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House of Commons

Monday 23 February 2009

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Afghanistan (Troop Deployment)

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): What forecast he has made of levels of troop deployment to Afghanistan in the next two years; and if he will make a statement. [257879]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in expressing profound condolences to the families and friends of Marine Darren Smith of 45 Commando Royal Marines, who was killed on active service in Helmand province on 14 February, and Lance Corporal Stephen Kingscott of 1 Battalion The Rifles, who was also killed on active service in Afghanistan on 16 February, and to the family and friends of Private Ryan Wrathall of the 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, who died in Iraq on Thursday 12 February. They all died in the service of our country, and we will always remember their bravery, courage and devotion to duty.

In December 2008, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced a temporary uplift in UK force levels in Afghanistan to bring our deployment to around 8,300 troops. We are currently working closely with the new US Administration on their ongoing policy review. Her Majesty’s Government will continue to ensure that our commanders have the troops and the capabilities that they need to do their tasks safely and effectively.

Andrew Selous: The whole House will join the Secretary of State in his tribute to those of our brave soldiers who have recently died in Afghanistan and elsewhere. More troops from my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, will shortly be going to Afghanistan, adding to the United Kingdom’s already significant contribution to the NATO force in that country. Does the Secretary of State understand the real anger in this House, and throughout the country, at the fact that other NATO countries are not shouldering their fair share of responsibility? What is he going to do about it, given that so many British lives are at stake?

Mr. Hutton: I understand that the regiment to which the hon. Gentleman referred is shortly due to go to Afghanistan as part of 19 Brigade, and we wish it well.

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns, and I have tried, since becoming the Secretary of State for Defence, to give expression to them in this country and, more importantly, when I have discussions with my NATO counterparts. I will continue to do that. UK forces are in Afghanistan because it is vitally necessary for them to be there as a part of securing our homeland defence against the risk of international terrorism. I hope that all parties would accept that our commitment properly reflects the priority that we should attach to succeeding in our mission in Afghanistan.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State reflected on the fact that there has never been a specific mandate from this House for the deployment of
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our armed forces and service personnel in Helmand? The Prime Minister always promised us that, if there were a significant deployment, it would have such a mandate. There is a serious democratic deficit in this case, and the Secretary of State needs to tell his NATO colleagues that he is under pressure in the House about it.

It is now time that we took stock. When we deployed in Helmand, there was a ministerial statement. I confessed to the House that I had never heard of Helmand before, and I suspect that there were an awful lot of other people like me. It is now time for this matter to be put to a vote in the House of Commons, to see whether there is an endorsement of this ongoing mission creep. We are putting more and more of our armed forces into Helmand, but NATO is not fulfilling its obligations.

Mr. Hutton: When it comes to the business of the House, it is for my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and others to determine such matters. We have made regular statements in this place on UK force levels and on deployment in Afghanistan, and I have a strong sense of a cross-party consensus in support of that mission. As I said, it is not for me to determine which procedures or matters are put before this House.

I would strongly rebuke—not rebuke; I would never rebuke my hon. Friend. But I would disagree with him very strongly when he talks about mission creep in Afghanistan. There has not been any mission creep in Afghanistan. We are there to support the NATO mission at the request of the Afghan Government, and force levels reflect the nature of the tasks that need to be completed. I repeat that there has not been mission creep in Afghanistan.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): I agree with the Secretary of State that there is a cross-party consensus in this House on the need to be in Afghanistan, but what can he do to inspire the country to believe that this is our battle, and something in which we must succeed? At the moment, that battle of communication is not being won.

Mr. Hutton: I accept that we have to respond positively to that issue. Since I have been Secretary of State, I have made it a priority to make it clear why UK forces are in Afghanistan. They are there to ensure the homeland security of the United Kingdom and our friends and allies. The threat of international terrorism is real, and we fool ourselves if we think that we can somehow wish it away—we cannot.

I agree with the view, which is shared by the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks sensibly and sanely on these matters, that we cannot succeed in our mission in Afghanistan purely by the use of military force. But nor can we succeed without it, and the responsibility that rests on me and others is to ensure that, in the discharge of that role, which is vital for UK national security, we have the right balance of forces with the right equipment to allow the men and women who serve this country so bravely in Afghanistan the best prospect of succeeding in what we all accept is an arduous and difficult campaign.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Will the Secretary of State clarify the circumstances in which we would contemplate sending more British troops? Last week, the Foreign Secretary referred to a “strategic stalemate”
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that appeared to rule out any more British troops going. From the beginning, rather a small number of western troops have been trying to overcome a large country and stabilise a large population. Is it not rather odd to congratulate the Americans and urge Europeans to send more troops but seemingly rule out any more British troops going? Are there any circumstances in which we would send more, or are we driving a hard bargain? If it is the latter, will the Secretary of State build on the statements made by him and others that military action needs to be accompanied by a political plan?

