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House of Commons

Monday 3 November 2008

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Armed Forces Morale

1. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): What recent steps he has taken to maintain and enhance morale in the armed forces. [232047]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We are removing disadvantage from service life and enhancing educational opportunity through the service personnel Command Paper. We have encouraged understanding and appreciation of our armed forces by commissioning the national recognition study. We have implemented above average pay increases, particularly for lower ranks, and vastly improved the operational welfare package. We have massively improved equipment and will continue to do so—for example, by investing £680 million in new protected vehicles, as announced by the Prime Minister last Wednesday.

Malcolm Bruce: I thank the Minister for that reply, which goes some way to addressing the concerns, but will he explain the effect on the morale of our troops when the Government can find money for new nuclear warheads for a new tranche of the Eurofighter and yet have consistently failed to provide the troops with the equipment that they need for the task that they face? Will he now undertake to ensure that they are provided with the armoured cars, armoured equipment, helicopters and everything else that they need to do the job that they are being asked to do on the ground?

Mr. Ainsworth: There has been a 60 per cent. uplift in helicopter numbers in Afghanistan in the recent past, and the right hon. Gentleman must accept that we have to provide not only for the current threat but for the many eventualities that will face our country. We must have a balanced defence policy, and the kind of fighting that our people are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq is not necessarily the only threat that they might face in the near future.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): I welcome the Minister’s comments on improving conditions for our armed forces, but what assessment has he made of the impact of that on recruitment?

Mr. Ainsworth: Recruitment has been challenging in some of the pinch-point areas, as my hon. Friend knows, but, generally speaking, it is holding up, and there have recently been signs that it has improved, as was reported at the weekend in the national newspapers.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Last year, my old battalion had to patrol in Snatch vehicles, and it has been told that when it goes back again in the spring of next year, it will have to continue patrolling in Snatch vehicles. It refers to them as coffins. Will the Minister comment on the effect that that will have on morale, please?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman repeatedly adds his weight to the call for Snatch to be removed from operational theatres, but we are advised that commanders
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need a range of vehicles, that Mastiff and vehicles like it cannot do every job that they are called upon to do, and that Snatch is therefore still required. We are now procuring Snatch Vixen, which will be a higher-powered version, able to carry more armour—but the threat will change, and we can rest assured that that vehicle will be overpowered by some of the new explosives, some of the new formed charges, that our people will face in the future. And you can bet your life that some hon. Members will then say that the new Snatch Vixen should not be deployed in theatre. We will never be able to remove the risk entirely from operational theatre.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): One way to raise the morale of our troops is to help them to realise how much the work that they do is appreciated in their local towns and communities. The Regiment of Wales was given the freedom of the borough in my constituency of Bridgend, and that hugely raised the morale of the troops and of the local community. Should that not be one of the ways to demonstrate that we are keen to raise morale and to demonstrate ordinary people’s recognition of the dedication of our service people?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When people return from dangerous operational theatres they need to know that those back home understand what they have been through; the kind of work that they have to do and the kind of dangers that they have had to face. We have seen a huge improvement in the level of recognition and appreciation afforded to our armed forces over the last year, and I pay tribute to the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), for his work in the national recognition study, which helped in some way to improve that situation.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): What effect does it have on morale when the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), blames the commanders for their choice of vehicle, saying:

For the commanders on the spot, frequently those choices were certainly not available, as has been made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer). Surely it is simply unsustainable for a Minister to say these things.

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend was trying to explain to people that a range of vehicles is needed in theatre. Hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) often say different things from what commanders tell us about Snatch. They tell us that Snatch is needed as part of the suite of vehicles required in theatre. We have spent more than £1 billion on new vehicles already, and we will continue to spend, but commanders will still need a range of vehicles to do the various jobs required of them in our operational theatres.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I am acutely aware that a significant amount of time elapses between a requirement being made known by operational forces on the ground, and the development of the engineering
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capacity needed to produce the required improvements. What can my right hon. Friend the Minister do to ensure that the lead time between vehicle aspirations and vehicle delivery to meet operational demand, which is unique in every context, is reduced?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is vital that we react to the changing threats as quickly as we can. With regard to Mastiff, we managed to bring in that vehicle, from first announcement to first showing in theatre, in only 23 weeks. We need to try to match that in the future and on every occasion.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Does the Minister accept that saving the lives of service personnel is a very good way of enhancing their morale? Will he therefore see what he can do to bring forward into operation the latest high technology Nimrod MRA4, the spy in the sky, which could give our armed services in both Iraq and, particularly, Afghanistan notice of when they are likely to encounter the enemy?

