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Martin Linton: I welcome the progress that has been made in numbers. Can my right hon. Friend also report to us the progress that has been made in training the Iraqi armed forces in skills and operational capabilities?

Des Browne: We are continually looking to improve the effectiveness. As for numbers, we are getting towards the figure that was set as the target for recruitment. The emphasis is now on building the Iraqi security forces’ capability, particularly in leadership, command and control, intelligence and logistics. If the House wishes for evidence of the improvement in capability, I point to the conduct of the Iraqi security forces, especially the Iraqi army, in Amarah last October, their contribution to Operation Sinbad at the turn of the year, and the contribution of the 10th Division of the Iraqi army, which the United Kingdom has mentored in relation to the Baghdad security plan. In the assessment of others, including some hard-nosed American generals, they were among the best Iraqi troops deployed in Baghdad.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): Just over a year ago when I and other Members visited HMS Bulwark in the Shatt al-Arab, we were advised that the Iraqi navy had been fully trained to carry out boarding, and the only reason why it could not do so was its lack of boats. Bearing in mind recent events, can the Minister confirm that the Iraqi navy is indeed fully trained to undertake boarding, and can he tell the House what efforts have been made to provide it with the necessary boats so that it can carry out those duties?

Des Browne: Better than that, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that about two weeks ago when I visited Umm Qasr, where the Iraqi navy is based, I saw for myself that not only was it fully trained to carry out boarding, but it was doing so, although that was further up the river than the area where the incident involving our Marines took place in March. With reference to equipment, within months the Iraqi navy will receive the first of 21 new boats, all of which have been specifically designed for it to carry out such work. In the meantime, it has boats, provided by the Italians, from which it is able to carry out boarding.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State confirm that many Iraqi officers have been trained in Brecon, and to an extremely high standard?

Des Browne: I can, of course, confirm that. Significantly, that has been the case for some time now, not just in this phase of the development of the Iraqi army. It is amazing the number of very senior and older officers whom I meet when I go to Iraq who were trained in Britain, or in the British way in defence colleges elsewhere, perhaps in Pakistan or India.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): Does the Secretary of State now accept that the Iraqi army would be in much better shape, and the security situation in Iraq would be more stable, if we had not expelled all Ba’athists from the army—and will he accept that a very bad mistake was made, and lessons had not been learned from what happened in Germany in 1945?


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Des Browne: Retrospection always lends clarity to people’s opinions. I know from my conversations with Iraqis, and in particular with Iraqi politicians, that de-Ba’athification is still a contentious issue. I was not involved in the particular decisions that were being made at the time, but I understand their complexity. They were finely balanced decisions, and the balance may have fallen on the wrong side.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): We welcome the progress made with regard to the training and deployment of Iraqi troops, but can my right hon. Friend give us an estimate of when he expects Iraqi troops to be of sufficient numbers and ability to take over all of the British sector in the south? What confidence does he have that the Iraqi forces will be able to monitor and control the border between Iraq and Iran?

Des Browne: When the balance between the level of threat in the remaining part of the south-east of Iraq—Basra province and Basra city—and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deal with that threat is right, we will be able to hand over. We are in that transition phase at the moment. In Basra city we have successfully handed over two of our operating bases and we have substantially handed over the Shaibah logistics base. We plan to consider the handing over of Basra palace within a matter of months, and around that time we will be able to assess whether the Iraqi security forces, in particular the 10th Division of the army, have reached a level of capability to face down the threat, as they have been able to do in the provinces that we have already handed over.

Warships

5. Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): What plans he has to order warships for the Royal Navy. [136573]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Over the next 20 years we expect to contract for, or build, more than 20 major warships, including nuclear attack submarines, new aircraft carriers and more air defence destroyers, and to begin a new class of fleet escorts. Numerous Royal Navy support ships will also come into service over this period.

Mr. Wallace: There has been some exploration of the possibility of working with the French in a joint venture on the two super-carriers. It is probably welcome that we should share costs by joint working on design and other aspects, but will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out any option that includes building the ships in French yards, and guarantee that our carriers will be built entirely and wholly in British yards?

Mr. Ingram: I would like to think that we could bid for the French ship to be built in British yards as well—and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would see that as a major success, but would still say that the converse would somehow be wrong. We have a deep and growing relationship with the French on this, and their contribution to the cost has been welcome. We are working to get common design, which again we
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welcome in terms of our relationship over the decades ahead with the French as a major ally. Let us take this a step at a time. At present our plan is to build those ships in British yards, and that is what we seek to do. That is what the maritime industrial strategy is all about, and every encouragement should be given to it.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is good news not only for the Navy but for the UK defence industry? Will he join me in congratulating organisations such as Northern Defence Industries, which is working hard to ensure that medium-sized and small enterprises access the supply chain for these contracts, not only in the north-east but throughout the north of England?

