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3 Mar 2008 : Column 1441

Derek Twigg: Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance, as I did with regard to the SSAFA house at Headley Court. SSAFA already helps with housing support at Selly Oak, and the new hospital being built there means that it will get even better facilities. It is an important part of the process that SSAFA is involved in the delivery of more housing for the families of injured service personnel. That is good because it shows the ex-service and charitable sector working with the Government to provide care, and it gives members of the public a chance to show their support for the armed forces.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): In addition to the first-class medical care offered to our soldiers returning from Afghanistan, is it not high time that we recognised their great gallantry by striking a gallantry medal for those who have been wounded or even killed there? Perhaps we ought to call it the Prince Harry.

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is far too wide of the question.

Iraqi Forces (Training)

4. Mr. Jim McGovern (Dundee, West) (Lab): What progress has been made on the mentoring, monitoring and training of Iraqi security forces in southern Iraq. [190361]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): We continue to make good progress in our monitoring, mentoring and training efforts with the Iraqi security forces. They have shown themselves able to deal effectively with security incidents that have occurred. The most recent include operations to counter smuggling, border enforcement and successful containment of the religiously motivated violence at the Ashura festival in January.

Mr. McGovern: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. As he indicated, this is a crucial matter for us. Will he provide evidence of how overwatch is delivered by our armed forces in southern Iraq?

Des Browne: Contrary to some commentary on our forces’ activities in southern Iraq, we continue to play an important role there. I have already referred to the mentoring, monitoring and training of the Iraqi security forces. The view is that the 10th Division of the Iraqi army has improved significantly under that training, and that the 14th Division is progressing, although it is some way behind the 10th. Frequently, we support those troops in active operations, such as the counter-smuggling operation I referred to, which involved the seizing of 15 smuggling barges in the Shatt al-Arab waterway recently. That notable success was principally achieved by the Iraqi army. Where necessary, and at the request of the Iraqi army or their forces, we provide them with capabilities that they do not have access to, such as air cover, fast air support or aerial surveillance. Of course, we do that while retaining the ability and willingness to intervene if called upon to do so by the Iraqi army, but increasingly, that is becoming unlikely.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the men and women of the armed forces doing such important work in Iraq and Afghanistan are heroes, whatever Prince Harry may modestly say about himself, and that
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we can be utterly proud of what they are doing? Is the Secretary of State on Facebook? Has he been invited to join a group demanding an apology from the Drudge Report?

Des Browne: I have not specifically been invited. With all due respect to the right hon. Gentleman and his advice, which I normally respect immensely, it might be unwise for me to join Facebook. However, I support the tenor of his question. All those who serve us in Iraq and Afghanistan—and in other places, including Sierra Leone, which my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces recently visited—are entitled to be considered heroes. On the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about Prince Harry and his treatment by the media, I thought the most important thing Prince Harry did was put into context the heroism of those with whom he had served.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): There were reports in yesterday’s papers that the Government are to bring forward the withdrawal of a further 1,000 troops from Iraq. Will the Secretary of State make any comment that he feels fit on that? Will he also give us an estimate of the final date for withdrawing all British troops from Iraq?

Des Browne: Currently, we have approximately 4,100 troops serving in southern Iraq and we continue to work on detailed plans with our allies, including the Iraqi security forces and other coalition partners, to determine the appropriate number of troops. Those decisions will be made on the basis of military advice, and when I am ready to make a further statement to the House about numbers, I will do so, just as I have kept the House informed as numbers have reduced.

On the final part of my hon. Friend’s question, a final decision will be based on an assessment of the Iraqis’ ability to provide security for themselves and their people.

Aircraft Carriers

5. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What his policy is on whether aircraft carriers are a necessary component of the UK’s defence requirement. [190362]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The future carriers will be a key component of the improved expeditionary capabilities that we need to confront the diverse range of threats in today’s security environment. They deliver on the Government’s commitment in the strategic defence review.

Richard Ottaway: If the Secretary of State believes that there is a future role for the aircraft carriers, he should get on and replace them as his inaction is becoming an embarrassment not only to him but to the Royal Navy. The Illustrious has twice had to be towed back into port after breakdowns, and a tug is on standby in case it breaks down again. There is no air defence cover for the fleet until well into the next decade. Does the Secretary of State not agree that that smacks of a Government who do not understand the nature of maritime power and the lead times involved—unless he is looking to cancel the project?


