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House of Commons

Monday 11 January 2010

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked-

National Security

1. Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Whether his Department's forthcoming Green Paper will include an assessment of the contribution to national security of the UK's EU and transatlantic relationships. [309564]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): Effective international partnerships are crucial to our security as a nation and we will benefit from strengthening multilateral and bilateral co-operation. We expect to build further on both our European Union and transatlantic relationships. Those who think that it is a choice misunderstand where our interests lie. The EU, NATO and our bilateral relationships are complementary one to another. The Green Paper will address that issue.

Chris Ruane: The world faces threats from global terrorism, global warming and global poverty. Those international issues require international solutions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK's defence is best served by strong alliances with mainstream parties in Europe, not with those on the lunatic fringe?

Mr. Ainsworth: Totally. Those who believe that the EU has no effective role to play in our security, of whom there appear to be some in the House, really miss the point. As I said, the EU is complementary to our other alliances and relationships and can play a very significant part in our security. We should welcome that and build those relationships.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Although I agree with the burden of what the Secretary of State says, it is nevertheless true that because of the European Union's poverty of ambition and its disorganisation, it needs to be directed towards the military operations for which it is equipped and in which it is able to take part. Does he agree that stabilisation operations are ideal for the EU, but that we need to look to NATO for the serious war-fighting operations?

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but not exclusively. The EU can play a role. We should not build concrete alternative structures,
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but what the EU can do and is doing should be complementary to NATO. After all, most of its members are also members of NATO. I was at fleet command in Northwood only a few days ago, where the EU is working well with NATO on anti-piracy and making a real contribution.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): Although the transatlantic relationship will obviously remain our most important alliance, does the Secretary of State agree that in the 21st century the Americans will increasingly look towards the Pacific and less towards the Atlantic? Will the Green Paper offer an opportunity to reappraise the military relationship with some of our key European partners and move it on to a scale that we have not seen in the past?

Mr. Ainsworth: Our bilateral relationship with the United States is, as the hon. Gentleman said, the most important security and defence relationship that we have and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. However, no serious people in the US expect us to do anything other than build good working relationships with our European neighbours and the European Union. They see that as a positive thing, so there is no competition in that regard, as some people appear to think there is or should be.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Given the state of the defence budget, the fact that we are fighting a war and the possible danger of duplication by investing sums of money in European alternatives to NATO defence structures, what possible justification can there be for spending any significant sums at all on the duplicatory European defence capability?

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman would have to explain exactly where we have done that and where there has not been effect from European Union involvement in the operations that it has undertaken. As I said, I recently visited fleet command, where we have run Operation Atalanta without any structures and without building any unnecessary bureaucracy. We have got that operation up and running in pretty short order, under a European flag and co-operating with NATO. Why is his party so totally opposed to such effective operations?

Force Levels (Afghanistan)

2. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had on the contributions of NATO and other allies to force levels in Afghanistan. [309565]

8. Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on their contributions to coalition forces in Afghanistan. [309572]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): We continue to press our international security assistance force allies to share more of the burden in Afghanistan. We will encourage a focus on what they can realistically deliver, including military and non-military assets and other contributions.

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Rosie Cooper: Will the Secretary of State indicate in a little more detail how the London conference could be used to ensure greater military and political burden sharing across the alliance?

Mr. Ainsworth: There has already been a significant response to General McChrystal's requests for additional forces for Afghanistan, and we are getting pretty close to the number that he asked for. Of course, we will try to address burden sharing even more to ascertain how people can co-operate and help one another and the contribution that they are capable of making. As I have said in the House previously, not all our partners can make the contributions that others can, but there are things that they can and should do to help. There will be other issues to address at the NATO conference, such as trying to get a framework for transition and maintaining momentum and progress in Afghanistan, but burden sharing will be an important part of the discussions.

Andrew Gwynne: For those NATO countries that either do not contribute troops or do so with restrictive caveats, what other forms of assistance are being requested, such as police training, money and development professionals? What are those countries pledging?

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): Not a lot.