Mr. Ingram: Yes, I can say “Hear, hear” to that. It is important that the areas that have that expertise, and have had it for a good number of years, see this as a major opportunity. The more small and medium-sized enterprises in the supply chain see that opportunity—and, more importantly, seize it—the better it is for our industrial base overall. We have a strong supply chain, and support not only for the maritime industry but across the range of defence industries. I give every encouragement to those organisations, including the particular one mentioned by my hon. Friend, to work hard to ensure that they maximise the opportunities available to them.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): To what extent does the Minister agree that there is no point in having aircraft carriers if we do not have the aircraft to fly off them? In the event that the joint strike fighter project fails, what discussions is the Minister, or his officials, having with the French about the possibility of flying Rafale aircraft from our aircraft carriers?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is advocating that; I suspect not. We have said that we intend the joint strike fighter project to succeed, and every effort has been put into that. I thank everyone who lends weight to that argument in their visits to the United States and impresses on people there the importance of our engagement and our relationship with them. There is a plan B, but as I have already said, we want to succeed with plan A. I do not think that plan B should be ventilated at this stage, but it is not along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend update us on the Type 45s, two of which are sitting in my constituency being fitted out, with a third to join them before the end of the year? What is happening with ships Nos. 7 and 8 in particular, as we know that four are required to defend each aircraft carrier? [ Interruption . ]

Mr. Ingram: I am being asked to give a short answer—I do not think that that will be the case, but I shall do my best.

We are concluding our negotiations on ships Nos. 4 to 6, and until those issues are resolved we cannot move on to the next development, which would be that of ships Nos. 7 and 8. I have said this to my hon. Friend before, because he constantly asks this question—and
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rightly so, because he represents the interests of his constituents and those shipyards extremely well. No doubt he will be the first to ask the question again as we get closer to a final decision.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome what the Minister has said about the carriers, which enjoy support across the House. Will he give us some indication of how the Ministry’s thinking is developing on future procurements, given the need for the Navy to play a part in rapid responses in conflict and humanitarian situations? In particular, what response does he have to those who argue in defence journals and elsewhere that too much of our naval capability is geared up to anti-submarine warfare, and that we need more multi-purpose ships and small, faster, more versatile craft for the future?

Mr. Ingram: First, I do not think that there is universal acceptance on both sides of the House that we need the aircraft carriers; I am sure that some would argue that we do not. It is up to them to articulate that, but if they do say so they will be wrong. In terms of anti-submarine warfare, some of the recent changes in defence have been because of our understanding of the changing nature of the submarine threat. We cannot make a complete exit, because we do not know when things could change. We need to keep a number of options open, not only in terms of the surface fleet and the submarine fleet but across the range of personnel who give essential protection from the air and elsewhere. All those issues have to be taken into account. The planned expenditure on the Royal Navy over 20 years is £14 billion. Clearly, if the threat changes within that time scale the need to procure different types of vessels will be taken fully into account, based on the military assessment at that time.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): What are the implications for the future naval building programme if existing warships can be used more intensively by, for example, having two alternate crews?

Mr. Ingram: We are trialling that approach to keep the ships at sea for longer. That is one issue about the size of the Navy versus its capability. The more capable the ships, the longer there should be between refit and maintenance work. The ships can thus be kept at sea and closer to the point of deployment. It is then a case of working out how best to use the Navy personnel who serve on those ships. Trials are under way, and the Navy will take account at all times of any adverse impact on the naval personnel involved in such a process. Let us wait and see how it works. However, I would have thought that my hon. Friend would welcome the opportunity to deploy ships at sea for longer than at present, when they have to return to base port or home port and are therefore not in action.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Minister boasts about the order book, but I understand that, in the past five years, the Government have ordered only one ship—an offshore patrol vessel. Is not it the case that, by selling off perfectly serviceable Type 23 frigates, mothballing six ships out of a surface fleet that has already been cut from 35 to 25 and relentlessly reducing orders for Type 45 destroyers and
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attack submarines, the Government have demoralised the once proud Royal Navy, all at the behest of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who does not understand Britain’s armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: That was a bit of a rant, which does not relate to reality. The Navy is not being mothballed. Ships are in different states of readiness—it has never been the case that all ships are maintained at a high state of readiness at all times. Ships have to go into refit and undergo modification, with new equipment being fitted to them. That means that they fulfil a different role.

We are considering a development programme of £14 billion, and I have listed the ships that are in the process of being contracted for or built. The hon. Gentleman’s comments are inaccurate. I suggest that he read my parliamentary answer about what has been procured under the Government. That will help educate him.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does the Minister understand that small and medium-sized enterprises have grave concerns about the aircraft carrier? They put the delay down to the involvement of the French. Can he allay their fears?

Mr. Ingram: As far as I know, the French are not causing the delay. If anything, the delay is about ensuring that we have the best fit for the building capacity in the yards. That is where the ongoing, progressive and helpful discussions between Vosper Thornycroft and BAE Systems are leading. All that will be greatly beneficial. As I said in response to an earlier question, there are great opportunities, and industry should be getting itself best placed in its planning to maximise the time when it can make a bid for different aspects of that programme. Matters are complicated by the fact that the programme is not signed off and the steel cutting is therefore not under way. Once that happens, the pace will quicken and the enterprises should be assured that there is a good future ahead for them.

