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On hearts and minds, the most important part of the challenge is to ensure that the writ of the Government of Afghanistan runs across the province of Helmand, which it did not before we arrived. It now does so in a large part of the province, particularly the area around
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Lashkar Gar where we are able to do a significant amount of work, enabling Governor Wafa to communicate to his people the message that the Afghan Government of President Karzai want to give them about the support we are providing for their future.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Against what criteria should we measure success in the security situation in Afghanistan, and over what period of time?

Des Browne: In my view, we should measure our success by continuing to make progress. We have made significant progress since last year when we faced a difficult challenge in the response from the Taliban as we deployed in Afghanistan. Those who look carefully at such issues and take into account the degree of propaganda generated by the Taliban will know that the Taliban have not met their propaganda about a spring offensive this year. We have had a much better year in terms of our ability to extend security across the province. There are still significant challenges, but we are making progress.

The hon. Gentleman asked about time. It would be speculative for me to set a date, but I have constantly said that we shall have to be with the Afghan Government and the people of Afghanistan for a significant time to enable them to come out of decades of violence during which 2 million of them lost their lives seeking the freedom they currently enjoy.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Members on both sides of the House will have been alarmed at reports that shortages of helicopters in Afghanistan have been responsible for delays in removing the wounded to hospital and that increased numbers of road journeys have to be undertaken because of insufficient transport helicopters, thus making troops more vulnerable to roadside bombs. How are the Government delivering on their pledge that our troops in Afghanistan will have enough attack and transport helicopters for the purposes for which they are needed?

Des Browne: In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the surgeon general, who has responsibility for the area, made it clear that he believes we provide a service that is second to none in Afghanistan for those wounded in action. There is no evidence to suggest that anybody has lost their life, or has not been properly treated, because of a lack of helicopter support. Indeed, given the distances involved in Afghanistan, we now deploy consultant-led teams on helicopters to ensure that people have appropriate support when the helicopter reaches them.

I have announced an increase in the number of helicopters in Afghanistan and increased the number of helicopter hours, and am satisfied that I have met the demands for helicopters made by the chain of command. More widely, of course, we have taken decisions to invest £230 million in 14 more helicopters so that they can be available for deployment if necessary.

Dr. Lewis: Some people might think that if someone is trapped and wounded in a minefield for six hours, the helicopter that comes should at least have a winch on it, but let us move to the question of winning hearts and minds.

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Is it not the case that one way of not winning hearts and minds is to be obsessed, as our American allies sadly are, with the eradication of the poppy crop, even though a huge proportion of Afghanistan’s citizens are still dependent on it? What opportunities have our service chiefs had to take up directly with the American strategists their concerns that pursuing a policy of poppy eradication is counter-productive and works against the principles of counter-insurgency, which must be to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as is humanly possible?

Des Browne: I shall deal with the eradication of poppies in a moment, but I do not want it to be thought that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s gloss on what was already a gloss on a very difficult incident in which, sadly, one of our troops lost his life and others were seriously injured. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of that incident. It is much more complicated, and it does not serve either those who fly helicopters to support those on the ground or those who were undertaking that dangerous mission on the ground for it to be used in the way in which the hon. Gentleman used it. In due course, there will be a full inquiry into the incident, and I ask him and other hon. Members to wait for the outcome of that inquiry rather than speculating for the purposes of making political points.

Eradication plays a part in any proper counter-narcotics strategy—the hon. Gentleman knows my view—if it is appropriate in certain circumstances. One of the most important of those circumstances is when peasant farmers have an alternative livelihood at their disposal so that we do not condemn them to a level of poverty that will inevitably mean they will engage in violence.

The hon. Gentleman should rest assured that as our senior military are integrated positively into the command of the international security assistance force in Afghanistan, they have their say and are heard in all conversations on all aspects of Afghanistan. Indeed, the Government constantly discuss such issues. He will have noticed, of course, that, on eradication, at the end of the day President Karzai’s decision in relation to Helmand province last year was consistent with the military’s view about where and when it should be conducted.

Future Strategic Tanker Aircraft

7. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): When he expects the contract for the future strategic tanker aircraft to be signed. [142915]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces announced on 6 June 2007, we have decided to proceed with a private finance initiative deal with AirTanker Limited to meet the future strategic tanker aircraft requirement. We aim to finalise the financial and contractual arrangements as soon as possible.

