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House of Commons

Monday 3 December 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


1. Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): What he expects UK troop levels to be in Iraq in each of the next three years; and if he will make a statement. [169645]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): We have set out our plans for Iraq to spring 2008, when we plan to reduce UK troop numbers in southern Iraq to around 2,500. Decisions on the next phase will be made at that time, guided always by the assessments of our military commanders and the actual conditions on the ground.

Mike Penning: As this is probably the last Defence questions before Christmas, I should like to send our best wishes and condolences to the families and loved ones of the servicemen who have lost their lives, and our wishes for a speedy recovery to the injured, who are still returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If we are to reduce our troops in the Iraq field of operations to approximately 2,500, can the Secretary of State guarantee that there will be enough force protection should the current situation deteriorate?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his initial words, which spoke for everyone in the House, and I associate all on the Government side—and, if I may presume to, everyone else in the House—with them; I am sure that they will be noted. I take this opportunity to commend the hon. Gentleman and thank him on behalf of the whole House for his arrangement of the very welcome welcoming party for 12 Mechanised Brigade in the House. That gave us all an opportunity to say thank you to those brave young men and women for what they have achieved in Afghanistan.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue, which has also been considered in detail in the welcome Defence Committee report published today. I assure the hon. Gentleman and everyone in the House that all our decisions on troop numbers are taken on the best and most detailed military advice. At the top of all our
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considerations is force protection. Under no circumstances would we take decisions that meant that we did not have sufficient force protection for those whom we deployed into the theatre in Iraq or anywhere else.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Last week, seven members of the all-party group on Iraq returned from a successful visit to Baghdad. We found that refugees are returning from Syria and Jordan to Iraq because the security situation has improved. May I say that we talked to four American generals and the British general as well as the leading figures in Iraq, and that the mood is one of cautious optimism?

Des Browne: I thank my right hon. Friend for two things: first, for her consistent support for the Iraqi people, which stretches well beyond the current circumstances of the operations in Iraq. She consistently supported them through the days of Saddam’s despotism and she deserves to have that recorded in the House on as many occasions as possible. Secondly, I thank her for arranging for a cross-section of the House to go to Iraq with her.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend reports back from Iraq what many of us who have recently been there have seen, namely that there is a significant degree of progress. However, that progress is fragile and, as my right hon. Friend well knows, whether it is sustained depends on the Iraqi Government and Iraqi security forces being able to take advantage of the opportunity that the surge and other developments have created.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Secretary of State for what he said about the Defence Committee’s report, which is out today. Is he aware of my dismay, and the dismay that I am sure will be felt by all members of the Select Committee, at the headline in the Daily Mirror today—“UK’s Iraq mission a ‘failure’”? That is not what the Defence Committee said; it said precisely the reverse. Clearly, there are real problems in Basra, not least with the police, but some of the things that our armed forces have been doing there—training the 10th division of the Iraqi army, for example—have been an outstanding success, and deserve congratulations.

Des Browne: I thank all the members of the Defence Committee and the right hon. Gentleman, who chairs it, for what, I repeat, is a welcome report. It is a balanced report; I read it over the weekend, having had an advance copy of it, and I welcomed it in the press release that I issued this morning.

To a degree, I share the dismay of the right hon. Gentleman—and, I am sure, that of other members of his Committee—at how the report has been represented in some quarters of the media. However, I have to say that I am getting used to only one side of the Iraq story ever being told. The report is compulsory reading for those who want to know, in a balanced way, what is happening in Iraq.

Significant progress has been made, and our troops there deserve enormous credit for what they have achieved. I will not go through the list of achievements over the past nine months or thereabouts, in particular, but it is significant. It is a fragile opportunity, however, and the Select Committee has identified the questions
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that we need to ask and the continuing challenges. In our response to its report, we will endeavour, in so far as we can, to give a comprehensive response to those questions.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): The House will surely welcome my right hon. Friend’s reaffirmation of our plans for troop numbers in Iraq, but can he confirm that, beyond the spring of 2008, it is still the intention further to reduce the number of Army personnel in Iraq?

Des Browne: All the responses that I have received to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement to the House about troop numbers have welcomed the reduction, but as against a serious consideration of the conditions on the ground and always qualified by the fact that we need to keep matters under review. It is our plan to reduce troop numbers to 2,500, and over the past 18 months we have consistently been able to meet the plans that we have laid out in advance. Our eventual plan, of course, is that when the Iraqi security forces are able to take over total responsibility for security in the south-eastern part of Iraq, we will hand over to them. However, I believe that we will need to continue to support them beyond that point with some degree of training or mentoring, although that will not need to be done with the numbers that we currently have in theatre. Exactly when we are able to get to that point will depend on developments. We have not yet got to the stage of provincial Iraqi control, although that is planned to happen before the end of the year, and we will need to assess the position then. We will need to carry on as we have over the past months and assess the position as we go along, taking careful steps so that we do not regress.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The Defence Secretary says that the goalposts have moved and we can now have 2,500 British troops in Iraq—whereas the Minister for the Armed Forces previously said that we would need 5,000 to ensure their security—because we now know more about the tasks that those 2,500 troops will be undertaking. But how many will be involved in training the Iraqi forces—for example, in operations on the Iran-Iraq border—and what proportion will be reliant on Iraqi security forces for their security?

