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Des Browne: I can give the right hon. Gentleman all the assurances that he seeks. From the moment those troops who have served in the operational theatre board the aircraft to come out, the process begins of
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rehabilitating them, debriefing them and allowing them to decompress. That process is uppermost in the minds of those who look after them. I join him in paying tribute to the contribution that the 2nd Battalion the Rifles has made. He is right: I saw with my own eyes the brave and professional work that those troops are doing, but they are not alone. All the troops we have deployed into Iraq have made a significant contribution and are doing splendid work.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): I have asked the Secretary of State on a number of previous occasions about Iranian involvement in arming insurgents. It is becoming increasingly clear that factory-grade weapons are crossing to Iraq from Iran. They include explosively formed projectiles capable of piercing armoured vehicles, and killing and maiming our troops. What is being done to secure the border and how will that task be handled during the withdrawal of forces from Basra? It is essential that we minimise the risk of such weapons being used against coalition forces throughout Iraq.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman is right that there is evidence to suggest that armaments, and in particular improvised explosive devices, are being deployed against our troops in southern Iraq that have their provenance in Iran. That is why we have deployed our forces along the border in Maysan. During my recent visit to Iraq, I spoke to those who were deployed in that area. I commend them on the work that they are doing and the intelligence that they are able to build up in that area. That is one of the reasons why we conduct the boarding operations along the Shatt al-Arab waterway that we have already discussed today.

Over and above that, we seek through the Iraqi Government and their engagement with the Iranian Government to send the Iranians the strong message that, apart from anything else, it is not in their interests to have a destabilised southern part of Iraq. We seek every other opportunity that we have, including the increasing opportunities that we now seem to have, to speak to the Iranians and get the message across to them.

Dr. Fox: The Mahdi army has been behind some of the worst atrocities in Iraq and some of the most lethal attacks on British forces. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House and to our troops what the Government’s current position is with regard to Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mahdi army? Do the Government regard him as a political figure or a terrorist?

Des Browne: The fact of the matter is that Moqtada al-Sadr is, in terms of Iraq, both. He is a man who plays a significant political role—there is no question about that. It is not for me to define who is a political figure and who is not, and he undoubtedly plays a significant political role. It is also clear that elements of the Mahdi army behave as if they were insurgents, or indeed terrorists. There is no doubt about that, either. What is not entirely clear, however, is which parts of the Mahdi army are under his control and which are not. In the south of Iraq, where we have forces deployed, a competition is going on—including, among others, the militia of the Mahdi army—for influence. That fact that we stand between them and the effect that they could have on the
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people of that part of Iraq, especially in the city of Basra, causes them to attack us so frequently. That is why we treat them as we do, and we have had significant successes over the past month or so in dealing with them in that community That is not to say, however, that they are not still a significant bad presence.

Selly Oak Hospital

9. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What progress is being made in developing the military-managed ward at Selly Oak. [136577]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Selly Oak hospital provides first-class treatment and care for military patients. The military-managed ward there reached initial operating capability before Christmas. There are now military managers involved at every level and a total of 26 military nurses, which is double the number in August 2006. As I mentioned earlier, that number will increase to a total of 39 by this summer, when the ward will reach its full operating capability.

Rosie Cooper: As military-managed wards require specialist support, will the Minister indicate what staffing changes have been made on that ward? After all, we are seeking the best possible care for our soldiers and service personnel, whether that is provided by military or national health service personnel.

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend raises an important issue about the way it is operating. Clearly, we have a number of military medical personnel, as I mentioned in answer to previous questions. The increase in the number of nurses and other clinicians to 39 is significant. Our partnership with the NHS is also important. I want to place on record my thanks and appreciation to Selly Oak hospital and those from the NHS who have been caring for our military personnel, who have received outstanding, world-class treatment and operations. Again, it is not just about meeting clinical needs, but about providing welfare and psychiatric support, as well as excellent family accommodation, which has been developed with the help of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, which I also thank. A range of support services is provided for our personnel at Selly Oak.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): I am pleased that the Minister, for whom I have a high regard, has mentioned the psychiatric care available to our service personnel, both men and women, who return from Iraq or Afghanistan suffering, in many cases, from trauma as a result of their horrific experiences in operational areas. Is he satisfied with the level of psychiatric and psychological care available to our service personnel when they return from areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan?

