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Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will the Secretary of State recognise the importance of evacuating seriously injured casualties from Helmand province by helicopter as quickly as possible? Will he indicate whether the future addition of six Merlin and eight Chinook helicopters will be used for that purpose? Will their addition bring helicopter numbers up to requirement? If not, will he consider hiring helicopters
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for casevac—casualty evacuation—and other measures as a way of filling the undoubted gap in the provision of helicopters?

Des Browne: I recognise that helicopters are vital to our success in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her consistent questioning of me and other Ministers on support for our troops and in other respects. She knows that we have made additional hours available and that further work continues on spares and crewing to increase the hours per month that helicopters can fly. She knows that we have developed a way of turning individual helicopters into treatment centres, rather than having dedicated casevac helicopters; that is the right thing to do. She also knows that I announced the intention to buy six additional Merlin helicopters, which will be available within a year, and to convert the eight existing Mark 3 Chinook helicopters to make them available for deployment. We have invested £230 million in that regard, but if that does not provide sufficient helicopter support for our troops in their continuing commitment to operations abroad, I am of course prepared to identify and deploy other resources to that effect.

Sarah McCarthy-Fry (Portsmouth, North) (Lab/Co-op): I was in Helmand province about three weeks ago. I pay tribute to those service personnel who gave their lives or were seriously injured in helping the Afghan Government to beat the Taliban. They were helping other British servicemen and women and servicemen and women from other countries in carrying out development and reconstruction work in Helmand. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that development and reconstruction work is the key to peace and stability, not only in Helmand or even Afghanistan but in the whole region?

Des Browne: I commend my hon. Friend and the other right hon. and hon. Members who have taken the time and trouble to visit our forces in Afghanistan. I realise that not everyone can do that—it depends on a degree of support from the Ministry and from the troops in that country—but those who have had that experience are consistent not only in their praise for what is being done but in bringing back the message that our troops on the ground are in no doubt of the value of what they are doing, despite the manifest and obvious dangers. They are in no doubt about the contribution they are making, and daily they see the improvements in Helmand province, which are sometimes falsely measured against metrics that we here in London set for them. The best way to assess whether our troops are making a difference to the people of Helmand province and Afghanistan is to ask them, and they are in no doubt about that.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): But will the Secretary of State accept that the loss of life and serious injury in both Afghanistan and Iraq is running at far too high a level for any of us to be complacent or comfortable? Will he, with his military advisers, look again at what other measures can be taken in terms of support, equipment, back-up and evasive action to give our troops a greater chance of surviving?

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Des Browne: I share the right hon. Gentleman’s regret at any loss of life. The loss of any soldier is a tragedy. The loss of any innocent life is a source of profound regret. There is no complacency on my part about the loss of any life—far from it. I devote a significant amount of my time as Secretary of State for Defence, and have done for the past 14 months, to doing precisely what he asks me to do. I consider every day whether what we are doing in Afghanistan is the right thing to do and whether we are doing it in the right way. He and all other Members of the House can rest assured that our forces’ protection, security of life and progress in development are uppermost in my mind.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): British military fatalities are, tragically, outstripping the capacity of the coroner service, so the receiving coroner, Wiltshire’s David Masters, to whom I spoke this morning, is relieved that his long-awaited ministerial meeting has—under pressure—been brought forward to 25 July, and that he will now be able to put the case for the resources needed to tackle the military inquest backlog over which this Government have presided, to their lasting shame. As a redeeming measure, what will the Secretary of State do on behalf of the deceased and their long-suffering families to ensure that the coroner has everything he needs, without any more procrastination, in accordance with last Thursday’s remarks by his right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House?

Des Browne: First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities on the Front Bench? All members of my team look forward to working with him.

The Wiltshire coroner does not have a backlog of military inquests. He has one pre-April 2007 inquest hearing outstanding, which is on the deaths of 10 crew members killed in a Hercules crash in January 2005. He held a pre-inquest hearing on that case in February. The timing of that inquest is entirely within his control. Given the complexity and the nature of the inquest, I fully understand why it has taken such a time to get to the full inquest hearing, and I make no comment about that.

The most significant thing that we have done, apart from providing additional resources to address the backlog that had built up in Oxfordshire, is to remove the reliance on a single coroner. That means that in cases that would normally have been the responsibility of the Wiltshire coroner because of where the body rested, there is now no reason for him to be responsible for carrying out the inquest. Specifically, of those cases that are on his list, 24 can be expected to be dealt with by home coroners—that is, coroners nearer the homes of the families involved. In my view, that is the best development that we could ensure, in terms of properly respecting the families. It leaves only 10 of the cases on the list that has been used by the media as his responsibility.