Mr. Hutton: I do not think that the problem in Afghanistan has been the lack of a plan. There is a carefully set out strategic plan for succeeding in the counter-insurgency campaign. It has a military and security component, to which the UK is making an important contribution, and there is also a clear economic plan involving reconstruction, social development and political progress in cementing support across Afghanistan for the new democracy. We have a comprehensive approach.

When it comes to Europe and others, we are right to be critical of the NATO effort and response in Afghanistan. It falls short of what is necessary on specific matters such as combat forces or even the mentoring and training role, in which there is an obvious deficiency in the support that we are providing the Afghan army and police. It is important to keep in mind the fact that there are 25,000 NATO troops deployed in Afghanistan, which is a not inconsiderable effort. We do damage to the alliance if we tend to dismiss that, and we should never damage the coherence of the NATO alliance. However, we need more, which is reflected in the recent US decision to improve troop levels.

We have never ruled out additional troop deployments in Afghanistan. The decision on whether we deploy is taken on the advice of our commanders about the specific capabilities that they need. We have made no secret of the fact that there is currently a serious threat to us from improvised explosive devices. We have attempted to respond to it, and we need to do more to counter that threat, which now accounts for 80 per cent. of our casualties. It is not the case that we are not prepared to do more—we might be. We will act on the basis of the advice that we receive from our own commanders and from our NATO allies.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): As President Karzai says that there is now no resting place for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, as the head of MI5 says that our military presence there increases the danger of terrorism in Britain, and as the bombing of Pashtuns and their women and children greatly radicalises Pakistan, what is the continuing justification for sacrificing more British lives in this unwinnable war?

Mr. Hutton: I reject the hon. Gentleman’s defeatism, which has no place in this House. The logic for UK deployment in Afghanistan is very clear, and I have tried to set it out today and on previous occasions. The real threat that the UK faces is not the risk of state warfare but the risk that emanates from failed states such as Afghanistan that, as we know from recent experience, have provided a safe haven for international terrorists who mean us harm and who have done everything that they possibly can to acquire the capabilities to
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inflict serious harm upon us. The idea that we can simply leave Afghanistan to its own devices is a counsel of total despair, and would sacrifice the genuine interests of the security of our country.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): While I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces in Afghanistan for the tremendous work that they are doing, does he agree with the US envoy Ambassador Holbrooke that the current situation in Afghanistan is a mess?

Mr. Hutton: Ambassador Holbrooke will choose his own words to describe the situation in Afghanistan; I would not use those words myself. There has been progress in Afghanistan in recent years. We have not prevailed in the campaign against the insurgency—that is stating the bleedingly obvious—but it is an error to describe the past few years as having resulted in no progress. We have denied the opportunity for Afghanistan to be a haven for terrorism and there is a democracy there now that is making small steps towards progress. The very significant service and sacrifice of the British armed forces has played a significant role in allowing us to make that progress.

However, I agree strongly with Ambassador Holbrooke that there is an obvious case for NATO to do more to improve security conditions on the ground and for the Afghan Government to respond to the effort that our people are making to consolidate security, with progress at a domestic political and economic level. There has been too little of that in the past few years.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that, despite the dismal performance of too many of our NATO allies, in many respects, the command structure is at fault? Does he agree that too many countries are pursuing their own objectives in Afghanistan outside the main plan and that the command chain needs to be pulled into a much tighter focus?

Mr. Hutton: The two major operations in Afghanistan are that of the international security assistance force and Operation Enduring Freedom. I believe that there is homogeneity of command structures in ISAF, and that is useful. There is a debate between regional and provincial command, which needs to be properly aired and thrashed out. However, the detail of the command structure arises from military commanders’ advice, and politicians should tread warily when it comes to the detail of military command arrangements.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The general consensus on Afghanistan in the House has put the United Kingdom in a strong position in NATO. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if there is to be further British deployment in Afghanistan, four criteria must be met? First, there must be a clear and achievable political mission to support the military mission, as was the case with the surge in Iraq, but that does not currently exist in Afghanistan. Secondly, governance in Afghanistan, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts. Thirdly, as has been said, all NATO allies should be asked to take a fairer share because too many are shamefully failing to do that. Fourthly, any increase in troop numbers must be matched by a proportionate and appropriate increase in equipment such as helicopters and armoured vehicles.

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Mr. Hutton: I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We would not deploy additional forces to Afghanistan unless they had the right equipment to do their job properly. He has rightly drawn attention to the small number of helicopters that are available to support ISAF. We are working on that, as are our NATO partners and allies. The French-UK helicopter initiative is a small step in the right direction—it has yet to produce significant new assets but I hope that it will do soon.