Des Browne: That issue was raised in some detail in my evidence session before the Select Committee, which may well be the source of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The reason for the difference between myself and the Minister is simply that he was talking at a different time, and the situation has moved on. I accept that the precise figures that the hon. Gentleman looks for will have to be given to the House in the broadest possible sense—consistent with force security, of course—but we are not yet at that stage because we do not yet have provincial Iraqi control. This is all conditions based and based on military advice. As we go along, we will move towards our planned figure of about 2,500 troops. However, the precise figure, as well as exactly which of them will be training and mentoring, which will be involved in operations including protection of routes or operations around the border, and which will be there for force protection and/or to stand ready to support the Iraqi security
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forces if necessary will be a matter for judgment and military advice at that time. I am not yet in a position to give those precise figures.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Secretary of State for his comments about the Defence Committee’s report. We look forward to receiving his reply. With the space that has been created by our troops for the Iraqis to take increasing responsibility for themselves, what is happening about the economic initiatives planned for Basra province, which the Prime Minister told the House about on 8 October?

Des Browne: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am, however, Secretary of State for Defence, not for development, and I do not want to anticipate announcements that will be made after the time when there is provincial Iraqi control. That will be the appropriate time to make those announcements, because that is when those complementary economic initiatives can be launched. It is no secret that the Government intend to support an economic initiative that is based on Basra, in particular, and is designed to exploit the resources of the Iraqi Government, who have sufficient resources from their oil revenues to be able to invest there. Apart from that, support is available from other countries in the international community to make the best of the oil exploration opportunities, especially given that Basra is a very important city for Iraq because of the port at Umm Qasr and Basra airport, which has been subject to significant development and is now increasingly handling commercial traffic. Such opportunities will be taken forward with the staff of the construction agencies, some of whom are volunteers from the international business community.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Since the Government are maintaining an intention to reintervene in Iraq, what would be the criteria for such reintervention, and where would the men come from, given that the Army is 3,600 men short? According to the Government’s most senior military adviser for the Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, our reserves to meet the unexpected are almost non-existent. Is it not time that the Secretary of State told the Prime Minister to stop betraying our armed forces and gave the nation’s finest the tools to do the job?

Des Browne: I say to the hon. Gentleman that the support this Government have given the armed forces has been second to none in terms of investment. He comes at this issue with the same disability as all of those in his Front-Bench team, which is that he always fails to make a spending commitment—oh no, of course, he did. On “Newsnight” , he made a commitment to spend more on the armed forces, but that was a personal commitment, not one for his Government, as I understand it—sorry, I meant his party in Government.

As for reintervention, the most important point about the process of provincial Iraqi control is that a judgment is taken as to whether Iraqi security forces are able to look after the security of the province that is handed over to them. We in Government, with the Iraqi Government and our allies, have done that successfully three times now, and on each occasion we have handed over provinces where we have not had to go back and
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intervene. That has been achieved because part of the calculation involves the ability of the Iraqi security forces to handle problems that may arise. There will be of the order of 50,000 trained Iraqi security forces in the Basra area and surrounding areas by the time we move to provincial Iraqi control. Our judgment is that the responsibility for an area lies first with them; we will have sufficient forces in theatre to support them should the need arise, but it has not, and that is part of the judgment governing the decision to hand over control in the first place.

Ministerial Responsibilities

2. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What proportion of his working time he spent on his responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence in the last month. [169646]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am always conscious of my responsibilities as Secretary of State for Defence and I am constantly ready to exercise them. It is not possible accurately to determine what proportion of my time is spent on defence issues or Scotland Office issues, however.

Mr. Robathan: I know that the Secretary of State is an extremely conscientious and thoroughly decent man, but last Wednesday he was answering questions from me and others on Scottish affairs, and back in the summer I recall an occasion when one of his deputies had to make a statement on defence because he was still up in Scotland. Does he understand why people on duty 24 hours a day in Afghanistan, facing the most difficult fighting since Korea, or those risking their lives in Iraq, question the commitment of this Government, and does he understand why they say that it is inappropriate and insulting that his job should be a part-time one?

