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2 Nov 2009 : Column 563

Mr. Ainsworth: I think that in the very near future we will be able to make an announcement that my hon. Friend will be pleased with.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Like many other Members, I have been travelling here through the day, so I was slightly taken by surprise when the Secretary of State referred to the election period as being over. Perhaps I have missed the lunch time news. [Hon. Members: "Yes, you have."] Mr. Speaker, we will all be very relieved that British troops' lives are not being risked to enable us to go through the absurdity of a Soviet-style election with one candidate.

Last week's Nimrod report is of significance in Afghanistan because we have been using Nimrod assets there a great deal for the security of our services. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the lessons will be learned from the last strategic defence review, and that the Nimrod system will not be in the turmoil that it was found to have been in previously?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman has missed the news that the electoral commission has announced that in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with Abdullah Abdullah having withdrawn from the race, there is no need for a second round. That in itself will be good news to our forces in Afghanistan.

With regard to the Nimrod, the fault was found with our airworthiness systems in the MOD, and we will have to look at the detail of the report. I gave the House a commitment that I would come back to it before the Christmas recess with the lessons that we have learned, and with our plans for how to deal with the recommendations of the report.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The whole House, including the Liberal Democrats, will be glad that the farce of a run-off election in Afghanistan with a single candidate has been averted, because to have put our troops at risk to secure an election process with only one possible outcome would have been an obscenity.

The Prime Minister said on 13 July that the extra British troop deployment was until the end of the Afghan election period. When he phoned President Karzai today to congratulate him, did they discuss troop numbers? When will we get a clear statement of the Government's intentions?

Mr. Ainsworth: The Prime Minister has already announced, a week or two ago, that we would extend the additional troops that we put in for the election period and make them permanent. We have also announced, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, that, if certain conditions are met, we will agree to a further troop uplift of another 500 troops, taking us to 9,500.

Dr. Fox: I hoped that we might get some clarity here. The Government recently stated that a further potential troop uplift would be to augment the mission, improve the protection for our armed forces and speed up the training of the Afghan national army. The Government then applied conditions, including an increased commitment from European NATO members. As the Bratislava meeting last week made it clear that they will not make that commitment, how long will the Government allow that issue to be a smokescreen for inaction? If their reasons-the safety of our forces and the success of the mission-are so compelling, why the delay?

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Mr. Ainsworth: It is not a smokescreen at all. The hon. Gentleman ought to welcome the fact that we are not prepared to put in the further troops until we can satisfy ourselves that the equipment levels are adequate for the increased force, or until we have had an opportunity to talk in detail to all our allies, including the United States of America, about what contribution they are making. Heaven knows there are people on the hon. Gentleman's side-including the hon. Gentleman himself-who complain all the time about burden sharing. Now, here we are, trying to talk to people about their own burden and their preparedness to put forces into Afghanistan, yet he wants us to say, "Let's forget about that and put the extra troops in now." That really is nonsense.

Dr. Fox: The lack of clarity in the Government's position will be extremely worrying for our forces. Let me try another angle. It is becoming increasingly clear that a major threat to our security comes from Pakistan. Given the apparent discovery in Waziristan last week of passports and documents relating to the Madrid train bombers and the 9/11 hijackers, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind the House and the country that our military mission in Afghanistan and the actions being taken in Pakistan are primarily about national security, and that reconstruction and development, while complementary, are not the reason why our troops are in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman: I have never tried to suggest otherwise. The reason why we keep our troops in Afghanistan is directly and primarily associated with our national security and our national interests. What the Pakistanis are doing on their side of the border is obviously complementary to that. We should help them where they are prepared to accept assistance, and congratulate them on the headway that they have made and their greater preparedness to take on terrorists in their own country.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State had a chance to ask his Dutch and Canadian colleagues whether they are prepared to reconsider their decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: At the recent informal NATO meeting, I discussed Afghanistan with my Canadian counterpart and the Dutch Defence Minister. As my hon. Friend knows, they both have plans to reduce their commitment: the Dutch in 2010 and the Canadians in 2011. I am hopeful that they will continue to do the maximum that they feel able to do, but I have to say to my hon. Friend that I did not get the level of comfort that I would have liked from either of those two colleagues at that meeting.