Although I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, I caution him about drawing too many parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. They are two very different countries, with very different security situations.

Dr. Fox: The Secretary of State will know that, over the weekend, reports in the press gave detailed information about the life-changing injuries that some of our troops in Afghanistan have sustained. Will he take the opportunity, relatively early in his time in office, to review the way in which the Ministry of Defence publishes statistics, so that we can have a full and transparent picture of the sacrifices that are being made on our behalf? The British public, our armed forces and their families deserve no less, and are far more able to deal with unpleasant truth than with what many may perceive as half-truths and evasions.

Mr. Hutton: I agree that transparency in the figures is important. Every fortnight, we publish a series of figures, which show the extent of injuries and wounds to service personnel in active theatres. It is not therefore fair or reasonable to criticise the MOD for failing to provide an accurate scorecard on what is happening. We do not have a category of “life-changing injuries”. Neither the statisticians nor the services have identified that as a meaningful definition. However, we publish comprehensive fortnightly data, which deal with the extent of injuries and wounds. I am happy to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that, if he wishes.

Armed Forces Personnel

2. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South) (Lab): Whether his Department plans to offer (a) financial support and (b) advice to armed forces personnel returning to the UK specific to circumstances caused by the economic downturn. [257880]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): Financial guidance is available to service personnel in establishments throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. However, recognising the particular demands of service life, the Ministry of Defence and the Financial Services Authority are working together to deliver a programme of seminars for service personnel to help them to become more aware and confident in dealing with their personal finances. The programme’s implementation is flexible to allow targeting of units returning from overseas tours.

Mr. Marsden: I thank the Under-Secretary for his response and I warmly welcome his emphasis on the transition to UK—and, in many cases, civilian—life. That echoes what he recently told me and other members of the all-party group on veterans.

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There is a particular need to focus on the needs of service personnel who return to the UK without strong family links or, indeed, any family to which to turn for such assistance. I have heard that from voluntary organisations in my constituency. May I ask my hon. Friend and his officials to work closely with the Secretaries of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills and for Work and Pensions to identify ways in which military personnel can particularly benefit from their services and assistance?

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that support. Some of those issues are already being addressed in the service personnel Command Paper. However, if there are instances where the MOD should be working with other Departments to improve the position not only of those who are in service, but of those making the transition into civilian life, I am prepared to look into them and to meet any Members with suggestions about that.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I know that the Minister is conscious of the support needed for servicemen, but will he give an undertaking to ensure that the families of service personnel who are serving on long deployments, whether in the Royal Navy or in the other forces deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, are also given proper advice at this time? One of the problems faced by servicemen currently serving abroad is that their families may have got into problems in this difficult time. I would like an assurance—and, I am sure, so would the House—that such advice will also be forthcoming to partners and families of service personnel.

Mr. Jones: I pay tribute to the service families, who are doing a vital job in supporting the men and women in theatre. The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Welfare and financial support are available through the HIVE—help information volunteer exchanges—system. In addition, there is work under way with service charities such as the Royal British Legion, which, along with the RAF Benevolent Fund, has just launched a programme of support for welfare advice workers in citizens advice bureaux, which are giving support for families and those in service. However, I would like again to put on record our thanks to those families.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): One of the biggest concerns that service personnel have when they return is that they and their families may face a year-long wait on the housing list. Will the Minister consider discussing with local authorities throughout the country the possibility of prioritising personnel returning from abroad—some local authorities do that, but not all?

Mr. Jones: One of the out-turns of the service personnel Command Paper is to allow service families to get local recognition of where they are based, if they want to stay in that area. My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Later this year, I and ministerial colleagues from the Department will make a series of regional visits. One of my visits will involve meeting local authorities and other agencies to reinforce some of those issues, so that servicemen and women and their families are not disadvantaged by their local system.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The very high morale of soldiers and sailors returning from theatres of war will be witnessed by all those who are able to see the 7th Armoured Brigade coming through
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Carriage Gates at 3.45 this afternoon, after defence questions. However, does the Minister agree that unless proper advice on financial matters and the welfare packages available is given to soldiers and sailors at home, that morale in the field will be fundamentally undermined? It is vital that we keep the home end going, if we are to keep the fighting morale of our soldiers out there going.

Mr. Jones: First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and other members of the all-party group on the Army for arranging this afternoon’s event? I and other ministerial colleagues will be there to support the event. He raises a vital point. It is important that we support families, because when people are on operations, they think about their families back home being taken care of. One thing that I am working on, which will be announced later this year, is a welfare pathway, which is intended to look not only at support for families and servicemen when they are in service, but at how they make the transition to civilian life. We should not forget that we have a duty of care to servicemen and women not just when they are in service, but when they leave.

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