Iraq

6. Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): What his policy is on employing private security personnel in Iraq. [136574]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Government policy is to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not to employ private military and security companies, which already have a significant role in Iraq. For example, much of the progress in building civilian security capacity has been achieved through the work of the UK civilian policing mission to Iraq, including trainers and mentors who are employed by ArmorGroup. A review of private military and security policy is under way.

Norman Baker: The Secretary of State knows that War on Want estimates that 48,000 employees who work for almost 200 different companies are now in Iraq, making them the second-largest occupying force after the United States. He may also know that there have been allegations of human rights abuses by some
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of those companies. Why have not the Government’s intentions, which are stated in the 2002 Green Paper, to introduce legislation to control those companies, been implemented? We have waited five years for that.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the significant contribution that private military and security companies make, particularly in Iraq, where they are ever present. Given the nature of the conflict in Iraq, even the green zone could be considered part of the battle space and those companies are there in significant numbers, and therein lies the answer to his second question. That was not the case in 2002, but since then, the proliferation of private military and security companies—not contracted by this Government, I should say, but by many other Governments—into the battle space where we deploy in coalition has greatly complicated the circumstances. We are presently looking at the nature of any regulation that we might need to bring in, which was anticipated in the Green Paper and subsequent discussion. It is a complex issue, so when we legislate, we will need to get it right. Consideration is going on across the relevant Departments at the moment.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): How much has the Department spent on private security companies in Iraq over the past four financial years?

Des Browne: I refer the hon. Gentleman to an answer given to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on 19 March 2007, in which the House was told that one contract had been awarded by the MOD not in Iraq, but in Afghanistan, and that the value was approximately £35,000.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Secretary of State tell the House what proportion of the amounts going to private security companies in Iraq are in respect of past or present advisers to, or members of, Bush Administration companies?

Des Browne: I will have to write to my hon. Friend to answer that. I am sorry that my brief does not have that specific information. I know that a significant number of other Government Departments have contracts with private military security companies, which were detailed in another answer to the hon. Member for Lewes on 20 March. The detail is set out there if anyone wants to look at it. The contracts went substantially to a firm called ArmorGroup, of which the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) is the non-executive chairman.

7. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the role of UK armed forces in the security situation in Iraq. [136575]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): UK armed forces are deployed in Iraq in support of United Nations Security Council resolution 1723. We continue to make progress in creating the conditions required to transfer security responsibility to the Iraqi authorities by helping to train and mentor the Iraqi security forces and by conducting joint security and
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counter-terrorist operations with them. Last month, Maysan province—the third of the four provinces in our area of operations—was handed over to Iraqi security control.

Simon Hughes: Given that the whole House is united in the conviction that so long as our troops are there, they must have the best equipment, will the Secretary of State tell us the current assessment of the timetable for the deployment into Iraq of the Mastiffs that were earmarked to go this summer? Will the anticipated reduction in the number of troops have any consequences for the number of Mastiffs to be put in theatre?

Des Browne: Our current plans are to have 100 Mastiffs in theatre in Iraq by the end of the summer. They will be complemented by 100 Bulldogs and, if I remember correctly—I am relying on memory—160 Vector or advanced protection vehicles. Whether we meet that target precisely will depend on a number of factors. I say that because, in recent months, in order to advance our ability to get protected vehicles into theatre, we have gone for a solution that allows those vehicles to go into theatre and for those who use them to tell us how the next batch can be improved. I ask the House not to hold me to any specific day, but we have been able to meet the challenge in this procurement that the procurement process has not been able to meet before. Indeed, when I was in Iraq a couple of days ago, I was privileged to be shown the presently deployed vehicles by the people who use them and I can say that they were singing their praises highly.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the number of troops will be reduced and that those who have served will not go back into theatre as quickly, but will get the proper rest and full training that they need before being redeployed?

Des Browne: I have already announced to the House our intention to reduce the number of troops deployed in Iraq, down to about the 5,000 figure, by the autumn of this year or thereabouts. One of the consequences of that reduction will be our ability to rest, train and recuperate our troops better than we can currently, because of the tempo of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is certainly part of the plan.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): With the Secretary of State’s recent visit in mind, I am sure that he will have met members of the 2nd Battalion the Rifles in Basra, and will therefore be aware of the splendid service that they have performed and the injuries and fatalities that they have suffered. The regiment is now coming to the conclusion of its tour of duty. I seek the Secretary of State’s assurance that the Ministry of Defence will be in touch with the commanding officer of the regiment to ensure not only that its troops are properly debriefed and that lessons are learned from their tour of duty, but that every assistance is given as the regiment adjusts back to life in the United Kingdom.


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