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Des Browne: If what lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s comments is a question about whether there is any change in the in-service dates for the carriers, there is not.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend agree with the article in February’s Parliamentary Brief by Dr. Eric Grove, director of the Centre for International Security and War Studies, on “Tomorrow’s Navy for tomorrow’s world”? It concludes that, by 2020, “the Brown years” may be seen to be those

Des Browne: I am not qualified to see that far into the future and retrospectively assess the position. However, since 1997, when the Government came to power, 31 new ships have been brought into service. We plan to spend approximately £14 billion on naval equipment in the next 10 to 15 years. That constitutes historic investment in our Navy, which will significantly increase its capability. I am sure that future generations will thank us for that investment.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I was pleased to join the Secretary of State at Rosyth dockyard last month for the signing of the contract to extend the dock to take the aircraft carriers. Why has yet another month passed without the main contracts for the aircraft carrier being signed?

Des Browne: As I have said repeatedly, we are working closely with the industry over months for this complex contract to be ready for signature. In the mean time, however, as the hon. Gentleman knows—I was in his constituency awarding a contract—a number of contracts have been placed in the supply chain, for design, engineering data, materials in support of the manufacture of the carriers and infrastructure, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, which will be necessary to construct the carriers after the individual elements have been built. We are getting on with the job, and as long as the in-service dates remain the same—and they do remain the same—he can rest assured that we will contract at the appropriate time.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend said that we could not look that far into the future, but the purchase of aircraft carriers that will remain in service for many years requires us to do so. When we look at future defence requirements and defence expenditure, should we perhaps not be asking our European allies to enter into an arrangement whereby we can joint-purchase such equipment, to be leased to the nation that needs it at any point in time?

Des Browne: The Government’s approach has been to encourage each individual country to meet its own commitments to invest in its capabilities and armed forces. That process has paid dividends—not as quickly as we would have wanted in some respects, although progress is being made. In particular, Afghanistan has been a transformatory process for a number of countries in that regard.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Select Committee on Defence said 18 months ago:

carrier


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Last July, the Government announced that they had delayed the in-service dates by two years, to between 2014 and 2016. Reports this weekend suggest further delays and that even if the matter is not delayed, the contractors will be asked to delay cutting metal. If there is no further delay, as the Secretary of State has just told the House, why is the Prime Minister dithering about a programme described by his own Minister responsible for security, Admiral Lord West of Spithead, as the

Des Browne: There is no dithering. We are talking about a complex contract. It was announced in July that we were going forward, and there has been no change to the in-service dates. The important thing is the real-terms increases in defence investment for which the Government have been responsible, year on year and planned into the future of the comprehensive spending review—exactly the same investment, I understand, that the Conservative party has agreed it would make if it came into government, although that is now in some doubt because of other commitments that have been made. Those who are interested in defence spending might wonder where those additional cuts might be made. However, there will be no change in the in-service dates, and the hon. Gentleman should not consider this idle speculation.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): My right hon. Friend is aware that we are talking about two important platforms from which the Royal Navy will project its presence round the world. However, to go with those platforms, we need the joint strike fighter. Can he ensure that we will not see any delays in that order?

Des Browne: The JSF programme is developing. Indeed, flight testing of the JSF has been commenced and is progressing well. In fact, I understand that the first short take-off and vertical landing aircraft was rolled out in December 2007 and is undergoing testing, with the first flight planned later this year. We remain committed to the joint strike fighter as the optimal solution to operate from the future carriers, as the joint combat aircraft requirement. As is normal in a programme of such size and technical complexity, reports may emerge concerning progress—that issue was raised in the last Defence questions—but we remain committed to the aircraft.

Kosovo

6. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What forces he has identified for possible deployment to Kosovo; and for how long he expects such forces to be liable for deployment to Kosovo. [190363]

10. Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): If he will make a statement on the possible deployment of forces to Kosovo. [190367]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): As part of our long-standing commitment to the Balkans, the UK remains ready to deploy a battalion to Kosovo until the end of 2008, as part of the NATO pan-Balkans operational reserve force. Any
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deployment would be for an initial period of 30 days, after which we will re-examine the requirement with NATO. The 1 Welsh Guards is currently on standby to deploy if necessary.

