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Conflict Resolution (Afghanistan)

5. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with Pashtun representatives on conflict resolution in Afghanistan. [309569]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): As the Secretary of State for Defence, I regularly visit Afghanistan. During those visits, I take every opportunity to engage with the members of the Afghan Government, in their role as the elected representatives of the Afghan people, and to discuss issues that are important to us all, conflict resolution being one of them.

Harry Cohen: The allies did virtually everything wrong in Iraq, but at least they ended up siding with the majority of the population, the Shi'as. In Afghanistan, we have alienated the majority of the population, the Pashtuns, who have a long history of fighting whoever they perceive as occupiers. Does it not make military sense to enter into serious negotiations with Pashtun leaders and to bring them to power?

Mr. Ainsworth: Reintegration is an important part of any counter-insurgency operation. We are more than happy to get involved in the reintegration of all parts of the insurgency that are prepared to revert to peaceful means. We need to provide methods to allow them to do that, but the process surely needs to be led by the Afghan Government, not by us as the international support force in Afghanistan. Of course we want to see the reintegration of those parts of the Pashtun population who feel alienated but who are not irreconcilable. Indeed, the title of Taliban applies to irreconcilable international jihadists on the one hand and to poor disgruntled farmers on the other, so there is a good opportunity for that to happen.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Given the very small number of Pashtun speakers in Her Majesty's armed forces serving on the front line in Afghanistan, and the small number of Pashtun speakers in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development, will the Secretary of State please explain how the British Government communicate with local communities in Afghanistan? Do they use local interpreters or is there a growing body of civil servants being trained to speak Pashtun?

Mr. Ainsworth: We use local interpreters, but we also seek to use the local government arrangements in Afghanistan. The hon. Gentleman will have heard me describe the excellent relationship that we have with Governor Mangal in Helmand province, where most of our forces are. He is right, however, to suggest that we need to look seriously at how many Pashtun speakers we have, and to seek to develop that capability.

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Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Since there must be very few people who really believe that an outright military victory in Afghanistan is possible, is it not absolutely essential to put much more emphasis on a political solution, which must involve a good number of those who are, sadly, fighting the coalition forces? Simply to work on the assumption that military victory will be achieved in another four or five years is not to live in the real world.

Mr. Ainsworth: Equally, that is a caricature of what people actually believe. Nobody believes that a purely military outcome is going to deliver victory in Afghanistan.

Mr. Winnick: Ah!

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know why my hon. Friend is so surprised at that. I have said that reintegration is a necessary part of the process. We want to see the Afghan Government holding a hand out to all those who are reconcilable and whom they can bring back into the fold-of course we do.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the Afghan Taliban have no ambitions beyond Afghanistan and the Pashtun tribal areas of Pakistan, while, by contrast, Osama bin Laden is the protagonist of an international caliphate? Instead of lumping them together, would it not therefore be wiser to try to separate them by offering the Taliban an early withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for their permanently excluding al-Qaeda, with which the Taliban have always had an uneasy alliance?

Mr. Ainsworth: As I have said, elements of the Afghan Taliban are precisely as the hon. Gentleman describes. But let us not forget that they are still led by Mullah Omar, who ran Afghanistan. In that capacity, he welcomed al-Qaeda into his country and was an arch ally of Osama bin Laden. Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that, if we were to pull our troops out of Afghanistan in a precipitate way, the likelihood that Mullah Omar would again control large parts of Afghanistan, if not the entire country, would be pretty high-as is the likelihood that he would do again as he did in the past, bringing a threat back to us in the United Kingdom.

Chinook Crash (Mull of Kintyre)

6. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): If he will meet representatives of the families of personnel killed in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash to discuss identified computer software failings. [309570]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): First, may I offer my sincere condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the Mull of Kintyre Chinook helicopter crash? I will meet representatives of the families of those who were tragically killed in 1994, to explain why there is no new evidence to lead the Ministry of Defence to revisit the board of inquiry's findings.

Mr. Bellingham: As the Minister knows, I represent the family of one of the deceased pilots, Flight Lieutenant Jonathan Tapper. Obviously, the family are still very distressed indeed about the finding of gross professional
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negligence against their brave son. Will the Minister confirm that, since the crash, there has been a change in the rules governing the attribution of blame, so that deceased pilots cannot now be found guilty of gross negligence? Surely it is only fair and just that the two Chinook pilots who were killed-Flight Lieutenants Cook and Tapper-should benefit from that change of rule.