Gray Report

6. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What changes are planned to be made to the practices and processes within his Department in light of the recent Gray report on defence acquisition. [296686]

7. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): What steps he plans to take to reform the practices and processes of his Department in response to the Gray report on defence acquisition. [296687]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State set out in his oral statement to the House of 19 October a number of steps that we will take, in the light of the Gray report, to build on earlier and current reforms and to deliver a radical improvement in performance. Building on this, we intend to publish a wider, more detailed strategy for acquisition reform in the new year.

Paul Rowen: I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he not accept that the Gray report shows the need for an immediate strategic defence review? Will that be enshrined in law, and will we now get the 10-year and 20-year rolling equipment budgets that the report recommends?

Mr. Davies: We were already committed, before the publication of the Gray review, to a strategic defence review, which will start next year. We are undertaking quite a lot of preparatory work for that now.

Willie Rennie: The Minister will have seen reports about the joint strike fighter and the aircraft carriers. Can he confirm whether those reports are accurate, and whether they will result in a reduction in aircraft, a reduction in the specification for the aircraft carriers, or both? In the context of the Gray report, does the Minister think that any such changes would represent value for money?

Mr. Speaker: Order. There were at least two questions there, but I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that one answer will suffice.

Mr. Davies: I am delighted to have the opportunity to say quite clearly on the record that the reports to which the hon. Gentleman refers are complete rubbish. There is no suggestion-it has never been in our minds at all-to re-specify either of the two aircraft carriers. There has been no change in that programme, and neither has there been any change in our joint strike fighter programme. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are already committed to purchasing the first three aircraft.

Lynda Waltho (Stourbridge) (Lab): As the Gray report refers to major procurement activities, will the Minister tell me, and the House, what recent discussions he has had with commanders on the ground about the effectiveness of personal protection equipment for our troops in theatre-such as the Stourbridge war hero, 19-year-old Michelle Norris, who risked her life and was the first woman to gain the military cross for her work?

Mr. Davies: She was a particularly gallant lady, providing a wonderful and inspiring example to us all. The answer to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to raise this matter, is that we attempt to achieve the very best in personal protection, the very best in the latest techniques to counter improvised explosive devices, the very best armoured and protected vehicles for our troops, the very best in communications equipment and the very best in personal equipment. So far as personal equipment is concerned, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that we now have the new Osprey assault armour-the latest version of it. The Osprey was brought in only two
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or three years ago-it was then the best of its time-and now we have the Osprey assault and the new mark 7 helmet. The latest roulement of troops out to Afghanistan a month ago were carrying that new armour, in respect of which they had undertaken pre-deployment training. Our principle in supplying Afghanistan with kit is a continuous pipeline of improvement, and the best available that money can buy at any point.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): Page 38 of Bernard Gray's report says that

Does the Minister agree?

Mr. Davies: Of course I noticed that rather startling figure when I read the Gray report myself. The right hon. Gentleman, who has obviously read the report, will also have noticed that there is no evidential basis for that statement anywhere in it, nor is there an evidential basis for it anywhere else that I have ever come across. The very fact that the figure ranges between £1 billion and more than £2 billion shows, I think, how imprecise that statement inevitably is.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend have plans to reduce elements in the procurement programme to match the number of personnel to oversee that programme and the resources to implement it?

Mr. Davies: We continue to keep our equipment programme under constant review. The whole purpose of having an equipment programme-this is my job-is to ensure that it is managed on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis so that it is coherent, and so that we can make such changes as are required as a result of changing operational or other priorities. At any one time, of course, it must also be affordable. We can spend only the money we have in any one year, and we always meet our contractual liabilities. This programme is constantly under review and constantly under management. There is no question of suddenly taking one decision and viewing it as valid for all time.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Government's stewardship of the defence of the realm has suffered two damning indictments in two weeks-the Gray report and also the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod. In considering how to respond to the devastating criticism contained in the Bernard Gray report, will the Government ensure that the lessons in the Haddon-Cave report on the Nimrod are also fully learned so that the welfare of our armed forces is given priority over cost-cutting in the Ministry of Defence?

