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Dr. Fox: My hon. Friend must not allow his common sense to get in the way of the Government’s red herring, or of Government Members having a good time in the Chamber. I doubt whether the arguments that they make today will carry much weight with those who have to carry out those commitments overseas, and who find themselves increasingly overstretched.

I wish to turn to the circumstances that our armed forces face, and I begin with the issue of bonuses for those on operations. As the press reported over the weekend, there is understandable animosity between military and civil personnel on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan with regard to the amount of bonus that civilians get paid, compared to their military counterparts. Let us take a major and a grade C2 civil servant as the comparators and, using monthly figures, let us see how military pay stacks up against civilian pay for those in Iraq or Afghanistan. A major—a company commander responsible for the well-being, training, health and safety of more than 225 soldiers and marines—will earn roughly £4,320 in taxable income a month, including separation allowance, plus a £386 tax-free operational allowance.

A civilian grade-C2 civil servant on the same deployment will earn £2,333 a month, plus an operational deployment allowance of £1,750 per month and an operational working allowance of between £3,500 and £6,500 a month. That means that the civilian will receive a minimum of £7,583 a month in taxable income. The civilian in headquarters is therefore at least £2,500 a month better off than the major, who is acting as a company commander in the field, and who is leading soldiers and marines in combat. It appears that the X factor needed to make civilians deploy is more than 225 per cent. of their salary, or 3.25 times their salary. Keep in mind that those figures are for a Ministry of Defence civilian, as compared to a field rank officer. Of course, the pay difference between an MOD civilian and a private or corporal is even greater, and it is the latter who are doing the shooting, the fighting and, in most cases, the dying.

I understand that civilians volunteer for service in Iraq or Afghanistan, but we have an all-volunteer military, too. I would like the Government to reflect on the following question: although civilians play an important role in supporting the armed forces on operations, are the bonuses that both parties receive balanced and proportionate? I think that the general public would answer in the negative. What about the question of eligibility for bonuses? What about the 1,000 or so soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who thought that they were going to Iraq and would receive the tax-free operational allowance, but who will find that they are going to Kuwait, Oman or other places in the Gulf?

I am sure that I do not need to remind either the Secretary of State or the Minister for the Armed Forces that the Kuwait border is only 30 miles from the Basra air base. As a result of that small difference, service members will lose out on hundreds of pounds a month, although their American counterparts receive the same bonus regardless of whether they are in Iraq, Kuwait or Qatar. If the Secretary of State made it clear that those allowances will apply to all those in the region, and not just those in Iraq, that would be a major step forward.

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Des Browne: That is a classic example of the sort of thing that I was talking about. Based on absolutely no research, not even the courtesy of asking the MOD whether what he has described is the reality, the hon. Gentleman has asserted his case at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons. But it is not true.

Dr. Fox: Good.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman says, “Good.” Perhaps he will now explain the basis on which he made the assertion in the first place. Is there a factual basis for it, or did he make it up for political advantage?

Dr. Fox: I am delighted that those operational bonuses will apply, because those issues have been raised with us by members of the armed forces so that they can get clarification from the Government. If it is clear that we will get such clarification, I will be delighted—and so will they be.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman now says to the House that he was asked to inquire. Why did he choose to inquire by asserting an untruth at the Dispatch Box, rather than asking me or a Minister?

Dr. Fox: Excuse me, but I thought that the purpose of the House of Commons was for us to be able to question Ministers directly. It is an entirely appropriate place to raise such issues. Now that we have clarification on those, perhaps the Secretary of State will clarify other issues— [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The House must come to order.

Dr. Fox: The armed forces compensation scheme has recently received wide publicity, and we welcome the fact that a review was undertaken on what is obviously a broken compensation system. We still await the full results of the review. However, I was, as other Members would have been, a little perplexed that the first time we heard about that review was on 28 August, when the Minister for the Armed Forces mentioned it on Radio 4’s “PM” programme. Why was the statement not first made in the House of Commons?

As for the scheme itself, the maximum amount payable is £285,000 plus the guaranteed-income pension for the rest of a service member’s life. That is in contrast to the recent RAF civilian’s lump sum of £485,000; they would not, of course, require a guaranteed-income payment. Those numbers are widely in the public domain and have an effect on the perception of the fairness with which the systems are applied. It is important that the Government’s view on the matter should be clearly set out. Do they regard that discrepancy as fair and reasonable?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify that canard as well. He is not comparing like with like. As he should know, the civil courts seek to capitalise a sum of money that will, among other things, represent the loss of income over the lifetime of a person such as those whom he describes. That would be added to the amount awarded to the person for the injury that they had suffered.