Bill Rammell: I reiterate that I am willing to meet representatives of the family. The change in the rules governing inquiries was brought about by this Government in July 1997, but it was made abundantly clear at that stage that that would not be retrospective and that it would not affect previous rulings.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): As both pilots were found grossly negligent, how does the Minister know with absolutely no doubt whatever that both pilots agreed with the route and the course of action being taken?

Bill Rammell: Let me make it clear to the right hon. Gentleman, who I know has taken a detailed interest in this matter, that in all the publicity surrounding this case-and certainly that produced by the BBC in recent weeks-there has never been any evidence of technical failure. The clear reality of the situation, demonstrated by a clear and diligent analysis, was that the pilots flew their aircraft at low level and high speed towards rising ground and in poor weather, which was contrary to the flight safety instructions. It is for that reason that the board of inquiry reached the conclusion it did.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Surely the fact that the board of inquiry itself did not entirely rule out the possibility of some kind of technical failure, together with public unease at the verdict of gross negligence on pilots and the number of calls for a review from all sides of the House, militates in favour of having such a review. If this Government will not hold such a review, let me tell the Minister that an incoming Conservative Government will.

Bill Rammell: I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was the previous Conservative Government who accepted the board of inquiry's findings in the first instance. This is a very sensitive issue and I fully understand the concerns of all the families that have lost their loved ones, but I do not think that we should play politics with this issue. The substance of the case is that absolutely no evidence of a technical failure has been produced that would lead to a different conclusion from that of the board of inquiry.

Heavy Lift Capability

7. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): What progress has been made on developing a heavy lift capability; and if he will make a statement. [309571]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): Since the last strategic defence review, which identified the requirement for strategic lift, we have made a lot of progress on this front. Six C-17s are currently in service together with the 24 C-130Js and 14 C-130Ks. We signed a contract for a
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further seventh C-17 in December 2009. As the House knows, we are also on contract for the delivery of 25 A400Ms. That project has run into well documented difficulties, and we are in the process of re-examination with partner nations and the firm of possible ways forward.

Mr. Hoyle: Of course there is a great demand for the A400M across the world. It is a much-needed aircraft, but we also need deep maintenance of that heavy lift capability, which ought to take place at either Warton or Woodford. Will the Minister look to ensure that the tanker programme and all the heavy lift can have deep maintenance that is done in the north-west?

Mr. Davies: If and when we have sorted out the problems of the A400M-and we have official and ministerial meetings on that subject later this week-we will need to focus on the support arrangements, and at that point I will certainly bear in mind what my hon. Friend says.

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): Considerable concerns exist about the looming capability gap between the end of the C-130Ks and the arrival of the much delayed A400M. Will one additional C-17 really plug that capability gap?

Mr. Davies: The answer to that question is no it will not entirely, but we are taking other measures, including improving infrastructure at Brize Norton, increasing contractor support, which will give us greater availability of the C-130Js, building a new hangar and so forth. I am advised that the measures we are taking will, in combination, maintain the existing air bridge capability.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): Helicopters in Afghanistan provide an essential capability due to the unforgiving terrain and the dual threat from IEDs and mines to our troops. However, in 2004, the current Prime Minister as Chancellor cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion. Over the weekend, it was suggested in leaked letters that that cut was against the direct advice of the then Secretary of State. Will the Minister confirm that those letters exist, and will he release them to the public to save us the trouble of submitting a freedom of information request in order to get to the bottom of a matter that has hugely impacted on the safety of our forces?

Mr. Davies: First, I was not around in 2004- [Laughter.] I was about to say "in my present capacity", and I have certainly not seen any letter of the kind to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Secondly, of course helicopters are vital to operations in Afghanistan. I remind the House that we have doubled the number of helicopters there since 2006, and that we are in the process of increasing helicopter numbers substantially. This summer there will be 50 per cent. more helicopters in theatre than there were in the summer of 2009. That is a remarkable achievement. If Opposition Front Benchers were not so utterly churlish and inclined merely to play party politics with important issues such as this, they would acknowledge those dramatic facts.

