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House of Commons

Monday 22 October 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Message from the Queen

Electoral Commissioners

Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household (Liz Blackman): I have to inform the House that the address of 18 July, praying that Her Majesty will appoint as electoral commissioners: (1) Maxwell Marshall Caller CBE for the period ending on 31 December 2011; (2) Henrietta Campbell CB for the period ending on 31 December 2011; (3) Ian Maxwell Kelsall OBE with effect from 19 January 2008 for the period ending 31 December 2012; and (4) John McCormick with effect from 19 January 2008 for the period ending on 31 December 2012, was presented to Her Majesty who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Private Security Companies (Iraq)

1. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): How many private security companies in Iraq are operating under British licence. [159393]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): There is no British licensing regime for private military and security companies, so the answer is none. However, for completeness, let me add that the Ministry of Defence does not have any contracts with such companies in Iraq, and we have no plans for any.

Willie Rennie: Will the Secretary of State update the House on plans for a system of industry regulation, especially as the Government first proposed it five years ago? What discussions has he had with the Americans on taking a common approach, following the Blackwater incident? In such a volatile environment, is he not concerned that the unprofessional and reckless activities of security companies could prove disastrous and endanger the lives of more civilians, and of members of our forces?

Des Browne: First, no private military and security company operating under British Government contract—there are three such companies operating under contract for other Departments—has ever been implicated in the death or injury of any innocent Iraqi civilians as a result of the discharge of weapons; I should make that clear at the outset. As for the follow-up to the 2002 Green Paper, when the Lord Chancellor was Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs he commissioned a review of policy options for private military and security companies. As I think hon. Members know, the review was completed in 2005, and it raised a number of complex issues that officials are considering in detail. I hope that we can work our way through those complexities shortly. Of course, when a conclusion is reached, Parliament will be informed of the detail. Hon. Members can be reassured that I discuss all aspects of our policy, and United States policy, on Iraq with my counterpart, the Secretary of Defence.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I tell the Secretary of State that we did not know that there was a report within Government in 2005? The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has been asking for and
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expecting a response to the representations that it made some eight years ago, following the Sandline inquiry and the problems arising from the fact that London is one of the world recruitment capitals for security firms. There is a problem with the interface and relationship between those firms and United Kingdom armed forces, and it needs to be addressed with greater expedition.

Des Browne: I think that my hon. Friend’s question betrays the complexity of the issues involved. The problem is defining the activities that should be regulated, and how any regulation of overseas activities might be enforced. That is not an easy matter to resolve. Indeed, the Blackwater incident and its aftermath shows that the United States of America is struggling to do so, given that the regulation of such companies in Iraq currently depends on a coalition provisional authority memorandum. There are a number of complexities with the issue. I am anxious that they be resolved, and that we can come to the House in good time to explain how we will proceed on that area of policy.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Secretary of State sounds reluctant to grasp the nettle on the issue so ably raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Surely there are two problems: that the companies are doing things that the British armed forces would traditionally have done themselves, were it not for overstretch, and that the attraction of some of the companies is such that they pull people out of our armed services to go and work for them at much higher wages. That in itself contributes to overstretch.

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman only adds to the complexity of the issues with that qualification. It is not true to suggest that those companies, which are not all, by any stretch of the imagination, within the Government’s control, do work that the British Army would otherwise do were it not for overstretch. In fact, in Iraq, the Departments that contract those companies do so to provide security for civilian operators. It is by no means correct that the Army would provide that security in any event or that other military forces would do so. There is no lack of willingness on my part or energy to work our way through the difficulties, but they are significant, and we want to try to get them right before we announce the detailed policy to the House.

Operational Deployments

2. Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): For what period of time operational deployments are expected to require annual expenditure from the reserve. [159394]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The additional costs of operational deployments will be funded from the Treasury reserve for as long as the operational deployments continue.

Mr. Blunt: Given that 7,700 troops are on deployment in Afghanistan—it is rumoured in NATO that Britain will contribute more troops—and given that our ambassador in Afghanistan has spoken of a
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commitment that might last three decades, it is simply not reasonable to expect the armed forces to have to budget year on year, on the basis of an indefinite commitment. That money should be structured into the defence budget, and the armed forces should not have to come back to the Treasury, year in, year out for a commitment that is going to last decades.

