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House of Commons

Monday 2 November 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-

Territorial Army

1. Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): What role the Territorial Army has played in Afghanistan since 2001. [296681]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Before I answer that question, I am sure the whole House will want to join with me in paying tribute to Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, who died over the weekend in Afghanistan. He was a man of great courage and dedication, and the thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.

The Territorial Army has made a vital contribution to operations in Afghanistan since 2001. It has worked with, and supported, our regular forces in a wide variety of roles, such as acting as medics and trainers, and providing force protection and combat support.

Martin Linton: May I join the Secretary of State in paying my respects, and will he join me in paying tribute to the London Regiment, which has served with great distinction in Afghanistan in 2007, and is due to go out again next year? Does he agree that the TA has come into its own in recent years because of the knowledge, experience and maturity that it brings to sensitive operations? Did he take that into account in reaching his sensible decision last week to continue full-scale training of the TA?

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend about the contribution that has been made by the TA over time, and about the skills-niche skills-and maturity that members of the TA can bring to our operational theatres. As he says, the London brigade is the lead cohort for infantry for Herrick 12 next year. Altogether, 130 men will be mobilised on 16 November. I thank that brigade for the part it will play in organising that deployment.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Now that the "one Army" concept has been, at the very least, severely damaged by the decisions of the regular generals last week, how does the Secretary of State believe it will feed through to retention rates within the TA? Has he considered
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another blow to morale-to all those small employers who have supported so generously their personnel going off on active duty?

Mr. Ainsworth: I hear what the hon. Lady says about the attitude of the regulars towards the reserves, but I do not think that it is fair at all. There were tough choices to be made, and in-year savings had to be found. They were not in any way easy to find, and they certainly were not easy to find among the regulars. It would be wrong for us to attempt to increase any feelings that there might be between the territorials and the regulars.

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North) (Lab): In considering the role of the TA as well as the regular Army in Afghanistan, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that armies understand-they do not necessarily have to agree-precisely what their role is? Does he also agree that there is now considerable ambiguity in Afghanistan, especially following the withdrawal of Abdullah Abdullah from the presidential election, and that there is a need for the international community to build a new consensus on the way forward, which should include all the regional power groups in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree that the politics need to advance a long way in Afghanistan. Abdullah Abdullah's decision to withdraw, and the decision taken this morning by the electoral commission to accept that there is therefore no need for a second round, point up the difficulties we have in this area, but they are also welcome, because there was no point in a second round when the decision had effectively been taken.

I must say to my hon. Friend that I have talked to troops in theatre, and they know that they are not the answer in Afghanistan-there has to be a political answer-but they clearly know what their role is. They know that they are a force for good, and they know the work they are doing, and they do not allow themselves to be distracted from it by the political problems that they see and understand.

2. Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): What plans he has for the future of the Territorial Army. [296682]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The overall strategic direction of the reserve forces was set by the strategic review of the reserves, a copy of which was placed in the Library of the House on 28 April 2009. This overall direction, and the Government's commitment to the reserve forces, including the TA, remains unchanged.

Mr. Dunne: As the Secretary of State has just confirmed, the Government's strategic review of Britain's reserve forces was published barely six months ago. What part of it recommended cutting 30 per cent. of the TA's budget?

Mr. Ainsworth: I cannot recall to what degree the hon. Gentleman engaged with the discussions that we had at the time that we published that review, but it was a strategic review that laid a framework for the future of our reserve forces. It acknowledged the funding issues that would have to be dealt with separately. Just because
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there were and are resource constraints, it does not mean that we should stop people doing the necessary thinking that needs to take place about the strategic direction of the reserve. Yes, some of the implementation will have to wait until resources are available and will have to stand in line for resources, along with the Department's other priorities.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the common-sense decision to reverse the cut. Can we now look to the future, and will he use his good offices to rebuild the trust between the TA and Land Forces, and ensure that we never see any future cuts of that sort?