Mr. Ainsworth: The current Nimrod fulfils that role, as the hon. Gentleman knows. It is a life-saving platform, operating in Afghanistan and doing exactly as he proposes. We are working with BAE Systems to try to bring forward the Nimrod MRA4.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): When a loyal and committed officer resigns and cites a specific reason, he should be treated with the utmost seriousness. When, instead, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) says that it was

it is not only damaging to morale but, frankly, a disgrace.

And, when the Under-Secretary said that there were

what exactly did he mean, and when will he apologise?

Mr. Ainsworth: We do take the complaint seriously; we do take the resignation seriously. We do not accept that we are in any way cavalier with our people’s safety. We put that at the absolute top of our priorities, and all of us in the ministerial team will continue to do so.

Dr. Fox: Still no apology—yet the Under-Secretary’s offence went beyond damaging morale and his own arrogant dismissal of a loyal and committed officer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, the Under-Secretary said:

Yet is it not increasingly clear that, on the occasion in question, commanders had no choice but to use Snatch Land Rovers? How can it be that after six years and more than £10 billion in spending, we still do not have the armoured vehicles that we require? And, why did the Under-Secretary not take time to discover the facts before opening his mouth and bad-mouthing our commanders?

Mr. Ainsworth: My hon. Friend meant no offence. He was trying to explain to people that we need a suite of vehicles in theatre. That was all he was trying to do, and he did not mean to cause any offence to anyone at all.

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2. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): What progress has been made in the development of Iraqi security forces; and if he will make a statement. [232048]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): UK forces in southern Iraq continue to make very good progress in mentoring and training the Iraqi security forces. We have helped to train over 20,000 Iraqi troops, and the performance of both the 10th and 14th divisions of the Iraqi army is a testament to the vital contribution that UK forces have made to improving security conditions on the ground. We have also helped to train more than 22,000 members of the Iraqi police service, including some 7,800 police officers in Basra itself.

Mr. Leigh: I congratulate the Secretary of State on his promotion to a vitally important role. He is, of course, full of beguiling words about the success in bringing Iraqi forces up to scratch, although it has to be said that when I was in northern Iraq a few weeks ago there was no sight of them: it was all down to the militia. A lot of the success in dealing with violence in Baghdad is down to former Sunni militias.

What does the Secretary of State have to say about the interview given by Mr. al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, to The Times on 13 October? He was very critical of what he claimed was our secret deal with the Mahdi army, a deal that I am sure the Secretary of State will deny. Mr. al-Maliki also said that the Iraqi forces are now ready to take—

Mr. Speaker: Order. Questions must be brief; other Back Benchers want to come in.

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for his kind and welcoming words.

On the substance of his points about security conditions on the ground, I should say that it would be wrong to underestimate the contribution that British forces have made to improving the capabilities of Iraqi security forces. When I was in Basra last week, my protection and security were provided by the Iraqi army, militia and police themselves, and that is a significant step forward.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are parts of Iraq in which security conditions are not as good as in the south. However, the whole point and purpose of our mission in Iraq is now to improve the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Iraqi Prime Minister, who made it clear to me how much he welcomed the role of UK forces in the south of Iraq. He wanted to see that role be completed in the near future, and it will be. There is no question at all of any secret deal with the special forces or special groups in Basra. Everything that we did was done in full knowledge and sight of our coalition partners and the Iraqi Government.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I welcomed the Secretary of State on Thursday, so I shall not do so again. When the Defence Committee visited HMS Chatham and Umm Qasr a few months
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ago, we saw the fantastic job that the Royal Navy was doing in protecting the oil, the resource that will help bring Iraq out of this dark period of its history. I recommend that the Secretary of State visit the Royal Navy on his next visit. Will he make an assessment of what the Iraqi navy will do in the coming months to boost its own capabilities?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. In 2003, the Iraqi navy just did not exist. Clearly, it has an important role to play in securing vital Iraqi interests in the Gulf, particularly in respect of the oil industry and its platforms there. The Iraqis now have security responsibility for one of the two principal oil installations in the Gulf, and that is a sign of progress. The Royal Navy is doing a brilliant job in Umm Qasr, and when I am next in Iraq I hope to see the Royal Navy team there in person.