Mr. Ainsworth: I heard "Not a lot" from a sedentary position. We are approaching the figure of 40,000 additional troops that General McChrystal requested. The Americans have overwhelmingly provided them and we have made a substantial contribution, but so have other partners-it is wrong to deny that. The countries to which my hon. Friend refers are providing all the things that he mentioned, such as money-sometimes nations have the ability to make a military contribution in Afghanistan but cannot finance it, so bringing different partners together to try to help finance things that others are prepared to do is another aspect of burden sharing that we are encouraging and getting into in detail with some of our allies.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that it has taken considerable courage for an Arab country such as the United Arab Emirates to play the role that it plays in Afghanistan? What moves is he making to encourage other Muslim countries to take part in Afghanistan?

Mr. Ainsworth: We welcome all contributions and I agree that it is a brave but appropriate decision to support our operations in Afghanistan. If we can get Muslim countries involved in the Afghan operations, that will be a real boon, so we will do anything and everything we can to widen the coalition as well as seeking appropriate support from those who are already part of it.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Is it not becoming increasingly obvious that some NATO alliance members, particularly in mainland Europe, will not risk the lives of their soldiers for anything but their national defence? At what point should we as a nation start to reassess the principles of article 5?

Mr. Ainsworth: There are some of our allies who take a different view of what they can contribute and what they ought properly to contribute to those operations. We have tried to give them as many opportunities as
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possible to make a contribution. Many have seized it, and although it is not often in the form of force capability that can do the job in Helmand province, those matters are and will continue to be discussed in NATO.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Our armed forces value political consensus on Afghanistan when possible, so let me begin the new year on that basis. Counter-insurgency is about protecting the population. It requires a better force-to-population ratio than we currently have in Helmand province-that is why the expected uplift of American and Afghan troops is welcome. Britain is currently responsible for two thirds of the population in Helmand, with only one third of coalition troop strength. Does the Secretary of State agree that that has to change? Would it not be sensible to have a better equalisation of troop densities as the number of US troops in Helmand increases?

Mr. Ainsworth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and I welcome and agree with his comments. As Major-General Nick Carter, who commands the whole of Regional Command South in Afghanistan, has said, he has already had an additional 20,000 troops. He will receive another 21,000 troops and it would be strange indeed if he were not considering how to balance the force in areas in the south. That is primarily a military decision. No decisions have been made yet, but it is appropriate that he looks at the matter.

Dr. Fox: Further to that, does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be a rebalance between UK and US areas of responsibility, even if that might mean concentrating Task Force Helmand's assets into a smaller geographical area in central Helmand? Does he agree that that should be interpreted not in any way as a downgrading of the UK effort, but as representing a better match between resources and commitments? It is essential that the UK play a full role in Afghanistan, including a full military role, but one that is proportionate to our force strength and configuration.

Mr. Ainsworth: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have 9,500 troops in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of whom are in Helmand province, and it is right, as he says, that we currently have a responsibility for the majority of the population in Helmand province. With the kind of inflows of troops that General McChrystal will have, and that Major-General Carter will have in the south, the latter is going to have to look at force densities to try to make sure that he is properly using those troops where they are needed. If that means that there is a concentration of British effort in part of our current area of operations and some handing-on to American forces, we should look at that. Major-General Carter is looking at that, and I would encourage him to do so. I know that he has talked to the hon. Gentleman about that, and he has certainly talked to me about it as well.

Military Objectives (Helmand)

3. Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on military objectives in Helmand province; and if he will make a statement. [309566]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): I regularly discuss the mission in Afghanistan with my NATO counterparts. Afghanistan is an international security assistance force mission and all the objectives in Helmand province are directly related to the objectives laid out in the NATO comprehensive political-military plan.

Mr. Jenkin: Is it not the case that our superb military forces have regularly achieved their military objectives, but that that has regularly proved unsustainable because of the political vacuum at the top? Is not the most important task of the London conference to frame a political settlement with which our military objectives will need to be aligned? Otherwise, we are wasting our effort in Afghanistan.