The hon. Gentleman can rest assured and can reassure the Wiltshire coroner that the issue, which I took up immediately on taking office, sits on my desk every day. I have been working on it with colleagues from the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and
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now am doing so with colleagues from the Ministry of Justice. I will do everything that I can, and if the issue needs additional resources, I will identify them, but I do not accept that there is a backlog.

Paul Flynn: Owing to the unsatisfactory nature—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. He has to do that immediately.

Paul Flynn: I did.

Mr. Speaker: Well, the hon. Gentleman allowed other supplementaries to be asked. He knows the rules of the House as well as I do.


9. Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the military capability of the Taliban in Afghanistan. [149381]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The Taliban are currently able to threaten Afghan and international security forces in parts of eastern and southern Afghanistan by means of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombers and small-scale attacks. They have not been able to hold territory in the face of offensive action by Afghan and international security forces. The recent loss of a number of senior commanders as a result of action by international forces is likely to have had an impact on the Taliban’s ability to plan and co-ordinate operations.

Mr. Jones: What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the recent statement made by the United States Secretary of Defence, who said that there is evidence of a substantial flow of weapons from Iran to the insurgents in Afghanistan—a view that appears to be supported by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Does the Secretary of State agree that if the Iranian regime is indeed engaged in arming the Taliban, that would amount to a direct challenge, not only to NATO but to the authority of the United Nations?

Des Browne: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The last time Defence questions were held, I told the House that my view was that that was happening. We have successfully interdicted the transfer of arms across the Iranian border into the southern part of Afghanistan. To my knowledge, on at least two occasions—perhaps even more—we have identified markings on weaponry that suggest that it had its origins in Iran. Of course, because of the complex nature of the Iranian regime, it is often difficult to identify exactly how the situation came about, and who in the regime may, or may not, have known about it. As I have explained before in the House, in my view if a regime is constructed to create that confusion, it has to take responsibility for what the confused parts of it do. That is, and has been, my position, and that is why, in all the international discussions that I have on the issue with people from across the world, I bring the fact that that is happening
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to the attention of all those who wish to talk to me, and I say that they ought to make it clear to the Iranians that it is unacceptable.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): When the Defence Committee recently visited Afghanistan we found 12 Mechanised Brigade in extremely good heart and determined to beat the Taliban, but is it not distressing that British armed forces bear the brunt while so many of our European allies fail to provide the military commitment that they should be obliged to provide under the NATO treaty? Will the Secretary of State tell the Prime Minister that he needs to spend every waking hour travelling the capitals of Europe to drum up more support for these operations? How is he able to spend time on anything other than his defence responsibilities?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that in the last week alone I have spoken to those in Berlin involved in providing such forces, in the person of the German Minister of Defence, and in Paris in the person of the newly appointed Defence Minister, and, as I have already told the House, I had a long conversation with Javier Solana seeking further EU support on the civil side for what we are doing. So the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that despite my responsibilities in relation to Scotland I have not fallen down on this issue or the challenge that I identified some time ago in getting other countries to increase their support to us, particularly in the south of Afghanistan. I anticipate that we will see improvements in relation to that. For example, he will have noticed that the Danish Parliament has effectively agreed to send a battle group to Helmand, which will operate partly under our command in the central part of Helmand province and will make a significant contribution to our ability to continue the work of the Mechanised Brigade there, whose success and commitment I thank the hon. Gentleman for recognising.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman and his two predecessors as Secretary of State for Defence have been dismissive of my warnings about the unwisdom of our latest invasion of Afghanistan, but will he at least take seriously the speech in another place last week by Field Marshal Lord Inge, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) has already referred, but to whose supplementary the Minister chose not to reply? The Field Marshal, who himself has recently visited Afghanistan, said that the situation in Afghanistan is

and spoke of

How does that measure up against these interminable, bland replies by the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman certainly made a good speech there, but it should have been a supplementary. Perhaps the reply should be briefer than usual.

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Des Browne: One of the challenges that I face is that any answers to the hon. Gentleman’s questions would seem bland. He consistently questions me on this and I pay tribute to his consistency. The fact that we disagree does not necessarily mean that he is right and I am wrong. Earlier, I gave a litany of other experts, organisations and representatives of the international community who do not share his view.

Sir Peter Tapsell: What about Lord Inge?

