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Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): As the Secretary of State knows, the Defence Committee was in Iraq last week, and we were bowled over by the courage and enthusiasm of the men and women from the UK whom we met. Does he agree that there is a judgment to be made about the viability of our force there? Given what is happening there at the moment, does he agree that we are now close to the irreducible minimum?

Des Browne: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for sharing that impression, which has been left on all of us who have visited our troops in theatre, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan: there is no question but that they are the best of the best. For that reason, we have the responsibility to ensure that they are protected as well as possible in the dangerous tasks that we ask of them. The optimal number of troops is a matter for operational advice. The advice that I have received is that the troops currently there are configured in the right way to carry out the tasks that we ask of them, but we keep that matter constantly under review.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Along with the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), I visited Basra last week. Major General Jonathan Shaw and the men and women under his command are doing a tremendous job, and we should be thankful that they are doing it. Does the Secretary of State agree that while the transfer of Bara to provincial Iraqi control will be welcome, setting artificial time lines for that decision would be a mistake and would possibly put our troops in further danger?

Des Browne: General Shaw and the troops that he commands are doing an excellent job, and I shall pass on to him my hon. Friend’s comments. He speaks, as does the Chairman of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), for all Select Committee members who have visited. My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely correct, and that is why I was pleased to see that the issue of security and the conditions for drawdown of troops were significantly addressed in the report of our own Iraq study group. This is a process of judging the security challenge, the Iraqi security forces’ ability to meet it, and our own ability to respond to any circumstances that may threaten to overwhelm them at some time in the future, in the overall context of the development of the politics of that part of Iraq. That judgment must be made before we can make decisions about our troops. It is not an exact science, and it certainly does not lend itself to arbitrary timetables that would only put our people more at risk than they are already during the current period of transition.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What does the Secretary of State make of the votes on withdrawal in both Houses of the American Congress? Is it still our policy that security will be the only consideration that determines the timetable for withdrawal? Given that this year is shaping up to be the bloodiest since 2003, is there not a risk that that could be a very long way off, and that the militias and insurgents will be given a say over the timetable?

What does the Secretary of State make of the Iraq Commission report, and what does he think our role will be after we hand over Basra province? Is not the
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best idea the commission’s suggestion that we concentrate on training and advice, and set a date for an end to our active deployment?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman invites me to intervene in domestic American politics and respond to decisions made in Congress. I do not intend to do that. Obviously such decisions are relevant to us, but our strategy remains the same. It cannot properly be defined as a strategy dependent solely on security; it is far from being that. I do not want to repeat my last answer in detail, but it described the path that we have taken.

Our strategy does not hang on the insurgents and on determination of the timetable. There has been an increase in the number of our casualties, but that is a function of the transition that we are undergoing. On almost every occasion we have deployed troops abroad, our casualty rate has risen when we have sought to emerge from combat and reduce the strength of our forces during a period of transition. In this instance, that is a function of a number of elements, not least the fact that the militia deployed in Basra city, supported by the Iranians, are determined to take the credit for driving us out of that city. I think that people who understand how insurgencies work would understand that that is the case. It is not the whole explanation for our casualty rate, but it is part of the explanation and people need to understand it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Since the United States is planning to withdraw, would it not be better if the British also set a date, or at least had a contingency plan, so that there is a clear timeline? I know the Secretary of State is reluctant to do that, but clearly the pressure is on for us to specify a point by which all the occupying forces will be out of Iraq and Iraq must decide its own future.

Des Browne: I do not consider myself to be under pressure to declare a timeline. In fact, I consider myself to be under pressure not to declare one. The declaration of a timeline would exacerbate the dynamic that I have just explained.

It is obvious what is going on in southern Iraq, where at least 85 per cent. of the violence is directed against our forces. There are people there who want to claim credit for driving us out, in a process that we have already announced and on which we are partly embarked. If my hon. Friend cannot contain his patience and watch us progress in the orderly way in which we have progressed for months, that is a matter for him, but he will certainly not persuade me to put our troops in any more danger than they are in already.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): During the past week the United States Congress has voted, for the third time this year, to withdraw forces from Iraq. Moreover, Prime Minister al-Maliki has said that coalition troops can leave whenever they like. Why is it only neo-Conservative United States Republicans and this Government who are delaying the final withdrawal of our brave service men and women from Iraq?

Des Browne: Prime Minister al-Maliki said his assessment was that in about three months’ time the Iraqi security forces would be ready to take over responsibility for security in Basra. That was his
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assessment, and it is important, because it is part of the process of assessment that we will undergo, and have already undergone, in three of the four provinces from which we have withdrawn our troops and which we have allowed to be handed over to the security control of the Iraqis.