Mr. Ainsworth: A good political arrangement, an effective Afghan Government and good governance in the local provinces are absolutely vital to progress in Helmand, and everyone in the military understands that they alone cannot make progress in this area and that they need the political structures and development to come in behind. It is true that the London conference must address those issues, as it must address reintegration where that is possible, because the insurgency has many different aspects to it. We must also address transition to effective Afghan control and have some mechanism in order to deliver that.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how it helps any conceivable military objectives to be propping up a discredited Karzai regime which, at the very highest level, is deeply involved in the drugs trade?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not think that anybody has tried to suggest that the Afghan Government are perfect or that the elections that we had recently were perfect, but my hon. Friend almost suggests that some alternative to the current Afghan Government is there and available to us. There are people in the House-a minority-who sometimes suggest that there is support for the Taliban among the Afghan people, but there is not. We must work with and improve the Government structures in Afghanistan. That is how to deliver a better Afghanistan, and thereby more security for us back here in the United Kingdom.

Body Armour (Afghanistan)

4. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): What his most recent assessment is of the adequacy of provision of body armour to UK front-line forces serving in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [309567]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): The Osprey armour, which we began to issue to our troops in 2006, is second to none in the world. We are now in the process of issuing a new version that is more comfortable but equally protected-Osprey Assault-together with the mark 7 helmet, to all those who are liable to deploy outside the wire in Afghanistan. That is another example of the concept of a continuous pipeline of improvement in the equipment provided to our forces in Afghanistan in operation.

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Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): When my constituent Marine Corporal Danny Winter died in action, he was the first casualty from Stockport for 30 years. That has much increased local concern about whether we have the right equipment in the right place and at the right time. Will the Minister say clearly to the House when he believes that we shall have good force protection equipment in place and avoid the casualties and the terrible injuries that are now occurring?

Mr. Davies: We are all bitterly sorry about the death of the hon. Gentleman's constituent, and about that of every other man and woman who has fallen for the country in the difficult conflict in Afghanistan. However, my answer to him and to the House is clear: we provide, and will continue to provide, the very best equipment that we can-the very best armour, the very best weapons, the very best communications equipment, the very best vehicles, the very best helicopters and the very best of everything else. We regard that as a sacred task.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that although we can design body armour that gives more protection, there is a risk that it will be heavier and more difficult to move about in? There is a tension between the amount of protection that can be given and the mobility of our soldiers in the field. If we are not careful, there is a danger that some soldiers will not wear all their body armour in order to get more mobility.

Mr. Davies: My hon. Friend, who is an expert in this field and a distinguished member of the Select Committee on Defence, has got it absolutely right. There are always trade-offs in such matters. Quite simply, no human being could carry the weight that would be required to provide ballistic protection all over the body. That is a physical impossibility, and we will just have to face it. There are already trade-offs made, in circumstances where troops are carrying electronic counter-measures and communications equipment. They might be carrying 60 kg or even 70 kg each, often in appalling weather conditions, with temperatures in the 40s, and so on. There are genuine limits, and we are looking all the time at how we can provide the essential equipment as lightly as possible, consistent with the best possible outcomes.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I am grateful to the veterans Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for our meeting before Christmas to discuss body armour. I know that he appreciates-presumably his colleague does as well-the capabilities and limitations of body armour. The United States increasingly relies on aerial reconnaissance to detect improvised explosive devices, which, despite personal protective kit, kill more soldiers than anything else in Afghanistan. Is the different approach to force protection down to the Minister's failure to get the US to share technology or the withholding of funds for equipment, which was discussed over the weekend in connection with the then Defence Secretary, Chancellor and Prime Minister?

Mr. Davies: The suggestion of a lack of co-operation with our American allies, like the suggestion of the withholding of funds, is utter rubbish, complete nonsense, totally libellous and without the slightest foundation in
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fact. I hope that the hon. Gentleman takes those words on board. In fact, we have very close co-operation with the United States on counter-IED measures and force protection. Indeed, we use the same methods, based on various air vehicles, which have been very successful and which I have seen for myself in real time in theatre.

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