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Armed Forces Accommodation

10. Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): What recent progress he has made in improving the standard of accommodation for the armed forces. [309574]

14. Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): What recent steps he has taken to improve the standard of accommodation provided for members of the armed forces. [309578]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): To make good a legacy of underinvestment, the Department has significantly increased spending on living accommodation in recent years. That has resulted in the delivery of 38,000 new or improved single living bed spaces, and it is planned that a further 19,000 will be provided by 2013. Moreover, 14,000 service family homes have been upgraded. All occupied houses in the United Kingdom will be of the highest standard by 2020. Homes in condition 1 and 2 meet or exceed the Government decent homes standard. No families are expected to live in service family accommodation of the lowest standard except as a result of personal choice.

Mr. Syms: Has not progress been far too slow, and should the Government not redouble their efforts to improve accommodation for our brave soldiers, sailors and marines, particularly in units such as Royal Marines Poole?

Mr. Jones: I will take no lessons from the Conservatives, who sold off armed forces housing and created some of the problems, such as lack of investment, that we are trying to rectify now. Eighty properties at Royal Marines Poole are in the current central heating replacement programme, and 56 more will be included this year. That demonstrates that we are investing in Royal Marines Poole. Of the 178 properties there, 82 are in the highest-standard condition, although the charge is in the lowest-standard category to take account of, for instance, their proximity to noise from helicopters. The daily charge is £2.38.

Natascha Engel: While the upgrades are more than welcome, people such as my constituent Andy Hibberd, a recent ex-serviceman, have direct experience of seriously substandard accommodation. What can my hon. Friend do and say to reassure my constituent that much more is being done to ensure that every single serviceman-and, more to the point, the family of every single serviceman-has a decent home in which to live?

Mr. Jones: Our record speaks for itself, in marked contrast to that of the Conservative Government. We are investing real money in improving both family and single living accommodation. Between 90 and 95 per cent. of family accommodation is in the top two grades, 1 and 2, both of which meet or exceed the Government's criteria for decent homes. We are committed to investment. This year I secured an additional £50 million from the Treasury, which is making a real difference in improving both single and family accommodation.

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RAF Regiment

11. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What plans he has for the future strength of the RAF Regiment. [309575]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Bill Rammell): The RAF Regiment establishment is currently 2,220 personnel, which includes the additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Regiment Field Squadron formed in April 2008. In July 2009, we announced our intention to increase that by providing an additional Force Protection Wing Headquarters and RAF Field Squadron. That currently remains our intention, but given the acute cost pressures facing the Department and given that operations in Afghanistan are rightly our main effort, all such measures remain under review.

Mr. Vara: I am grateful for that information, but will the Minister provide a more specific response in the form of an update on the recruitment of personnel for the post created by the establishment of the additional RAF Force Protection Wing Headquarters as well as the RAF Regiment Field Squadron?

Bill Rammell: The RAF Regiment currently has sufficient personnel to man its establishment fully and to meet the expanded requirement due to its new units. The training of personnel for these new units is currently under way.

Nuclear Deterrent

12. Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What recent progress has been made on procurement of the next generation of the nuclear deterrent; and if he will make a statement. [309576]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): This is an incredibly important decision and we need to get it right. We have come up with one or two possible new technical options for the design of the successor class submarine, and we will need a few more months to evaluate those fully before we take a decision.

Tony Baldry: When will the Minister be able to tell the House whether it is possible to have continuous at-sea patrols with three submarines rather than four? When will the National Security Committee report back to the Prime Minister? Is not the whole timetable for replacing our strategic nuclear deterrent now getting extremely tight?

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is three questions, but one short answer will suffice.

Mr. Davies: The answer is that we are very focused on achieving the 2024 deadline. We take the issue of the successor class submarine extremely seriously. The 2006 White Paper stated that if it is possible to deliver credible and continuous at-sea deterrence with three boats, we will, of course, want to do that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister repeated that recently, and he has instructed that a study of that subject should be undertaken. That study will report to him very shortly.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Does the Minister not agree that we would be much better employed by awaiting the outcome of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review, and making a real contribution towards global disarmament by cancelling the replacement of Trident and spending the money on something more socially useful and less divisive, and not on another weapon of mass destruction?

Mr. Davies: So long as the world remains as dangerous a place as it is, with some very difficult and dubious people developing, or threatening to develop, their own nuclear capability or weapons of mass destruction, this country will need to continue to have an independent nuclear deterrent. The fact is that we have said-we have committed to this in the NPT-that in the context of general and complete disarmament, we would close down our own nuclear deterrent capability.

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