Since I took up my current post, I have consistently explained the precise strategy we are following, both from the Dispatch Box and elsewhere. We have never deviated from that strategy: we have not been forced to change by any set of circumstances, by votes in any other Parliament or by decisions of any other Government. I and my predecessor have explained the process; it is a logical one, and it is in the interests of the Iraqi people, towards whom we have a responsibility. It is also consistent with the United Nations Security Council resolution, and it represents the international community’s will. Most importantly, it is the best and most sensible way to maintain our contribution to the Iraqi people and to protect our people—although they are, for reasons I have now twice explained this afternoon, under additional threat at present.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Can we assume from the answers that the Secretary of State has given that the process of withdrawal, which I support and welcome, is purely a British one?

Des Browne: We cannot make any such assumption. The process of transition to Iraqi control has been ongoing for some time now. On 21 February, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, stood at the Dispatch Box and explained exactly what we were going to do. We currently have 5,500 troops in Iraq. If, as we expect, we manage in a matter of weeks to hand over the Basra palace to Iraqi security control, we will be able to draw down a further 500. We will then be in a position of overwatch, which we discussed in respect of an earlier question. At that stage, we will assess the ability of the Iraqi security forces in consultation with our allies—and chiefly with our principal ally, the United States of America—and decide whether we can move on to withdrawing our forces. We will also at that stage explain our continuing support for the Iraqi Government—because I am sure that there will be continuing support.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware of the recent comments of Lord Inge in the House of Lords that our involvement has been a strategic failure? The fact is that our troops are now dying at a greater rate than the Americans: they can expect to be attacked within 20 minutes of leaving base. After giving up the Basra palace, those gallant men will have to retreat to the airport. How can they effectively run a country or conduct peacekeeping operations from an airport? What is our strategy, apart from staying there just to prove that we have a strategy? We should get out and get out now.

Des Browne: I can only suspect that the hon. Gentleman has only recently entered the Chamber as I spent some time, in answer to an earlier question, explaining our strategy—explaining the logic of it and why it involves assessments of the security situation, the Iraqis’ ability to respond, our ability to support
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them and the political support that the security forces are receiving from the Iraqis. The commission suggests that we are mistaken in thinking that the goal can be achieved by military means alone, but we have never suggested that the future of Iraq was dependent on military means alone. It is fundamentally dependent on the ability of the Iraqis themselves to stand up properly their organisations and the level of political support for those organisations in certain parts of the country. That is their challenge, and we can do only so much to help them. However, that analysis of the situation gives no support to the assertion that the hon. Gentleman has just made.

Military Recruitment and Retention

6. Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): If he will make a statement on levels of recruitment and retention in the armed forces. [149378]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): In 2006-07, the armed forces achieved 97 per cent. of their recruitment requirement. Recruitment and retention are constantly monitored and there are significant manning challenges and shortages in specific areas. We are taking action to address them by continuing to improve recruitment and by renewing efforts on retention, and by restructuring our forces to focus effort in those areas most in demand. Those measures include targeted financial retention initiatives and extensions to normal engagement lengths.

Chris Bryant: On retention, there is a paradox in the fact that the quality and standards of training in the armed forces are now so high that almost all armed forces personnel have such a strong set of skills in terms of logistics, communications and many other areas that they are immensely valuable in the private sector. However, many of those who leave because they get offered much better pay elsewhere want to maintain a strong connection with the armed forces. Is there a way to maintain such stronger links in the future, not only through people volunteering as reservists for tours of duty but in other ways?

Derek Twigg: I take on board my hon. Friend’s point about there being significant challenges. We want to retain such connections through the reservist route and the Territorial Army; we wish to encourage that. As my hon. Friend rightly says, many people leave the armed forces with a wide range of skills and abilities which they put to good use when they enter the private and public sectors. We always keep our options open in terms of what we can do to improve retention and recruitment and continuing connection with the armed forces.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am interested to hear what the Minister has to say. I am sure he agrees that while recruiting figures may be improving, many of the units are woefully undermanned. I am also sure that he agrees that the job of Commander Recruiting Group is absolutely key and that he is the most important brigadier at the heart of this problem. Why then was that gentleman absent for more than six months last year on a court martial?

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Derek Twigg: I cannot answer the specific question about the individual concerned, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman with the reasons. However, significant resources and effort go into recruitment and retention, and I am sure that he knows that. We accept, as I have made clear publicly and previously in the Chamber, that there are significant challenges, specifically in certain pinchpoint grades where there are shortages.

The position in terms of voluntary outflows has remained fairly stable over the past 10 years or so, although there has been a slight increase. However, we must keep some specific grades under review and try to do more, whether through financial incentives, work-life balance or other incentives.

John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the provision of a state of the art tri-service military training academy at St. Athan in my constituency will do an enormous amount to help us to achieve our desired recruitment and retention levels in Her Majesty’s forces?

Derek Twigg: I know that my hon. Friend has been a great advocate of the defence training review, and that he has often expressed his support for that. However, he knows that we are looking at how to achieve package 1 and package 2 and whether the whole-programme solution is possible. As soon as we are in a position to do so, we will make an announcement.

Mr. Mark Lancaster (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con): Given that the Minister is so keen to improve recruitment, can he explain the ludicrous decision to freeze all recruiting in the Territorial Army next year for units that do not contribute directly to Afghanistan or Iraq? For the sake of £2 million, that will decimate the TA’s future.