Mr. Ainsworth: I will seek to do what my hon. Friend says, but I have to say that Defence faces tough choices. As I said the other week and repeat again today, in the present circumstances I am unashamed about the fact that Afghanistan is my top priority. If that means that we have to push more resources in that direction, we will seek to do so. Inevitably, that means that other things will have to be brought forward to pay for that increased priority.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Last week's U-turn leaves unfinished business, which the Secretary of State ducked during Wednesday's debate about the TA. His silence on in-year cuts to the Army cadets and the Officer Training Corps, leaked in his Department's 12 October memo, was deafening. Does he not recognise that penny-pinching in relation to the cadets puts high-quality TA and regular recruitment at risk? What effect does he think that that will have downstream on our ability to support current and future operations?

Mr. Ainsworth: Where is the clarity about the decisions that would have to be taken by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues? They criticise everything that is done, but are not prepared or able to say what they would do. Tough choices need to be taken, and if people are trying to present themselves as capable of governing, they have to be prepared-as the shadow Chancellor knows-to take those choices. It is clear that the shadow Defence team are not.

Reserve Forces

3. Sir Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of the adequacy of training facilities for the reserve forces; and if he will make a statement. [296683]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): We have adequate training facilities for the reserve forces, but they are not organised in the most efficient way. That is why, as part of ongoing efficiency work, we are seeking to identify several rationalisation measures.

Sir Peter Viggers: When I asked a written question last week about the future of the Browndown training facility in my constituency, I was told that there was a review of operations and several rationalisation measures had been identified. If rationalisation means the closure or restricted use of training facilities, it would have a
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devastating effect on cadet and reserve activity. What future can we look to for cadets in particular, as they are so important for future recruitment?

Bill Rammell: I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a real interest in this issue within his constituency. I do not believe that his statement that the rationalisation measures will have a devastating effect will be borne out by the evidence. It is a reality that as a part of ongoing efficiency work and a Department-wide exercise to deliver savings, we have conducted a review of operations and identified several rationalisation measures. Browndown camp has been included in that review, and while at this stage no firm decision on the future of the facility has yet been taken, I can give him the reassurance that whatever our eventual decision is, it is anticipated that parts of Browndown, in particular the dry training area, will continue to be used.

RAF Search and Rescue

4. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What his plans are for the future of RAF search and rescue bases in the UK; and if he will make a statement. [296684]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): The Government remain committed to 24/7 search and rescue cover across the UK. I have recently instructed planned crew reductions to be reversed to ensure that the first-class service that the RAF provides can continue to be sustained. We are aiming for the changes to be in place by early summer 2010. In the meantime, to avoid excessive strain on the force and to manage resources better, a programme of planned, rotating and temporary night closures will be necessary while we train the additional crews. The harmonised search and rescue helicopter service will continue to be provided from 12 UK bases.

Sir Alan Beith: I welcome the Minister's decision to reverse a mistaken earlier decision to cut the number of crews. Given the number of occasions on which RAF Boulmer's search and rescue has been put out of action, because of either 12-hour operation or failures, will he give considerable attention to the need to maintain full 24-hour cover wherever possible, and can he tell us what implications that has for the privatisation contract?

Bill Rammell: We intend to continue with the PFI project for search and rescue, which will provide an effective way forward. A decision was taken last year that we could operate on the basis of 24 crews. As soon as it became clear to me that that was not possible, I immediately instructed that we move back up to 28 crews, which I know the right hon. Gentleman welcomed. I also know that he and a number of other Members have particular concerns about the issue. It is extremely complicated, but as I said to him when we spoke on Friday, I shall be more than happy in the next week to arrange a meeting to discuss it.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): How many search and rescue aircraft are operationally available today, and what is the shortfall in the number of pilots required?