Derek Twigg: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. He will know that psychiatric support is also available on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are always looking to improve psychiatric support. As I have mentioned, Selly Oak has two psychiatric nurses, and there is also support at Hedley Court and in defence community mental health care provision based
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in different parts of the country. The mental health care provided has improved tremendously, and gives the support that our service personnel expect. We are also trying to improve the provision for veterans.

Iraq

11. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [136579]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Iraq varies from province to province. In Baghdad and surrounding areas, violence perpetrated by sectarian and insurgent groups remains a very serious problem. Recent action by Iraqi and coalition forces as part of the Baghdad security plan has led to a reduction in murders by the militia death squads. But the terrorist groups continue to use suicide bombings to inflame the sectarian divide.

Outside Baghdad and its environs—which account for around 80 per cent. of the violence in Iraq—the security situation is better, particularly in the north and south of the country. But there are still security challenges in both parts.

Mr. Leigh: Everyone knows that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month’s time, a year’s time or two years’ time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target—the magnet—for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Secretary of State is honest with the House.

Des Browne: I understand why the hon. Gentleman put his question in that way, although his vocabulary was slightly extravagant at one stage. I have always sought to be straightforward with the House about the complexity of the challenge that we face, and the nature of the challenge that we ask our troops to face, in southern Iraq. I have always said that the transition process is a condition-based process, and I have evidence that that is exactly how we have dealt with it in the three provinces that we have already handed over.

I am not suggesting, and have never suggested, that those areas are perfect places in which to live. I am merely describing the evidence in respect of transition and provincial Iraqi control there. I was told, not only in the House but elsewhere, that there would be meltdown and mayhem within weeks, but in all three provinces the Iraqi security forces have been able to maintain some stability—although not complete stability—with the help of the politicians.

That is our objective for the city of Basra and the Basra province, and I will not take my eye from it, although the fact that we stand between the militia in southern Iraq and what they want to do to the people
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of southern Iraq makes us a target in the meantime. We have a duty to those people to stay with them, while maintaining the balance of which I have spoken in the past. We also have a duty to members of our forces who have lost their lives or sustained injuries in trying to achieve that objective to see it through.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): One of the biggest challenges in Iraq remains the lack of helicopter lift. It was announced recently that the six Merlin helicopters that had been delivered to Denmark would be returned to the United Kingdom, but they are fitted for search and rescue, a fitting that is wholly unsuitable for service on operations. Will the Secretary of State confirm that funds will be found to fit those helicopters appropriately?

Des Browne: When I announced not only that the Danish Government had agreed to send us the six Merlin helicopters on the basis of their contract, but that the eight Chinook helicopters previously fitted for mark 3 performance but unable to fly would be refitted for mark 2 performance, I announced in the same statement funds to ensure that all the helicopters would be capable of deployment in the operational theatre. We will indeed ensure that funds are available to fit them appropriately. It is unthinkable that we would fly helicopters in the operational theatre that were not protected in the way in which all the helicopters we currently fly are protected.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): For 18 months, military commanders have been advising that the mere presence of British troops is provoking violence. How much provocation do our troops have to give before the Secretary of State will bring them home?

Des Browne: Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort. I have already explained twice to the House that what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that.


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We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.

Helicopters

13. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): If he will make a statement on the inter-service use of helicopters. [136581]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The Joint Helicopter Command was formed in 1999 with the specific purpose of delivering integrated battlefield helicopter and air assault capability provided by all three services. Other helicopters operated solely by the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force may also be called upon for cross-service support. This integrated approach means that it is common for an aircraft from one service to support one or more of the other services’ personnel, equipment and aircraft. RAF Chinooks, Merlins and Pumas that combine to form the support helicopter force within the Joint Helicopter Command are frequently employed in transporting troops and equipment from the Army or Royal Marines. Attack helicopters from the Army Air Corps can provide defensive cover for RAF Chinooks in operational theatres.

Ann Winterton: I thank the Minister for that full and comprehensive reply, but what plans does he have to replace the current Gazelle fleet, and will he consider the purchase of light assault helicopters to fill the capability gap, bearing it in mind that the 40 Future Lynx aircraft that are due to come into service in 2014 will replace more than 200 aircraft from the current Gazelle and Lynx fleets? Does he acknowledge that there will be a huge future shortage of capacity, and what will the Government do to fill that?

