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Des Browne: I reassure my hon. Friend that many debates that NUT meetings generate have the opposite effect from the one that the NUT seeks to achieve. I am
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not aware of evidence to suggest a reduction in head teachers’ interest in having members of our armed forces make the important contribution that they have made for generations to the education of our young people. All hon. Members and the wider community know that our young people have much more to learn from what the armed forces can show them about their way of life, standards, discipline, loyalty and comradeship than to fear from engaging with our armed forces in the context of controlled exposure to what the world is like. I have no doubt that, as the public expression of admiration for our armed forces increases, as is happening exponentially throughout the country, more and more will be invited into schools to share with young people the way in which the chemistry works.

My anxiety about our armed forces’ engagement with the education system is that I will be accused of allowing too much of it and people will say that I am overstretching them by allowing them to do too much across the education estate. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) need not fear. Sometimes, I am grateful when extreme issues are put in the public domain because they allow people to approach the subject in a more measured and sensible way than at first appears.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend and his colleagues for their work to ensure that we mark the contribution of our servicemen and women through Veterans day. Does he agree that working through the veterans’ associations and bringing them into play in our education system on Veterans day and other occasions is a good way of ensuring that people have a rounded and well founded view of the role of our armed services?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend puts her finger on one of the key aims of Veterans day—a day of appropriate celebration, to which we all look forward. One of the potential benefits of veterans’ badges is that young people and communities can identify by that simple method people who have experience of the armed forces and who can engage with young people. I know from my constituency that young people are hungry to hear about such experiences, which many will never have but greatly admire. They can learn much from them. On many occasions, I have seen veterans, especially those of service from many years ago, keep young children in raptures with the stories of their experiences. It is a wonderful part of life. I do not wish to be trite, but passing on such oral history from generation to generation is part of being British.

In Afghanistan, our forces are working to ensure that that benighted country never again becomes a base for international terrorists. The events of September 2001 demonstrate clearly that, in a global world, the counter-terrorist front line is often far from our domestic borders. We must and will maintain deployable, expeditionary forces able to meet that challenge, wherever it confronts us.

I regularly visit our troops in Afghanistan. On each occasion, I am highly impressed by their professional conduct and high morale in extremely challenging conditions. That reaction is common among all those who visit them, and I know that many hon. Members have done so, for which I commend them.

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Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Des Browne: I am conscious of the time that I have been on my feet and the many pages that remain in front of me, but I will give way, given that my hon. Friend is one of those who have visited our troops.

Mr. Jones: Like other members of the Defence Committee, I value those visits because they give us an insight into what happens on the ground. It also makes us proud to see those men and women working very hard. However, the Ministry is putting the visits in jeopardy. On our latest visit, we were told that we will have to undergo a medical and fitness test before any Member of Parliament is allowed to go on future visits. Will my right hon. Friend reconsider that because I am sure that some of us are not as fit as others and may not pass the test?

Hon. Members: How fit is the Secretary of State?

Des Browne: The matter needs to be looked into quickly. I will take it away and get back to my hon. Friend. I have not been challenged about that, but I think that I need to look into it.

As well as being impressed by the professionalism and morale of our servicemen and women in Afghanistan, I have also seen for myself the positive impact that our troops are making there. That applies not only to them but to others deployed in a supporting civilian capacity, including civil servants from the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and others. They are collectively making a positive impact by creating a secure environment so that Afghans can go about their lives as they wish.

I have listened to our troops tell me that the equipment that they now use is the best that they have ever had. That is their opinion and it is also mine. In the last financial year alone, we delivered equipment worth more than £4.5 billion to the armed forces. Better personal protection and weapons, new armour, new vehicles, new surveillance capabilities and more helicopters have not gone unnoticed by those on the front line. I am sure that all hon. Members know about the quotation from the current brigadier in Afghanistan about the equipment there. Our procurement programme is now paying substantial dividends.

We, along with the international community, must continue to support the Afghan Government, and we are doing that.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): On a point of clarification, the Secretary of State recently made a statement on the future rapid effect system programme, which is vital to what he is discussing. He announced that Pirhana 5 from General Dynamics is the preferred design. We want to ask several questions about that because he said that it would be subject to the completion of a package of work on risk reduction and that then it would be made available at the earliest opportunity. What do those terms mean, and what now constitutes the earliest opportunity for FRES to be delivered?