Mr. Davies: In the light of the hon. Gentleman's concern-he is trying to make a party political point-I think he has fundamentally misunderstood something important: the Haddon-Cave report, although it produced some very serious and worrying conclusions, is focused on the issue of airworthiness, whereas the Gray report is entirely about procurement. Clearly, we take into account in our procurement reforms-about which I have already made a statement-any relevant conclusions from the Haddon-Cave report, but the prime issue in that report is the procedures for delivering airworthiness certificates for our aircraft.

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8. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South) (Lab): What steps the Government have taken to respond to requests from military commanders for additional troops in Afghanistan made in 2009. [296688]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): In April this year, after considering options in consultation with the service chiefs, we announced an uplift in force levels to 9,000 for the period of the election in Afghanistan. The Prime Minister confirmed on 14 October that we had agreed to maintain UK troops at that level beyond the election period.

We have also agreed in principle a new force level of 9,500, which will be put into effect subject to the following conditions: first, that the new Afghan Government bring forward the Afghan troops to be trained and to fight alongside our forces; secondly, that our commitment is part of an agreed approach and burden sharing across the international coalition; and thirdly, that military commanders are satisfied that the extra troops are properly equipped for what they are being asked to do.

In all, that means that, in principle, we have increased our troop numbers by about 1,500 in just over six months.

Nigel Griffiths: Does that increase mean that the Government are now complying fully with military advice on the correct level of troops to tackle the current tasks in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: Yes.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The Secretary of State spoke of the requirement for the extra troops to be properly equipped. Is he saying, in effect, that he has received no offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: I have received lots of offers of extra helicopters for Afghanistan. What I have not received is an offer for what was described over the weekend as the ability, for the sum of £7 million a month, of about 20 Chinooks to ferry our troops around.

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): That is not correct.

Mr. Ainsworth: That is what was said on the television by the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who is now remonstrating with me from a sedentary position. We do have, and we will assess, offers of helicopters for logistics and supplies. If any Member wants to encourage someone to put in a bid for a new contract in that regard, we shall be happy to evaluate it, but the idea that we can secure additional lift for our troops in the way that our nation was told we could at the weekend is total, complete and utter nonsense.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend add a fourth condition to the three that he listed-that there should be substantial progress in the elimination of corruption at the centre in Afghanistan and in Kandahar province? Will he bear in mind that any further measures relating to presidential elections will be a pointless and dangerous exercise until that progress is made?

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Mr. Speaker: Again, one answer to the two questions will do.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with my hon. Friend that it is essential for the Afghan Government to address the issue of corruption and governance, and to reach out to the whole of the Afghan population as well.

9. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What is his most recent assessment of the progress of military operations in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [296689]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We continue to work with the Afghan national security forces and ISAF partners to bring security to the Afghan people. In Helmand, the Afghan Government and security forces now have an increasingly permanent presence in the population centres where it matters most, and progress in military operations ultimately contributes to the international civilian reconstruction and development effort.

Mr. Swayne: Given the large and worrying number of people who say that they do not understand why our forces are in Afghanistan, does the Secretary of State acknowledge that there is a need to define the mission better, and to propagandise it?

Mr. Ainsworth: I think we all need to share responsibility for that, and to help in any way we can. As I have said-and I do not think that any member of any of the three parties, including Back Benchers, disagrees with me-our presence in Afghanistan can be justified only by a threat to our national security, and the overwhelming importance that the region has for our national interests here in the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): Given my right hon. Friend's acknowledgement of the importance of building civilian and military capacity across Pakistan, will he assure me that he is satisfied that the large and increasing number of civilians working in Afghanistan are provided with the appropriate level of security by private security companies and the Afghan army, and that it is of a standard with which our military commanders are also satisfied?

Mr. Ainsworth: The level of threat in Afghanistan is a very real problem for civilians trying to operate in that country. There are, of course, circumstances in which private military companies can and do provide the necessary level of security, and our forces are more than happy not to have that burden themselves.

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