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The bulk of these units represent direct replacements for the Afghanistan deployments I announced to the House on 1 February 2007,Official Report, columns 19-20WS, and 26 February 2007, Official Report, columns 619-635. The House will be aware, however, that all military operations are subject to regular review. As a result, I have therefore agreed to deploy an additional troop of the highly regarded VIKING Protected Mobility Vehicles, manned by Royal Marines and the Queen's Royal Lancers, to enhance further the Task Force Helmand's ability to manoeuvre. In addition, from 1 August 2007 to 31 July 2008 the UK will act as Principal Co-ordinating Nation for NATO's management of Kandahar airfield. I am also considering options to enhance our support for the Afghan National Security Forces In consequence the total UK commitment in Afghanistan is likely to be around 7,800 by the end of this year.
Volunteer and Regular members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Afghanistan as part of this integrated force package, and we expect to have eventually issued in the order of 750 call-out notices to fill over 600 posts. On completion of their mobilisation procedures, the reservists will undertake a period of training and, where applicable, integration with their respective receiving units. The majority will serve on operations for six or seven months, although some may have shorter tours. As part of this commitment, we expect up to 20 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.
The House will recall too, the importance I attach to burden-sharing within the International Security Assistance Force. In this context, I should like to welcome the recent decision by the Danish Parliament to increase their deployment in Helmand. Operating under 52 Infantry Brigade's command will be a Danish Battlegroup which, building on our close co-operation with Danish forces in Iraq, will exercise tactical command over two British infantry companies. This important increase in the Danish contribution to Task Force Helmand is a significant boost to its operational capability and its capacity to help stabilise and secure Helmand province.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The next routine roulement of UK forces in Iraq will take place in November and December 2007. The force package that we currently plan to deploy to Iraq during this roulement will see the lead formation, currently one Mechanised Brigade, replaced by four Mechanised Brigade, which will provide the majority of UK forces from 1 December 2007. The units deploying as part of four Mechanised Brigade are as follows:
Members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Iraq as part of this force package, and we expect to issue around 420 call-out notices to fill approximately 340 posts. Most will deploy to theatre in November and serve on operations for six to seven months, although some may have shorter tours. As part of this commitment, we expect up to 10 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.
In February, the then Prime Minister set out our plans for Iraq in 2007, centring on changes to the posture of UK forces in Basra in Multi-National DivisionSouth East (MND-SE) and consequent force level reductions. UK forces have transferred control of a number of bases in and around Basra to the 10th Division of the Iraqi army. We expect to complete the final part of these plans, involving the transfer of control of Basra palace to the Iraqi authorities, before this roulement takes place. As a result UK force levels in Iraq will fall to around 5,000 troops.
The force package we deploy in November and December will depend on conditions on the ground, in particular the security situation in the south and progress on handover of security responsibility to the
Iraqi civil authorities in Basra province. We will continue to keep UK force levels in Iraq under review. With the permission of the Speaker, I intend to give an update on operations soon after the recess and will notify the House then should there be any change to our plans.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): I am pleased to inform the House that there will be a significant increase in Gurkha pensions backdated to January 2006. This increase is in line with the tripartite agreement which established a linkage between Indian army pensions and those of the British Brigade of Gurkhas.
It has always been our policy to ensure a fair deal for the 26,500 Gurkha pensioners mainly living in Nepal, who will receive an increase in their pension rates. This is in addition to the 7 per cent. increase they received earlier this year as part of their annual inflationary uplift. Over 85 per cent. of pensioners who were of the rank of corporal or below will receive an increase to their pension of at least 19 per cent. I am also announcing today a review into the mechanism by which we uprate Gurkha pensions annually.
The increased benefits have been included in the Gurkha offer to transfer to the armed forces pension scheme, also affecting 3,400 serving and 2,400 recently retired Gurkhas, which I announced to the House on 8 March 2007, Official Report, columns 141-42WS.
This increase sustains Gurkha service pensions at a fair and appropriate level and demonstrates the Governments continuing commitment to the retired Gurkha community in Nepal. It also reinforces the UKs long-standing links with the Government of Nepal, whose co-operation and support for the recruitment of Nepalese citizens into the Brigade of Gurkhas we greatly value.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband):
The Voluntary Vetting Scheme (VVS) is an arrangement designed to prevent states of proliferation concern using the UK as a training ground for their scientists and engineers. It is administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and seeks co-operation from universities in identifying
postgraduate applicants of proliferation concern. The Government asses the proliferation risk and inform the university, which then decides whether or not to offer a place to the applicant.
As the proliferation threat has evolved, we have looked again at whether there is room to improve the scheme. In particular, and as recommended by the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC), we have looked at the scope to make it compulsory, so that we catch a greater proportion of students of potential concern. We have also looked to shift the emphasis from universities to Government, where both feel it properly belongs.