Philip Davies: If UK troops are deployed, the armed forces, which are already at breaking point, will be heavily overstretched. Will the Minister confirm what effect the deployment may have on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Mr. Ainsworth: It would not have any effect on operations in Afghanistan and Iran—[Hon. Members: “Iraq.”] In Iraq. This is a long-standing commitment that is being provided for within our planning assumptions, and 1 Welsh Guards stand ready to deploy. The lead element would be ready, if necessary, within four days; the rest of the battalion would be ready within seven days. We have been prepared for that for some time.

Bob Spink: Given our overstretch and the regrettable reluctance of European Union NATO countries to take on their share in Afghanistan, does the Minister not agree that those countries should bear the brunt of any troop deployment for peacekeeping purposes in Kosovo?

Mr. Ainsworth: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just told me that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. We share responsibility for the reserve with Italy and Germany. It happens that, in 2008, that responsibility falls to us, and we have prepared for that deployment, which is all catered for within our assumptions. As I have said, 1 Welsh Guards will take on that responsibility for the first three months; after that, the responsibility will fall to 2 Rifles.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How does my right hon. Friend respond to the remarks made by Commander John Muxworthy, the chief executive of the United Kingdom National Defence Association, that the Ministry of Defence would be

if no more troops were required in Kosovo, because the British armed forces are in chronic crisis?

Mr. Ainsworth: I would respond by saying that this is a deployment that has been prepared for, and a commitment that we have known about. It started on 1 January and, to date, there has been no requirement for the reserve to be deployed. Let us all hope that that situation pertains, but I do not think that my hon. Friend or anyone else in the House would deny the fact that our forces have played an extremely positive role in Kosovo and in the wider former Yugoslav republic over a period of time. People will recognise the capability that we have been able to put in there, and the considerable effect that that has had over the past few years in helping to stabilise that part of the world.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says, but what efforts are he and his colleagues making to ensure that other European nations hold to their commitments and realise that, due to our commitments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia, it is possible that they might be asked to do more?

Mr. Ainsworth: As my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members know, there is an ongoing debate to try to
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ensure burden sharing across NATO. We are trying to achieve that to the maximum possible degree, taking into account not only our NATO allies’ preparedness to deploy in various places—whether in Afghanistan or Kosovo—but their capability to do so. We ought to be enormously proud of the fact that this country has a very real military capability that we have been able to use very effectively in the Balkans. We have accepted responsibility for this deployment as part of that. As I have already said, it is shared with Italy and Germany, which will take turns to be able to provide the reserve capability. It has not been called on for the first three months of this year. Let us hope that it will not be necessary to provide it, but our people stand ready and able to undertake the deployment, should it become so.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Russia’s new President, Mr. Medvedev, visited Belgrade twice during his campaign to show solidarity with the Serbs over Kosovo. Russia’s newly appointed ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, has warned that Russia could use military force if the situation in Kosovo worsened. What assessment have the Government made of how the new Russian Government might affect the security situation in Kosovo?

Mr. Ainsworth: We conduct those ongoing assessments, along with our NATO allies, and we can only hope that the Russians will play a constructive part in exerting the very real influence that they have on the Serb side of the reaction to Kosovo. Let us hope that everybody plays a constructive role and that peace prevails, so that we do not need to deploy the reserve force and the transition to the new status in Kosovo takes place in a peaceful manner.

Dr. Fox: It was no secret that the date on which Kosovo was expected to declare independence would fall in the early part of 2008, yet the Government did not make an arrangement with any other NATO country to provide troops for the operational reserve force. If, as many worry, the security situation worsens and we have to deploy British troops to the area, it will have an impact on our armed forces. At a time when roughly 20 per cent. of the British armed forces are deployed overseas, is not that just another example of the Government failing to plan properly and our allies failing to carry their share of the burden fairly?

Mr. Ainsworth: If the hon. Gentleman would listen—I have said that there are 18,000 NATO troops in Kosovo. The commitment was long expected and planned for; and throughout the run-up to what has subsequently happened in Kosovo we knew that from 1 January we would have to meet the commitment, should it become necessary and be required. That was part of our planning assumptions. We are now three months into the year, and it has not been necessary yet—let us hope that it does not become necessary. Should the deployment be necessary, however, we have the ability and we have done the planning in order to be able to meet our commitments, and we will do precisely that.


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