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What we do is guarantee that income over the lifetime and inflation-proof it. It is possible to get actuaries and others to capitalise that and add it figuratively to the maximum sum for the pain and suffering. However, if the hon. Gentleman is to continue to make the comparison, as he has now done for a significant period, he must take into account the fact that he is not comparing like with like. The person gets a lump sum and is obliged to invest it to generate an income for the rest of their working life, until they retire; what we provide is a lump sum plus a guaranteed inflation-proofed income.

Dr. Fox: What the public will see is this: for losing limbs or major organs, someone would get a maximum of £285,000 plus a guaranteed-income pension, while someone working as a civilian who got a wrist injury would get a much larger sum and probably be back at work and able to generate their own income within a relatively short time. The public do not appreciate that discrepancy or the legalities that are being put forward—they view one as overly generous in relation to the other. I hope that the Government understand that when they finally review the matter, because the public perception of the fairness of the treatment of our armed forces is extremely important.

Let me turn to a matter that has recently been raised in the press: the treatment of military personnel in hospitals in the United Kingdom. Having visited the field hospital in Iraq, where our personnel are treated magnificently and not a single person has contracted a case of MRSA, I find it amazing that Private Jamie Cooper, the youngest British soldier to be injured in Iraq, is now back in Selly Oak with a C. difficile infection and two MRSA infections. We have to do an awful lot more about the quality of the medical care that is given. In general, the quality of care is superb, but surely something is very wrong when a field hospital can manage to have minimal infection levels, but on coming back to the UK our military personnel find that having fought off the enemy in Iraq they are having to fight off infections in the national health service of the world’s fourth richest country. Something is very wrong with a medical system that allows that to happen.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman is making me very angry. I have visited Selly Oak, and it is nothing short of shameful for him to denigrate the hard-working staff there. If he actually read the newspaper article about the case that he mentions, he would see that the consultant said that the individual contracted the disease because he had a stomach wound and that the condition related to that, not to dirty hospitals.

Dr. Fox: Now the hon. Gentleman is making me angry. I am not in any way denigrating the quality of the staff; I have already said that people get excellent care. However, there is something very wrong in our health service given the levels of infection in our NHS, to the extent that hospitals are having to be closed down.

Let me turn to the wider picture, particularly Afghanistan, and the conditions of our troops.

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Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Is it not a tradition of this House that a Member who makes an honest and inadvertent false assertion in debate subsequently accepts that it was a false assertion and then withdraws it and formally apologises for it? The hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) has accepted that he made a false assertion this afternoon, but he seems to be coming towards the end of his speech and we have not yet heard the apology.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I have been in the Chair listening very carefully, and no false assertion has been made. I would advise all right hon. and hon. Members that for the remainder of this debate some moderation and temperate language would be acceptable.

Dr. Fox: I certainly do not need to take lessons on falsehoods when I am standing on the same side of the House as that of my election manifesto.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Fox: In a moment.

With winter approaching in Afghanistan, and already in some higher-altitude locations, we clearly have to do everything to ensure that our service personnel are sent into theatre with the right cold weather kit. Winter conditions in Afghanistan make it challenging, at best, to resupply ammunition, kit, food and fuel. The House will want to know from the Minister for the Armed Forces that all possible measures have been taken to ensure that British forces receive all resupplies in a consistent and timely manner, as required in Afghanistan in winter. What steps will be taken to ensure that, during the lull in fighting that is traditionally experienced throughout the winter months in Afghanistan, we maximise the reconstruction effort in the south of the country? The Secretary of State dealt with that at length in his speech. It is during the harsh winter months that the Afghan population most need help from the international community, so that is when we should be able to increase local support for the British and coalition presence in the country.

When it comes to reconstruction, we really must take a properly enlightened approach. We need to ensure that our efforts are conducted in a way that empowers the people of Afghanistan. Our reconstruction efforts must foster ownership of and accomplishment in Afghanistan, not dependence on the west. We must make every effort to involve local communities and put an Afghan face on all reconstruction projects. I hope that Ministers will agree that that is the most sensible approach.

I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) and I apologise for having temporarily overlooked her.