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Bill Rammell: I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact figure immediately following questions. The original decision was to move from 28 crews down to 24. We are at 26 crews today, but I have reversed that decision and we will go back up to 28. However, even where there is an ad hoc closure at one of the bases, we meet our response times by providing search and rescue from a neighbouring base.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I welcome what the Minister said about the short-term measures that he is taking, but will he clarify the situation post-2012? Is it still his intention that three of the 12 bases will run on a 12-hour basis, not on a 24-hour basis? There is grave concern in the south-west, where people simply cannot understand why, if three bases are to run on a 12-hour basis, two of them-Portland and Chivenor-should run contiguously, leaving Culdrose to cover the Atlantic, the English channel, the Bristol channel, the south-west peninsula and Wales.

Bill Rammell: The answer is yes. We still intend to operate three of the bases on a 12-hour basis post-2012. We have been able to reach that conclusion because since we started the process, the industry solutions available have meant faster helicopters and faster response times. However, as I said earlier, I recognise the detailed concern about the issue, and I will include the hon. Gentleman in the meeting that I shall organise very shortly.


5. Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the internal and external threats to the military security of Afghanistan. [296685]

10. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the internal and external threats to the military security of Afghanistan. [296690]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): In Afghanistan, the threat is from the Taliban-led insurgency, which continues to rely on the use of improvised explosive devices against our forces. That is why this year we have deployed 200 specialist counter-IED troops, together with new equipment, including vehicles, and increased flying hours for unmanned aerial vehicles, to find and defuse mines, and IEDs and to identify and target the networks that produce them. Regionally, the activity of violent extremists in Pakistan is a threat to both wider security and Afghanistan itself. More widely, the international community has trained more than 90,000 Afghan troops. The new Afghan national army will establish its headquarters in Helmand next year to take part in operations in partnership with units from the international security assistance force. Finally, the commander of ISAF, General McChrystal, has said that the military security situation in Afghanistan is serious, but that we can succeed.

Mr. Hands: The Secretary of State will have seen from press reports at the weekend that the most senior British Army officer killed in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, wrote to his superiors just
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before he died warning that the shortage of helicopters would cost lives, as more journeys would have to be taken by road. He said that the system for managing helicopter movements was

Why is that?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman will have seen and heard, I hope, the Chief of the Defence Staff on the television at the weekend explaining the helicopter situation and saying what I have said in the House repeatedly, which is that helicopters are not a panacea. Yes, any commander would like more helicopters, but people plan operations on the basis of the equipment that they have. I also have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I spent the weekend listening to one of his hon. Friends telling the world about how we could have more helicopters in theatre by Christmas, as provided by one of his mates. He cannot be a very close mate, because I do not think that he gave him the detail.

Mr. Hollobone: Given that our troops in theatre clearly find it difficult to work with the Afghan national police, because of issues of corruption and the ANP's close links with the Taliban, and given that our NATO allies the Germans are meant to be sorting out the ANP, does the Secretary of State think that the Germans are going far enough or fast enough to address the problem?

Mr. Ainsworth: The development of the Afghan national police is a serious long-term issue that has to be addressed. Yes, the Germans are the lead nation in that regard, but we all need to make a contribution. The progress that has been made with regard to the Afghan national army needs to be speeded up. We can do that through partnering and we can get to a position where the Afghan national army is increasingly able to look after security in its country. But the population will depend on a non-corrupt police force, so effort has to be put in that direction, and it has to be led by the Afghan Government themselves. Those are the things that we need to be saying to the new Afghan Administration.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the continued risking of British troops' lives in Afghanistan will be contingent on an acceptance from the obviously corrupt President Karzai of a significant dispersal of power away from him?

Mr. Ainsworth: Now that we at last have an end to this election period, we need to prevail on the Afghan Government to be inclusive, to build good governance in the various different parts of the country-we have seen the benefit of that in Helmand province, where we have had a good governor for some time-and to tackle the very deep levels of corruption in Afghanistan. Unless the Afghan people can see a Government who are of benefit to them, all the efforts of our brave forces will not get us very far. That has to be the main focus of our effort and that of our allies.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): What progress has my right hon. Friend made in removing the restrictions on the Gibraltar Regiment's deployment to Afghanistan so that it may be allowed to play its full and proper part?

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