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his generous remarks at the outset of his question. Factually, his account of events was, to a degree, inaccurate. There has been no occasion when I have not been able to answer a question or make a statement at the Dispatch Box while I have been both the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is thinking of something that happened about 18 months ago, when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), had to make a statement because I could not get back from my constituency. That was before I had both sets of responsibilities. What he said is accurate in fact, but not in time.

Mr. Robathan: You were in Scotland.

Des Browne: I note what the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position, but my constituency is in Scotland—I cannot help that. I cannot move it.

I simply do not accept that the morale of our deployed personnel is lowered by my working patterns. I say that advisedly because I regularly visit members of our armed forces deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have many issues on their mind, which they are not shy about raising with me, ranging from issues involving their families, their colleagues and the task in
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hand to their equipment, but they have never, once, raised the issue that the hon. Gentleman asked about. I remind him that, the other day, thanks to the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning), I spent some considerable time with members of the 12 Mech Brigade who had returned from Afghanistan. I spoke to quite a number of them and not one of them raised that issue.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that he need take no notice whatsoever of the pathetic jibes from the military wing of the Tory party? Talking of which, was he as surprised as I was at the antics of the former top brass from their comfortable billets in another place considering that only three days earlier, General Sir Richard Dannatt and Colonel Richard Westley came to the House and, in front of a briefing attended by some 50 Members of this House and the other place, acknowledged the significant new investment in equipment and facilities for our armed forces?

Des Browne: My position, which is supported by those who have seen the operational theatre, by those who are deployed there and by their equipment, is that our forces have never been better equipped. I accept that the challenge is now to maintain that level of equipment for our troops when we deploy them in the future. It is unfortunate, at best, that people constantly refer to our troops’ not being properly equipped to do the job when that is not the case. It is also potentially dangerous because the enemy listens to every single thing that is said in this House or reported in our media. Our troops’ force protection is, in my view, undermined by people who misdescribe the level of protection that they have.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): Will the Secretary of State tell the House whether, while juggling the time between his responsibilities in Scotland and at the Ministry, he has found time to visit Headley Court to see the work that is being done there for wounded soldiers? Will he pay tribute to The Sunday Times’s fundraising campaign to make the facilities there more appropriate to recuperation and to the estimable Jeremy Clarkson, who is leading the campaign? Is it not rather sad that a charitable campaign is doing that rather than a grateful nation?

Des Browne: I have visited Headley Court. It is appropriate that such visits are done privately and not publicised. I have no intention in the future of publicising any such visits. I know that hon. Members from all parties visit our troops in hospital and in rehabilitation centres. They do so quietly; that is entirely appropriate, and I am pleased that they are prepared to do that. I have seen the miracle of rehabilitation—it is nothing short of that—that takes place at Headley Court. Some of the prosthetic limbs that I have seen people working on are miraculous. They are wonders of modern science, and give people a degree of freedom of movement that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. I welcome the public support for Headley Court, but there is no lack of Government support for the facility and we only recently paid for a significant new annexe. The Government support Headley Court just as much as anyone else.

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Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): At a time when many Members have perfectly legitimate but very well-paid jobs outside the House and earn tens of thousands of pounds while presumably being part-time Members of the House, should we not be thanking the Secretary of State for doing two jobs for the price of one?

Des Browne: I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I will merely say what I have said every time that I have been questioned about the subject: if people have an issue of substance to raise about the way in which I carry out my job as Secretary of State for Defence, they ought to raise that issue rather than the issue of perceived principle, wrongly calling in aid support from troops on the front line. I do not believe that that support for the argument exists, and I have certainly seen no evidence of it. Although I accept what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) said from a sedentary position earlier, I have no doubt that that sort of discontent might now be stamped out.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): The Secretary of State will have spent much time preparing for the imminent publication of the board of inquiry into the Nimrod tragedy in Afghanistan. Will he assure the House that all lessons learned from that board of inquiry will be implemented as a matter of priority across the ageing Nimrod fleet?

Des Browne: May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I intend to make a full statement to the House and he will have an opportunity then to ask me questions—in an informed way, I trust—about the recommendations? It would be inappropriate and disrespectful to the families for me to discuss anything that comes out of the board of inquiry before they have an opportunity to consider its report’s findings.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): The Secretary of State evidently did not read the comments of five former chiefs of the defence staff if he genuinely thinks that it is not believed that his having two jobs sends out a terrible signal to members of the armed forces. He will recall that, earlier this month, I asked whether his ministerial salary was paid to him entirely for his duties as Secretary of State for Defence, and he failed to give me a direct reply. However, the Library has spoken to the Cabinet Office and a note to me states that a second official at the Cabinet Office informed the Library that

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