Des Browne: If the money for operations was built into the budget, that is exactly what the armed forces would have to do: they would have to budget within that structure. At present, the armed forces are funded to provide the capability required—operations are funded from the reserve—so that they are not put into that position. May I take the opportunity to scotch the rumour on which the hon. Gentleman drew? Unfortunately, the NATO spokesman, Colonel Appathurai—I hope that I have pronounced his name properly—made an error yesterday. I will not read the detail of the document I have received, but I am happy to place it in the Library. Today, however, he gave a clear explanation in a press conference, in which he admitted that he had inadvertently misled the media yesterday, and that there were no such plans to increase the UK contingent.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The Secretary of State must be the only person in the House who does not understand that the armed forces are overstretched and under-resourced for the commitments that they have undertaken. When is he going to face up to the fact? If the military has to cancel 10 per cent. of its training every year, the resources are clearly not available for it to do the job and be trained for the job that it is meant to do?

Des Browne: Statistics show that the number of training events is increasing every year. For the year 2004-05, the total of planned training events was 379; for 2005-06, it was 533; and for 2006-07, it was 699. I accept that some of those events were cancelled, but the percentage of cancellations has decreased. I accept, too—I have said so at the Dispatch Box—that we are asking the military to do a significant amount, which has an effect. I have also explained time and again what we plan to do to reduce that pressure.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Have not the Government failed in their attempts since 2004 to produce a defence-specific inflation index? They keep trumpeting the fact that they have given the armed forces 1.5 per cent. more than the general level of inflation, but the Royal United Services Institute calculates that defence equipment projects run at 5 to 10 per cent. above the general level of inflation. Does that not mean that the Government’s claim that they are spending more on defence in real terms is simply a load of hogwash?

Des Browne: It is not a load of hogwash. I have given the figures, and the Opposition spokesmen must accept, however reluctantly, that there have been real- terms increases. The Opposition face a problem, as there is a £6 billion hole in their spending plans. In our policy debate last Tuesday, I invited the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to say from the Dispatch Box whether he would match or improve our spending
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plans. Given that he said he was prepared for an election a couple of weeks ago, the Opposition face a challenge—will they spend more than us and, if so, on what will they spend less?


3. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Afghanistan. [159396]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in Afghanistan is stable, if fragile in places. The Afghan national army and the international forces are helping to extend the authority of the Government of Afghanistan, although there remains a threat from suicide attacks and local ambushes.

Mr. Evennett: Do the Government still believe that the Taliban do not constitute a strategic threat? If so, will the right hon. Gentleman explain why 2.7 million rounds of ammunition were used between June 2006 and September 2007?

Des Browne: There is no correlation between those two issues. Yes, I believe that the Taliban do not pose a strategic threat to the Government of Afghanistan. They are able to carry out some forms of attack, in particular asymmetric attacks, as they are called—suicide bombings and others—that are difficult to defend against. They know that, and those attacks generate a degree of threat that we are trying to deal with, albeit with some difficulty. Otherwise, every time the Taliban have faced up to the forces of the international security assistance force—ISAF—they have been overmatched and defeated. That has happened for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that we have been prepared to use a significant amount of ammunition against them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are facing a huge threat and that day in, day out UK forces have to face the threat in Afghanistan that should be shared among our NATO partners, to ensure that they take more of the weight? Does he agree that it is time for them to stand up and be counted?

Des Browne: I agree that NATO needs to live up to its collective commitment. My ministerial colleagues and I regularly raise the subject when we speak to our partners. It will continue to be raised to ensure that increasingly they live up to those commitments, and there has been some movement on the part of some of our allies.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): NATO’s own statement of requirements says that we need thousands more troops on the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Does the Secretary of State accept that we cannot be as effective as we would like to be without those extra troops? Does he agree that there is a risk that, over the next few months, we might find ourselves losing the ground that we have already taken and have to fight to get it back again later on?