Mr. Bone: The VC10 aircraft that are going to be replaced were purchased second hand in the 1980s. No other airline or air force flies them. They need urgent repair, and one RAF source said that they are held together with rubber bands and sticky tape. Is that not
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another example of the Government doing too little, too late for the brave men and women of our armed forces?

Des Browne: The FSTA was designed to enter service in such a way that it meets the out-of-service dates for both the VC10 and the TriStar fleets. They are inextricably linked, and always have been. The calendar age of an aircraft is not an indicator of its operational utility or its remaining service life. Indeed, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman flies on aircraft that are of a considerable age in the fleets of many air carriers around the world.

Social Housing

8. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): If he will take steps to improve the opportunities for retiring service personnel to access secure social housing. [142916]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Officials at the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Communities and Local Government continue to work together to ensure that servicemen and women are fairly treated in terms of access to social housing, and we hope to make an announcement about that in due course.

Mr. Burns: I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. A constituent of mine, however, who had served his country in Afghanistan, was uncertain of being able to get social housing when he left the Royal Marines, and for a time was warned that he might have to take his family into a hostel. Does the Minister agree that that is unacceptable? Will he consider reviewing the tri-service regulations, so as to recognise the debt of honour that society owes to members of our armed forces, and to give them priority access to social housing to avoid such problems?

Derek Twigg: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We are hoping to make an announcement in due course about that issue, which he mentions in a local connection. A joint housing advice office helps service personnel and their families, and there are various projects around the country that work with ex-service personnel, including Compass in London, the Single Persons Accommodation Centre for the Ex-Services in Catterick, and Galleries in North Yorkshire. Help with housing is part of the leaving package for service personnel, and the key worker scheme is also available. I urge Members of Parliament to help by contacting their local authorities to see what priority they give to service personnel.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend inform the House what assistance is given to service personnel, and retired service personnel, to purchase their own homes?

Derek Twigg: One of the announcements made last year was on the key worker scheme in London and the south-east, which is an important step forward for service personnel. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have committed ourselves to considering what more can be done to help service personnel
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to buy, or buy equity in, a home. The strategic remuneration review is also considering how armed forces personnel can get into the housing market.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): One excellent organisation that helps our servicemen when they leave the armed forces is the Royal British Legion. Sadly, it does not get information from Her Majesty’s armed forces when servicemen leave. Is there any way to increase communication with the Royal British Legion so that it knows when servicemen are leaving, as it did when I left, and can help them with benefits and housing when they arrive?

Derek Twigg: We are working with five key charities to provide information about service leavers, and we want to do more. Recently, a welfare conference, which involved all the service charities, the single services, the Ministry of Defence and others, considered how best to fill the gaps for service leavers. Our resettlement package is widely renowned for its excellence and provides a significant amount of advice. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we work closely with service charities, and are considering what more we can do to improve the help and support that he rightly highlights.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): We should not provide only social housing to our ex-service personnel. Veterans day is next week, and on Sunday I shall hand out 70 badges to armed forces veterans who served as recently as 1984. One of those veterans flew 32 bombing missions to Germany, and ended up as Field Marshall Montgomery’s driver. I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to pay tribute to those veterans. Can he tell us how many badges have been handed out by his Department, and what it is doing to publicise that wonderful initiative?

Derek Twigg: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituents, to the particular constituent he mentions, who is clearly a remarkable man, and to veterans as a whole, who are remarkable people who contribute greatly to society and their communities. Veterans day
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is therefore important, as it recognises their contribution. We have now handed out more than 400,000 veterans badges, and we expect 500,000 to have been presented by late autumn—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome the engagement of Defence Ministers with Housing Ministers to address the issues. Will the Minister stress to Housing Ministers the need to look at some of the anomalies in legislation, in particular the Housing Act 1996, whereby an armed forces family with children who are happily settled in a school and a spouse who is working in the community are not deemed to have a local connection simply because they were posted there? Local authorities cannot even begin to plan to provide accommodation for armed forces families while they are still in accommodation, and they could spend anything up to a couple of years in temporary accommodation. I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is not the best start for our armed servicemen when they begin their civilian life.

Derek Twigg: We have been talking to colleagues in the DCLG about that very issue of the local connection. I assure the hon. Gentleman that when we are in a position to do so, we will make an announcement.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): When I left school, we either went into the collieries, the textile industry or the Army. Surely the least that we can expect for our armed forces when they come back is a housing policy in every county, as there is in Midlothian, which gives them priority. It is accepted in the community, and it always has been, that they get priority.

