I said in answer to the original question, there is a shortfall in the NATO combined joint statement of requirements against the number of helicopters. We are working and will continue to work with contributing nations to ensure that those resources are available to commanders. In doing so, we are doing exactly as my hon. Friend suggests and pointing out to some of our allies, where there is the possibility, that they could make helicopters available to us in Afghanistan, equipped so that they could be used for helicopter lift there.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): With regard to what the Minister has just said, in a recent written answer the statement was made:

Who identified that there was no capability gap? Was it politicians, the civil service or the armed forces, and on what basis was that judgment made?

Des Browne: A judgment would be made only on the basis of advice from the military and on no other grounds at all. I have no expertise to make such an assessment and I would depend entirely on military commanders to make an assessment for me. I have to say that I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I do not believe that there is a shortage of attack helicopters in Afghanistan. Those Apaches that we deployed, despite the fact that many people said that they were a bad purchase in the first place, have turned out to be much more capable than anybody thought they would be.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab): However, is the Secretary of State totally satisfied that the maintenance programme for the Apache is carried out in as efficient, frequent and timely a manner as possible?

Des Browne: If my hon. Friend is aware of any issues that she thinks I might not be aware of, she should bring them to my attention and I will do what I can. I am aware that at stages there have been supply chain issues in relation to spares. Of course, when those issues come to our attention, we make sure that if there is anything we can do from the point of view of the Ministry of Defence to overcome them, we will do it and they will be overcome. However, candidly, because of the difficulty of support for these very complex machines, things sometimes go wrong, and when they do it is our duty to make sure that they are corrected, and that they do not go wrong in the future.

Air Bridge

9. Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): If he will make a statement on the air bridge between the UK and operational theatres. [122587]


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