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Des Browne: We will not be in a position to announce the in-service date for FRES until the main investment decision is taken. In essence, the decision is announced as a provisional preferred decision, because there is more work to do to ensure that we deliver the best capability and secure the best deal for defence and the taxpayer. Of course, that work will be done with the appropriate haste, when we are in a position to announce the outcome of that work, including on risk reduction, and I will make further announcements to the House. I am not in a position to anticipate when a programme of work will be completed from the start point, but it will be completed with appropriate haste to give respect to the issues that need to be dealt with.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): I hear what the Secretary of State says about improved security in Afghanistan. I often think that the poppy crop is an indicator of security in the country. I have heard the various policies that he has espoused to tackle the poppy crop, but it has increased year upon year. In fact, it was lower in the Taliban years than it is now. Can the Secretary of State explain why we have not managed to tackle the poppy crop?

Des Browne: I would not rely entirely on the statistics published by the Taliban on the size of the poppy crop when they were running the country. The Taliban held out to the public the view that they were opposed to the production of opium, but there is clear evidence that they were controlling it, while telling the international community—and even persuading some members—the opposite. The Taliban’s current behaviour, along with that of other insurgents in Afghanistan, does not suggest to me that they are a reliable source of information on the state of production at that time.

There is no doubt that the growth of poppies and the production of opium and their relationship with the insurgency are serious and important issues. Significant progress has been made in making large parts of Afghanistan poppy-free. That is independently assessed and reported on by the United Nations. There has been a concentration of poppy growth in the areas that are least secure, which happen to be the most difficult areas—the parts of the country where, by and large, there has never been any governance. Those parts also happen to be predominantly in the southern part of the country, where we and others are trying to engage the Taliban and other insurgents.

There is no doubt that the Taliban and other insurgents are taking advantage of the security situation in those areas to exploit their hold over the local population through the growth of poppies. Progress is increasingly being made in delivering security, but we need to move beyond that, to the key to reducing the growth of poppies, which is to provide alternative livelihoods. That is not just about saying—as we can, of course—that almost anything will grow in the Helmand river valley during the growing season, for example, when that soil and water are put together; it is about providing a crop that will produce cash. In order to do that, the broad infrastructure needs to be built, so that people can get crops to the market and sell them, and make a living. That is what we are concentrating on, and I shall come to some statistics on the progress being made later.

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I am eternally grateful for the support that that incremental approach, with all the pillars of the anti-narcotics strategy that we have signed up to, consistently receives in the House. There is no simple solution to the problem. Aerial spraying will not deal with it, and neither will buying the poppy crop from the farmers. I notice that on his blog the hon. Member for Woodspring recently expressed a remarkably unqualified degree of support for buying the poppy crop in Afghanistan—if I have misinterpreted him, he can no doubt deal with that. I do not believe that to be the solution, nor do I understand it to be the Opposition’s policy—perhaps the hon. Gentleman was just expressing a personal view.

However, that policy is not the solution, for the simple reason that the country just does not have the infrastructure to ensure that it targets the sole poppy crop. I am certain that if we offered to buy the poppy crop, as many people encourage us to do, the poppy crop would double. There would be no reason for the narcotics dealers to give up trying to get farmers to grow more. Despite the size of the crop, farmers currently grow poppies on only about 4 per cent. of the arable land in Afghanistan, so there is plenty of room for expansion. We just need to work painstakingly through the problem. There are some indications, with the way commodity prices are going, that the growing of wheat, for example, is becoming increasingly attractive to Afghan farmers, for obvious reasons. We need to work on the problem and make progress across the international community, but we also need to make progress on the complementary aspects, including the criminal justice system, by getting some of the big boys before the courts and into jail.

Linda Gilroy: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again. Does he not agree that another important part of the complex situation that we need to tackle—indeed, we are responsible for taking the lead—is ensuring that the drug dealers at the highest levels in Afghanistan are dealt with? When my right hon. Friend next meets President Karzai, will he ensure that he understands that Members of Parliament representing constituencies such as mine, which supplies many of the marines to fight in Afghanistan, are looking to him to deal with the situation as a matter of urgency?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend makes another good point, which reinforces the part of my response to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) that I had reached when I allowed her to intervene. It is important that key narcotics barons are taken out, brought before the courts and given exemplary sentences. It is key, too, that there should be a commitment from the top of the Afghan Government to that process and to eradicating corruption, which is a particular difficulty in some parts of the structure of Afghanistan, if not endemic.