Derek Twigg: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. As I said, we are looking at the local connection. Members of Parliament can do a good job on behalf of the armed forces by checking whether local authorities give priority and help to ex-service personnel and their families.

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Gaza Strip

3.31 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if she will make a statement on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards the situation in the Gaza strip.

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): We are deeply concerned about the recent violence and the humanitarian situation in the Gaza strip. The violence we have seen has been completely unacceptable, with summary executions, attacks against hospitals and the cruel treatment of captives. Once again, extremists carrying guns have prevented progress, against the wishes of the majority, who seek a peaceful two-state solution.

Our immediate concern is the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We fully support the statement of the Quartet and efforts to meet the humanitarian needs of the Palestinians. In that regard, we welcome Israel’s decision to facilitate humanitarian access and ensure the provision of basic services. We continue to call on all parties to respect the human rights of those in Gaza and ensure the safety and security of international workers.

It is also important, however, that extremists are not allowed to derail the political process. The international community is united in its desire to continue moving the peace process forward. The Foreign Secretary spoke to President Abbas on 14 June, as well as US Secretary Rice and the Egyptian, Omani and Qatari Foreign Ministers. The Foreign Secretary is discussing the situation with her European counterparts at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Luxembourg today, where they will also discuss the situation with the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni. Prime Minister Olmert is currently in Washington and we look forward to discussions at the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

We welcome the Arab League’s engagement at its meeting on Friday. The Arab world has a key role to play in supporting President Abbas’s efforts to restore order to the occupied Palestinian territories. We also welcome Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to promote dialogue.

The emergency Government, who were sworn in on 17 June, have our full support. We will continue to work with all those, including President Abbas, who are dedicated to achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The emergency Prime Minister, Salam Fayyad, has said that his priorities are restoring security and improving the economic and humanitarian situation, and we share those goals.

I would like to reiterate the Government’s commitment to finding a solution that will result in a comprehensive and lasting peace, with two states, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security.

Our thoughts remain with Alan Johnston. We continue to call for his immediate release and welcome the efforts being taken towards that goal.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: The refusal of the United States and Israeli Administrations to do a deal with the Fatah Palestinian Government led to the election of a Hamas Government. The refusal to have dealings with a
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legitimately elected Hamas Government—with all the repression and suffering in the Gaza strip and the Palestinian territories—led to the Hamas militant takeover in the Gaza strip, and the situation is so fragmented that even Hamas cannot secure the release of Alan Johnston. Will our Government, with their unique credentials for the road map, make it absolutely clear that the only way in which to achieve a settlement is to follow the wise words of the great Israeli Foreign Minister, Abba Eban, “You only make peace by talking to your enemies”?

Dr. Howells: I agree that there must be proper debate, but debate is sometimes extremely difficult for a nation when it involves a party that wants that nation’s eradication, which is precisely what Hamas has declared.

I have heard some very glib statements about the necessity to engage with a Government who have been democratically elected. Similar statements were made in the 1930s about the Nazi Government in Germany, and I think we must take those prior examples into account. We cannot assume that because we engage with a party, it will behave like a democratic party elsewhere and there will be civilised aims at the end of it. If that party wants to see the eradication of Israel, how can we discuss and debate with it meaningfully?

I agree with the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw): until we see some sign that Hamas is moving towards a two-state dialogue, I do not see how we can hold meaningful discussions with its members.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Following five days of fighting between Fatah and the Hamas factions, by Thursday last week Hamas militia had seized control of the Gaza strip. That appears to have come as a surprise to the American and Israeli Governments, and to our own Government. Can the Minister explain why he thinks the seizure of power came about so quickly?

We welcome the Quartet’s prompt action in convening an urgent meeting on Saturday and giving its support to President Abbas, and that of the United States and the European Union in lifting the boycott on the Palestinian Authority and resuming the transfer of aid. However, it is clear that those are only the preliminary steps.

Given that before the latest violence 87 per cent. of the population of Gaza were living below the poverty line, what action do the Government believe can be taken to prevent the development of a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza? How quickly will the EU and others be able to convey maximum aid and assistance to the new Palestinian Cabinet to stave off the risk of a breakdown in law and order on the west bank? The EU high representative said this morning that most of the EU funding would go to the west bank, but that some would go to Gaza. What form will the assistance to Gaza take, and is the Minister confident that we can prevent it from ending up in the pockets of Hamas?

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