In essence, the student section of the Immigration Rules contains a requirement for certain postgraduate students to have prior counter-proliferation clearance in order to qualify for a visa. The proposed new schemethe Academic Technology Approval Scheme (ATAS)requires all non-EEA students in the designated categories to apply for counter-proliferation (CP) clearance. Details of the disciplines affected by these provisions will appear in the Rules. There is also a requirement to obtain CP clearance when students wish to extend their stay in the UK (for example, when moving from undergraduate studies to a postgraduate programme that is covered by the provisions of the new scheme). Clearance (in the form of a certificate) will be obtained through the FCO, using an easy-to-use, online form, and we aim to process the vast majority of applications within 10 working days. A separate clearance certificate will be required for each separate institution or programme of study.
We estimate that the ATAS will substantially increase the proportion of students of potential concern who are subject to scrutiny. At the same time, we would tighten the scheme considerably by assessing predominantly PhD and Masters by research students, rather than all postgraduate students of potential concern, as was the case under the VVS. However, we would still wish to assess the small number of students wishing to undertake taught Masters studies in Physics, Mechanical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering or Materials Technology, due to potential CP concerns. This allows us to target the areas of greatest concern more efficiently and in a manner proportionate to the threat. It is in line with the Governments publicly stated CP policy, and is a useful reaffirmation of our commitment. The academic community has also been extensively consulted and is supportive of the new scheme.
We anticipate implementing a voluntary go-live date for the scheme on Monday 3 September 2007. From this date onwards we will be seeking volunteers from Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to advise their students to apply for ATAS clearance. However it will not be a mandatory requirement under the Immigration Rules at this point and we will continue operating the VVS during this transition period. Assuming no problems are found we would have a mandatory go-live date of 1 November 2007 with a corresponding amendment to the Immigration Rules. This date has been decided after consultation with the UK academic community and allows them to deal with their busiest time for new arrivals, that is; September and October, without having to produce amended offer letters to meet the ATAS requirements.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 23 July in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will represent the UK.
Commissioner for Regional Policy, Danuta HÃ1/4bner, is expected to brief the Council on the 4th Cohesion report, which provides an update on economic, social and territorial cohesion. It also provides an analysis of the impact of cohesion policy at national and Community level in the EU. The report also asks a series of questions to guide discussion: can cohesion policy can adapt to the new challenges facing regions in the coming years; can it further develop an integrated and more flexible approach to development/growth and jobs; and how adequate is the policy management system for 2007-13? The Government welcome these questions as a basis for debate, providing the discussion does not prejudge the fundamental review of the EUs budget taking place in 2008-09.
Commissioner for Trade, Peter Mandelson, is expected to brief the Council on the latest negotiations in the Doha development round. The Council is expected to discuss next steps including work to be taken forward by the chairs of the groups on agriculture and non-agricultural market access. The Government want an ambitious, pro-development outcome to the Doha development round and supports the role of the Commission.
The Council will be briefed by the presidency on preparations for the EU-Ukraine summit on 14 September. The Council is also expected to endorse a note, which the Government fully support, setting out the EUs objectives for the summit, which include taking stock of developments in the EU-Ukraine relationship, and discussing the ongoing process of reform in Ukraine.
We expect discussion at the Council to focus on options for EU engagement in Darfur and the region, including a range of areas in which the EU could support wider international efforts to resolve the Darfur crisis. The Government welcome these options, which set out ways in which the EU can support the political process in Darfur, improvements in the humanitarian and security situations, as well as effective African Union and UN peacekeeping in the region.
The Government will emphasise the importance of keeping the focus on the long-term economic future, development and reconstruction of Darfur and Sudan as a whole. The international community, including the EU, must provide the necessary planning and support to make this happen.
The Council is also expected to discuss a French proposal for an EU military operation in Chad. The UK has long supported, including through UN Security Council Resolution 1706, the need for an international operation in Eastern Chad. An effective military force would be an important contribution to the regional strategy and the Government therefore welcome the French proposal.
The High-Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, is expected to brief the Council on his recent discussions with AH Larijani, Irans chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, as part of the EUs agreed twin track approach. The Government welcome steps by Iran to resolve outstanding technical issues with the international atomic energy agency, but our position remains firm on the need to see full suspension, before suspension of UN sanctions can be considered.
The Council is expected to adopt conclusions on the Middle East emphasising support for Abbas and Fayyads Government. The Council is likely to discuss support for building the capacity of Palestinian institutions and economic development, a position the Government support as an essential part of achieving success in political negotiations.
On Lebanon, the Council is expected to adopt conclusions condemning the bomb attack on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on 23 June in which six peacekeepers were killed, and reiterating the need to implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1559, 1701 and 1757. The conclusions also welcome the meeting held by France to build confidence between the main parties and help work towards a reconciliation of the political crisis in Lebanon.
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