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Des Browne: The right hon. Gentleman properly raises an issue that the commander of ISAF raised in a recent interview. It is a concern that if we are unable to hold on to the ground that we have managed to secure, we will have to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says. However, like most hon. Members, he knows that our ability to secure and hold that ground is mostly a function of our ability to train and mentor Afghan security forces, both the army and the police, to do that. Unless we can make the Afghan security forces capable of holding on to that ground, we will find ourselves repeatedly in that situation, although I do not think we will do so because we are making progress in mentoring and training.

Security issues in respect of the Afghan-Pakistan border feature significantly in our dialogue in NATO and with Pakistan. I recognise that additional forces are needed for that part of the country, but the security will have to be effective on both sides of the border, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): At a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly earlier this month, MPs from the Netherlands and Canada reported that their Parliaments would reconsider their countries’ commitments to ISAF, and particularly to deploying to more dangerous regions of Afghanistan because of fears about unequal burden-sharing. The Secretary of State has already said that he shares that concern. What discussions has the North Atlantic Council had about burden-sharing, and how does he think policies could be changed so that it is more even?

Des Browne: It is a question not of changing policy but of NATO allies living up to the collective commitments to which they have signed up. I am well aware that the Netherlands and Canada must go through parliamentary processes that their Governments promised their Parliaments in order to consider extending their commitments beyond certain dates—I cannot remember the specific dates, but they are in 2008 or 2009. I am confident that they will get the support from other allies that will allow them to get through that political process. While I am at the Dispatch Box, I want to pay tribute to both those countries, which have made a significant contribution in difficult circumstances to securing the southern part of Afghanistan. That issue is constantly discussed both in the NAC and when Ministers meet, as NATO Ministers will at an informal session later this week.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Security in Afghanistan will clearly improve if reconstruction work is progressed. It is believed that the MOD report on Operation Herrick was very critical of construction work. Both the Defence Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee have requested copies of that report to allow them to scrutinise in detail what is going on in Afghanistan. Will the Secretary of State make the report available to those Committees?

Des Browne: I will consider the request from the hon. Gentleman, and I would consider such a request from the Committee, if I were to receive one.

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Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree that security in Afghanistan is a result of not only the number of troops, but their operational capability? Will he outline improvements for troops in terms of vehicles and other equipment to improve their operational capability?

Des Browne: Recently, significant improvements have been made in the protected vehicles that are available to our troops. We have not quite got the numbers of vehicles into the operational theatre that we plan to, but we are making significant progress. Last week, I went to see Brigadier Lorimer and representatives from 12th Mechanised Brigade, which has just returned from Afghanistan, and they spoke very highly of those vehicles and of the Mastiff vehicle in particular. Hon. Members will be aware that the Prime Minister’s recent announcement about the procurement of Mastiff vehicles means that we expect to deliver more than 400 of them over the next two years. The majority of them will go to Afghanistan, but some will be used for pre-deployment training.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The MOD is to be congratulated on the deployment of the Warrior armoured fighting vehicle to Helmand province, which is proving to be a great success. Will the Secretary of State ensure as a matter of urgency that more of those vehicles are deployed throughout the theatre in support of the infantry?

Des Browne: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for recognising that improvement in force protection and the effectiveness of our troops. I discussed that very issue with Brigadier Lorimer on Friday, because it was on his recommendation that we first considered deploying Warriors. No request has been made for additional Warriors from commanders or the military, but if a request is made—Brigadier Lorimer agrees with the hon. Lady and suspects that a request will be made—I will consider it in the same way as I considered the first request.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has mentioned the work that is being done to train Afghanistan’s own security forces. Are there enough trainers in the country at the present time, and, if not, what can be done to supply more?

Des Browne: There are not enough trainers in the country. For example, there are about 1,800 police trainers in Kosovo, which is about the size of Wales. The EU commitment to Afghanistan for police training on the civil side amounts to some 160 trainers, of whom 60 have been deployed. At a recent informal meeting of EU Ministers, I described that as a flea on the back of an elephant. If we are to match up to the challenge that we have generated for ourselves in the international community, we need to do much better on police trainers.

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