Mr. Ingram: Clearly, we must define what that future shortage is; it must be well defined. We then have to define what the procurement strategy should be to fill that gap and make sure that that which we procure has durability and utility over the longer period. The reason why I am giving that answer is because procurement is not simply about saying, “Let’s take it off the shelf and stick it out into theatre.” I know that the hon. Lady understands that. I will provide her with a written response to the detailed points she has raised so that she can have the best understanding of how these matters are progressing.


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Burton’s Foods

3.31 pm

Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 24, to debate an important matter that requires specific and urgent consideration, namely, the decision by Burton’s Foods to cease production of biscuits at its Moreton site, with the loss of 660 full-time jobs.

Burton’s is currently the largest private sector employer in my constituency. It has provided a reliable source of employment for generations of my constituents living in Moreton and Leasowe. It is not uncommon for entire families to work at the plant. Many employees have given decades of unbroken service to the company. Last Friday, the employees were taken without warning into the canteen, where the announcement of this intended closure was made. They were then sent home.

Wirral metropolitan borough council and I had been in dialogue with the company some months ago about its review of production and had been promised by the company that it would keep us in touch with the review. That promise was not kept. The first I knew of this devastating closure decision was when I received phone calls from shocked and distressed employees.

In 2001, Burton’s Foods was the recipient of £3 million of regional selective assistance from the Government and £1 million of rate rebates from the local authority to help to finance an expansion of production at the site and safeguard employment in the area. As part of that deal, the work force accepted a three-year pay freeze. Burton’s Foods’ obligations under those agreements ran out in March of this year.

To say that people feel angry and betrayed understates the strength of feeling in Moreton and Leasowe today. Despite the company’s behaviour, however, Wirral council, the trade unions and I stand ready to assist in any way that we can, and urge the company to reverse this decision and work with us to go forward in a more positive way. I believe that it owes it to a long-standing and loyal work force to find another way through these difficulties.

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues further in the House.

Mr. Speaker: I have listened carefully to what the hon. Member has said and I must give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider that the matter that she has raised is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 24 and I therefore cannot submit the application to the House.


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Point of Order

3.33 pm

Mr. Speaker: On Thursday 10 May, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised a point of order about the failure of Government to lay a document before the House under the Identity Cards Act 2006 within the statutory time set out in the provisions of that Act. I deprecate the fact that that happened and I suggest that the hon. Member might like to take the matter up with the Select Committee on Home Affairs and the Liaison Committee to consider how a better system of compliance can be monitored. That might be the most fruitful avenue to pursue, although it is, of course, open to him to follow that matter up through parliamentary questions or an Adjournment debate. I hope that that is of help to the hon. Gentleman.


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Orders of the Day

Concessionary Bus Travel Bill [Lords]

[Relevant document: The Third Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2006-07, Legislative Scrutiny: Second Progress Report, HC 287.]

Order for Second Reading read.

3.35 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Buses are at the heart of Britain’s transport system and are a lifeline to many of our communities. Two out of three public transport journeys in Britain today are made by bus. Buses can reach people in places that other forms of public transport cannot. Millions of people, including some of the most vulnerable in our communities, depend on buses to get to the shops, to see their doctor, to get to work or to visit friends and relatives. Without bus services, many people would feel cut off and less involved in the day-to-day life of their community, so buses are providing more than a simple transport service; they are also providing a public service. They are promoting accessibility, tackling social exclusion and improving people’s lives.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way and I apologise for intervening so early in his speech, but I do so as he has mentioned the importance of bus services to vulnerable people. What would he say to vulnerable people in Tyne and Wear whose essential services have been cut because of the way that the funding formula was applied when the concessionary fares scheme was introduced, and will that be corrected under this Bill?

Mr. Alexander: My hon. Friend is a tireless campaigner on this issue; indeed, he spoke in the most recent Adjournment debate on buses and received an answer from the Minister with responsibility for buses, my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron). As I recall, she said that she had visited Newcastle and that discussions had taken place with the Department for Communities and Local Government. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) that I will come to the financing of the national concessionary scheme—in the north-east and across the rest of England—during my remarks.

Our buses are now more environmentally friendly than ever and, indeed, more accessible by disabled people. Their flexibility means that they can for some provide a genuine alternative to the car, helping, of course, to tackle congestion. These are some of the reasons why this Bill is so important, and why I welcome Opposition Members having signalled during the Adjournment debate to which I referred their support for the principles contained in this Bill.


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