Derek Twigg: I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised that issue previously on the Floor of the House. Given his background, may I pay tribute to his service? I know that he takes a great interest in the TA, reservists and what is happening. He knows, because we have said so, that TA operations will not be affected by those savings measures. The decision to make a small reduction in funding to the TA was carefully considered, and was targeted at areas that would cause least problems in operational effectiveness.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): On recruitment, does the Minister agree that new recruits join with the prospect of joining first-class units with first-class equipment? Does he also agree that the Government are to be commended on their naval shipbuilding programme? In that context, does he agree that people would flood forward to join the Royal Navy if only he or his right hon. Friend would announce this week or next week the building of two aircraft carriers?

Derek Twigg: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, but he will have to wait a little longer for the decision.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): May I associate myself with the tributes to Guardsman Daryl Hickey of the Grenadier Guards, who are based at
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Aldershot but are serving with enormous distinction in Afghanistan, where I had the privilege of meeting some of them?

The Minister said that he faces a significant challenge. Is he aware that the outflow of experienced Royal Air Force officers and other ranks is particularly marked, having increased by an alarming 50 per cent. over the past three years? As the Defence Committee reported recently, the tempo of intensive war-fighting operations in the middle east is taking a relentless toll on servicemen and their families, with the Nimrod, Harrier and transport crews facing particular difficulties. I suggest that the Secretary of State tell the Prime Minister that Her Majesty’s armed forces are appalled at the downgrading of his post by its being combined with the Scottish Office, and that it should be full time so that he can address the serious crisis in retention of experience personnel across all three armed services.

Derek Twigg: In response to the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we recognise the tremendous work and effort that our armed forces are putting in and the great pressures and challenges facing them. As we have heard today, they are doing a marvellous job. We understand the pressures, and we are working with various incentives and methods to try to improve recruitment and retention. I understand the specific point that he made about RAF pilots, and work is ongoing.

As for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, anyone who knows him knows that he works very hard and does a tremendous job. It will make no difference to the efforts that he puts in for the armed forces.

Gulf War Veterans

7. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): How many first Gulf war veterans receive war pensions; and if he will make a statement. [149379]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): At the end of March 2007, some 3,265 Gulf veterans were in receipt of a war pension. This figure includes awards for both Gulf-related and non-Gulf-related injuries or illnesses, as our statistics do not distinguish the origin of the disablement.

Hugh Bayley: Terry Walker, who lived in Wheldrake in York, was a fit lance-corporal when he went to Iraq to fight in the first Gulf war. He came back with broken health and was discharged from the Army. Last month he died, leaving two children, both below the age of majority, who are being cared for by his parents. At present, no provision is being made for those two children either from his serviceman’s pension or from the War Pensions Agency. Will the Minister examine the case as a matter of great urgency and ensure that provision is made for the children of Terry Walker?

Derek Twigg: On behalf of the Government, I offer my sincere condolences to Mr. Walker’s family and friends. I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that it would not be appropriate for me to comment on an individual case on the Floor of the House, but I assure him that I will look into it.

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8. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): How many British personnel have been killed and seriously injured in Helmand province since February 2006. [149380]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The deaths of British personnel and injuries sustained while performing their duties with characteristic dedication are a source of profound regret and I repeat my admiration for the work our forces do. Since 1 February 2006, until 12 July, 43 British personnel have been killed in Helmand province. Up to 30 June 2007, 51 personnel have been seriously or very seriously injured in Helmand.

Paul Flynn: The original hope for the Helmand mission was that it would last for three years without a shot being fired. Half a million shots have been fired and it may last for 30 years. There has been no improvement in the drug situation, no reduction in the threat of terrorism, and precious little reconstruction because the non-governmental organisations will not operate there—all bought at the cost of the worst casualties that Britain has suffered since world war two. Do not those awful outcomes, particularly the loss of life, cry out for a reassessment of the nature and scale of the Helmand mission before it drifts into Britain’s Vietnam?

Des Browne: The whole House knows my hon. Friend’s views on the deployment of our forces in Helmand province. Those forces are deployed there with the forces of 36 other countries. The Government are clearly of the view that the deployment of forces in Helmand province in support of the international security assistance force there—in conjunction with Operation Enduring Freedom and in support of other countries that are there for reconstruction purposes—is not a discretionary operation but a compulsory one for the security of the world. That view is shared by the United Nations, by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, whom I met recently, by the whole of the European Union, by Javier Solana, whom I met last week to discuss the matter, and by almost all the rest of the world. Despite those facts, my hon. Friend and a small number of other people think that it is the wrong thing to do. I fundamentally disagree with him. I do not think that the people of this city would be as secure as they are—they still face risks from terrorism—if we were not prepared to do what we are doing in Afghanistan. I do not think that the people of the developed world would be as safe as they are if we were not prepared, as an international community, to do what we are doing in Afghanistan. The fact that it is a dangerous thing to do does not make it any less right to do it.

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