Mentoring and support for the Iraqi navy will be one of the enduring roles for British security forces in future. I hope and remain confident that the first months of next year will see a significant change in our mission in Iraq, and that will be welcomed on both sides of the House. However, it would be wrong to assume from that that UK forces will have no further role to play in supporting our Iraqi allies. They certainly will.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I remind the Secretary of State of how incredibly impressed the Defence Committee was when we saw the mentoring of the Iraqi armed forces in Basra. Although it is inevitable that we will draw down our sizeable footprint there in the months ahead, will the Secretary of State explain what plans there are to maintain a very strong relationship with the Iraqi armed forces? I am thinking particularly of the higher level, at which we saw strong personal relationships that would be very good for the United Kingdom’s influence in the longer term.

Mr. Hutton: When I met Mr. Abd al-Qadir, the Iraqi defence Minister, in Baghdad, those were some of the issues that we discussed. He and I want an enduring, sustainable and normalised defence relationship between the UK and Iraq. There are two particular issues on which we can make a significant and enduring contribution. First, we will support the training of the Iraqi officer corps, and we look to formalise those arrangements between us.

Secondly, in the context of what I said in response to the remarks of the Defence Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot), I repeat that we want to continue to mentor and support the Iraqi navy. The UK has a unique contribution to make in those two areas, and I look forward to formalising those understandings with the Iraqi Government in the near future.

Afghanistan (Royal Navy)

3. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): How many Royal Navy personnel are deployed in Afghanistan. [232049]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The size of the force committed to Operation Herrick 9 is about 8,000. Since October, 3 Commando Brigade
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has formed the core of the Helmand taskforce. As a result, more than 2,000 of that force are currently drawn from the Royal Navy itself. The Royal Navy, and all our forces in Helmand, continue to perform a vital role in safeguarding essential UK interests. We can all be rightly proud of the work that they do.

Linda Gilroy: This is a very significant land deployment of maritime forces. Does my right hon. Friend agree that its purpose is not some sort of discretionary war, as some would imply, but in our vital interests?

Mr. Hutton: I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. The operations in which we are involved in Afghanistan are vital to UK strategic security interests: that is why our campaign to tackle the Taliban and to deal with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan must succeed. I pay tribute not only to the forces currently deployed in Afghanistan, who are doing a brilliant job—as I have seen myself at first hand—but to all members of the armed forces who have served there since 2003. We can be rightly proud of the contribution that the men and women who wear the Queen’s uniform have discharged in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): When these brave men and women come back from serving in their deployment in and off Afghanistan, when will they be told whether their frigate’s base port will be Portsmouth or Plymouth? The Secretary of State has made that decision; when will he tell the rest of us?

Mr. Hutton: We hope to make an announcement on that in the very near future. The important thing to come out of the review of the royal naval bases is that we are maintaining and operating three, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

Frank Cook (Stockton, North) (Lab): Nobody could criticise the naval personnel for the job that they do in Afghanistan, where they are performing magnificently. Sadly, however, we have capital ships afloat that are sailing with crews that are somewhat undermanned in places. That is a real problem. Is it not possible to progress more rapidly the reduction of forces in Iraq, so that we can replace naval personnel in Afghanistan in order to release them for service afloat?

Mr. Hutton: The speed at which we can draw down forces from Iraq will depend, first, on security conditions on the ground and, secondly, on the advice that we receive from our military commanders. As I said before the Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Defence last week, we remain optimistic that we will be able to make a very significant change in our mission in the early part of next year. I cannot be more specific than that, for obvious reasons—I do not want to say or do anything that would compromise the safety of our forces on the ground there. However, my hon. Friend, along with every Member of this House, can look forward to significant announcements in the near future.

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