Ann Winterton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. My point was about the nursing situation in field hospitals. My hon. Friend may be interested to learn that I recently met a Territorial Army nurse, who told me that the standard of hygiene in field hospitals was second to none for the simple reason that they had fallen back on the old-fashioned nursing techniques whereby every
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single person was to be responsible for themselves in their own area of expertise and for cleaning up afterwards. That was why there was virtually no infection in field hospitals in Iraq or elsewhere.

Dr. Fox: When I was a junior doctor, I learned never to argue at all with nurses and I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point.

When it comes to reconstruction in Afghanistan, we cannot emphasise enough the importance of including local Afghans in our reconstruction efforts. The more they participate, the more they take ownership and pride in rebuilding their country, which is shattered after years of warfare. A local villager no doubt views an attack by the Taliban on a school that he helped to build very differently than he would if that school had been exclusively built by western forces. However, reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan have to produce quick and tangible results for the people. Smaller projects that benefit a wider population in a shorter amount of time can have a more enduring effect than longer drawn-out projects that may indirectly benefit a large proportion of the population. In effect, the simple physiological needs of the Afghans have to be met by the international security assistance force or else the Taliban will fill the vacuum created by our inaction. That is especially true during the winter months when times get rough for many ordinary Afghans. Something as basic as food and water has to be provided before more ambitious projects can be launched.

I echo what I believe the Secretary of State said earlier: we need broadly to learn the lesson from Iraq that the military can create and hold space only for so long. The politicians and the non-governmental organisations need to fill that space. We cannot wait for a zero-risk environment to begin wholesale reconstruction. We must also deal with the rising internal tensions in Afghanistan resulting from what is seen as the endemic corruption within the Afghan Government, running all the way to the highest levels.

The whole country will welcome the fact that more of our troops are coming home from Iraq and no one will be more relieved than the families of the troops concerned. We in this party have never called for precipitate reductions or a timetable for withdrawal. We have to do what we believe to be right on the basis of the advice of our commanders on the ground. On that, we have always stood with the Government. In Iraq our overriding objectives should be to maximise the success of the mission that we set out to accomplish and to minimise the danger to our troops.

There are still a number of questions that need to be asked and answered. There are the ongoing questions about the safety of the British forces remaining in Iraq, particularly at Basra air station, the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces, the protection of the Iraqi-run border and the steps towards a political settlement, both internally and regionally. The Secretary of State dealt with some of those questions in his speech.

There remains one crucial question, however, that we need to ask today: now that our military forces are in an overwatch posture, can the Secretary of State or his Minister of State say under what circumstances they believe British troops would redeploy and intervene while conducting that role? Who would determine those criteria and who would take the decision? Would
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it be taken by the British Government and military alone or would it be a joint decision between Britain and Iraq? That is a very important question to which the Government have never provided a very clear answer, even though it lies at the heart of the entire overwatch question.

Some Members still seem to want a rapid and complete withdrawal from Iraq. In southern Iraq, a premature withdrawal—one without sustainable security architecture—could easily result in the escalation of the armed power struggle between the rival Shi’a militias. That would be likely to draw in the fledgling security structures. There would be the risk of further political destabilisation and a heightened threat to the Sunni population in south-east Iraq.

A timetable that was set out would also provide perverse incentives. It is particularly important that the Liberal Democrats start to justify exactly why they would be willing to take the risks of a timetable that is set out with the clarity that they seem to want. Afghanistan would also feel the chill wind of prematurely departing British troops, as known Iraqi fighters would be immediately given the signal to move their caravan on to Afghanistan if they chose to do so, believing that they had accomplished their goal of defeating the coalition forces in Iraq. It would be a terrible signal to send to the Taliban that violence could succeed in hastening the departure of coalition armed forces, and the last thing that we want to do is to further them in that belief and aim.

Des Browne: I am happy to agree with that part of the hon. Gentleman’s speech. He might find the answer to his question in a remark that was not reported but made by the now former leader of the Liberal Democrats at last week’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. He said in response to the Prime Minister at one stage during questioning him that the UK had sometime ago discharged its moral obligation to the people of Iraq. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we are in that very enhanced position?

Dr. Fox: It would be nice to think that we could talk about that in the past tense, but we gave a commitment to the people of Iraq that we would not leave until the job was done and we had produced a sustainable security situation within which a civil society could properly flourish. When that has been achieved, that will be the time for the international coalition to leave Iraq. Exactly when that will occur is a very difficult thing to assess, but anyone who believes that we have already reached that position does not fully understand the reality of what is happening on the ground in Iraq.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I agree, but can the hon. Gentleman envisage a situation where he would want to increase the British military presence in Iraq?

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