Des Browne: The first point that I need to make is that our deployment of troops to Helmand province was not an invasion. We were invited there by the sovereign Government of Afghanistan in the context of a United Nations Security Council resolution. I fully respect the views of the hon. Gentleman and Lord Inge on this, and I consider them carefully. However, the hon. Gentleman does not have a monopoly of views among those who have expertise in relation to military issues, and his views are not supported by other advice that I receive from people who are as well qualified as he is.

Fleet Requirements

10. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): How many destroyers and frigates are required by the fleet. [149382]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The Royal Navy's requirement is for a fleet of 25 destroyers and frigates. This was set out in the White Paper "Delivering Security in a Changing World—Future Capabilities” presented to the House in July 2004.

Stephen Hammond: I note that four years ago the then Defence Secretary said that the MOD needed 12 Type 45 destroyers. In August 2004, the figure was reduced to eight. If The Times today is to be believed, boats seven and eight will not be built. Why does the Minister think that the Navy’s requirement is half that of four years ago?

Mr. Ainsworth: The capability has not changed from that laid out in the White Paper, as I have said. The hon. Gentleman is taking a simplistic view if he assesses the strength of the Royal Navy by only counting hulls. He should listen to Commander David Shutts, who is the senior naval officer overseeing the Daring trial, which is the first of the Type 45 destroyers:

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John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I hear what my hon. Friend has said, but he must agree that although the Daring is a class above any other destroyer that has been built on the Clyde, a lot of workers on the Clyde are looking for jobs. It appears that those jobs are linked to the decision whether there will be two carriers or one carrier. Will he make that decision now and let us know what is going on?

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot make that decision now, and my hon. Friend must wait a little while for a decision on whether the carriers will be provided. We are in the middle of a substantial shipbuilding programme, and a number of projects are either delivering ships or preparing for production. Over the next 10 years, £14 billion is likely to be allocated to those shipbuilding programmes.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. I must also say a word of appreciation about his predecessor, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), who discharged his responsibilities for a long time with great assiduity and reliability.

The Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) did not begin to address the problem of the number of frigates and destroyers. The Type 45 destroyers were always intended to have the extra capabilities that he described. If we needed eight destroyers in 2004, as the supplement to the White Paper stated, then we need eight now, let alone the 12 that were originally planned. The 2004 White Paper stated that 25 frigates and destroyers are required. Will he guarantee that that figure will not be further reduced?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about my predecessor, who did this job for six years with, as the hon. Gentleman has said, great distinction. It is difficult to follow my predecessor, given the way in which he did the job.

The White Paper laid out the need for eight destroyers. A decision has not been taken yet, because we are still negotiating the detail of the provision for ships four, five and six. It would be wholly wrong to sign off further ships while those negotiations continue. The hon. Gentleman knows that, and I think that he understands the point.

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Alexander Litvinenko (Case Update)

3.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on developments in the Litvinenko case. This is a situation that the Government have not sought and do not welcome. However, we have no choice but to address it.

The Government believe that Russia is a key international partner for the United Kingdom. We want to work with the Government of Russia and its people in tackling priority international issues such as climate change, Kosovo, Iran, the middle east peace process and Sudan. Russia plays a global role in the battles against terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, illegal migration, drugs and international crime. The cultural exchange between our two countries is extensive. Our bilateral trade relationship is large and growing, including considerable benefits for the City of London. British companies are making a major contribution to the Russian economy. For all those reasons we need a relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

On 28 May, the Russian authorities were presented with a formal request for the extradition to the UK of Andrey Lugovoy so that he might stand trial for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko in a British court. Let me remind the House of the relevant procedures. The Crown Prosecution Service is an independent prosecuting authority. Once the Metropolitan police have referred a case to the Crown Prosecution Service, it is then for the CPS to consider whether there is sufficient evidence to bring charges, and that it is in the public interest to do so. The CPS concluded that Mr. Lugovoy did indeed have a case to answer, and sought the assistance of the Home Office in requesting his extradition from Russia. On 6 July, the Russian deputy prosecutor general sent an official letter to the Home Secretary refusing to extradite Mr. Lugovoy. On 10 July, the Director of Public Prosecutions announced that, despite the Russian response, he continues to press for a trial of Mr. Lugovoy in England. Given the seriousness of the crime and our ambitions for our bilateral relationship with Russia, Russia’s reply to the CPS’s extradition request is extremely disappointing. It suggests that the Russian Government have failed to register either how seriously we treat this case or the seriousness of the issues involved, despite lobbying at the highest level and clear explanations of our need for a satisfactory response.

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