However, we have to understand where the country has come from. The message that my hon. Friend articulated so well is given by every interlocutor—not just from this Government, but from the whole international community—to President Karzai. He is a man who faces a significant challenge in leading his country, but
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he is in no doubt that dealing with corruption and drug dealers is an important priority for those of us making the sort of contribution that she describes to the security and future of his country.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Des Browne: I give way to the hon. Gentleman, who I know has some knowledge and even, dare I say, expertise.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that comment. On my previous visit, I was shocked to learn that the international security assistance force continues to fly in more than 90,000 bottles of water every week for the ISAF troops. The Secretary of State mentioned infrastructure, which must be the key to solving Afghanistan. We could do more if we bought local produce. Everything in Lashkar Gar is ferried in from many miles away. With 7,000 people, the Dutch provincial reconstruction team is in a town and could help to support the local community, but it does not do so in any way, fashion or form, in the sense that it does not buy a single apple locally. That can all change if we start purchasing things locally. Will the Secretary of State give us an assurance that he will see what can be done about purchasing more local produce?

Des Browne: I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance, but with respect, there is a balance to be struck. Having growing communities depend on garrisons is not sustainable either. That of course does not undermine his point about bottled water, which is an impressive point. I shall make inquiries off the back of that point, and I am certain that I shall uncover a mixed picture. I know that our significant development in Camp Bastion puts a large amount of money into the local community because, apart from anything else, we employ local people. I will try to find out the picture across ISAF; I will write to the hon. Gentleman and put my response in the Library so that all Members can access the information.

As I was saying, we, along with the international community, must continue to support the Afghan Government, which is what we are doing. That is why all 40 troop-contributing nations to ISAF reaffirmed in Bucharest their commitment to Afghanistan, and why many—notably the French, who will deploy an additional battalion to regional command east—made additional contributions of troops. The United States has deployed a marine expeditionary unit of 3,000 personnel to southern Afghanistan. They are working closely and effectively with UK forces, complementing our efforts and allowing us to spread the writ of the Afghan Government further and faster.

We fully support the appointment of Kai Eide, the new special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General, to facilitate better co-ordination of the international community’s efforts in Afghanistan. There is already evidence that he is having a significant effect. His appointment will ensure that we are able to optimise the delivery of reconstruction and development into the security space that is being created by the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. That will be the decisive act in our mission in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, this will be delivered through the Afghan national development strategy, which is the vision of
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the Afghan Government themselves to improve conditions for their people. I look forward to the Paris conference, to be held in June this year, where members of the international community will come together again to refine and co-ordinate the implementation of the whole strategy. The road ahead will not always be easy—there will be setbacks—but there is mounting evidence that we are making real progress. Security is taking root in many areas and basic services are improving. The Taliban, who once boasted that they would drive ISAF out of Afghanistan, have themselves been driven from large areas of the country.

About 60 per cent. of Afghanistan is relatively stable, with no or very few security incidents. Since 1 January, 91 per cent. of insurgent activity has originated in just 8 per cent. of Afghanistan’s districts. ISAF has built over 4,000 km of roads, when only 50 km existed in 2001. In 2001, 8 per cent. of Afghans had access to health care, whereas that figure is 80 per cent. today. The Taliban offer Afghanistan neither security nor development. That is why, in a recent BBC poll, the Taliban had the active support of just over 4 per cent. of the population of Afghanistan. It also explains why increasing numbers of former Taliban are choosing to oppose the Taliban and support the Afghan Government. Nowhere is that better exemplified than in Helmand, where the town of Musa Qala has been transformed from a battleground to a place where there are thriving markets and a popular school, and people live their normal lives.

Afghan security forces are playing an increasing role in their own security. There are now more than 50,000 troops in the Afghan national army, and the first battalion to become independently operational is now fully trained and equipped. There are also more than 76,000 officers in the police force. In the light of those expanding Afghan forces, the Afghan Government have announced their intention to take over responsibility for security in Kabul by August this year. That will be a key step on the way to achieving our ambition to make Afghanistan a stable state with secure borders.

Such security and stability are equally our ambition for Iraq.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I listened with interest to the fact that the Afghan national forces are now coming into play and are looking to take over Kabul. Does my right hon. Friend have any indication of what the next step will be and can we see the light at the end of the tunnel? By what projected date can we expect those forces to be in control of the major part of Afghanistan?

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