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“In the UK’s area of operation in south-east Iraq, the biggest challenges lie in Basra city. Two weeks ago, Iraqi and UK forces began a large-scale operation moving through the city sector by sector, strengthening security and improving basic services. One important element of the operation is a renewed effort to improve the capacity of the Iraqi police and to address infiltration by militias. The operation also includes clean-up projects, agriculture projects and projects to improve basic services, including bringing clean drinking water to a part of the city which has never had it before.“Elsewhere in the south-east, in September Dhi Qar became the second province to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities, following Al Muthanna in July. We should congratulate the Iraqis on this achievement and also our international partners.“In terms of future planning for the UK in Iraq, I can confirm that the force package for the next routine roulement in November, in which 19 Light Brigade takes over from 20 Armoured Brigade, is essentially that which I outlined in my announcement to the House on 18 July. I should also draw the House’s attention to my Written Statement on 11 September, which confirmed a temporary deployment of 360 troops, including specialists such as engineers to help to deliver the Basra projects I described earlier, and elements of the Theatre Reserve Battalion to provide support during the roulement period. Excluding the temporary deployment, this will leave our force level in Iraq at approximately 7,100.“We should be in no doubt that this is a decisive period in the future of Iraq. There is much debate here in Britain, in America and of course in Iraq about the best way forward. But all agree that military means alone will not be decisive. This is especially true now, when it is clear that sectarianism and the struggle for power have emerged as a major threat to Iraq’s security. What is required above all is a political solution. That must include a genuine effort at national reconciliation, drawing all Iraq’s communities into a political process and away from violence. Prime Minister Maliki and his Government are trying to deliver this. We and our coalition partners must do all we can to support them and strengthen their resolve—so, too, must the international community as a whole, and Iraq’s near neighbours in particular.“Let me now turn to Afghanistan. The achievements and losses of our forces in Helmand province rightly have been the focus of our attention in the past two months. The work our forces are doing there is difficult, dangerous and exhausting. I salute them—particularly the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are coming home, having been relieved by 3 Commando. I shall be visiting them tomorrow to thank them in person but today, on behalf of the whole House, I should like formally to record our recognition of the bravery, professionalism and sacrifice of this brigade and all those from across the three services who supported them during this tour.

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“On the fifth anniversary of our intervention in Afghanistan, we should reflect on the progress our efforts have brought about: 2,000 schools built; 5 million children in school, one-third of them girls; more than 70 new hospitals and clinics; 4.5 million refugees returning home. This is not a failing mission.“NATO, in the shape of the ISAF force, and under the leadership of General Richards, now has responsibility for the whole of Afghanistan. But as we know, the summer has seen fierce fighting. As I made clear in a speech last month, the persistence of the Taliban was greater than we expected. Such is the nature of operations: the enemy always has a vote and we have adapted. But let me repeat, the force package we deployed, and which we have strengthened further over the summer, was designed to deal with violent resistance, and in every encounter with the Taliban our forces have defeated it. Moreover, by attacking us directly, the Taliban has taken heavy losses, both in northern Helmand and against the Canadians in Kandahar. We have sent a clear message that we will not be beaten in combat, a message not lost on the local population. This has strengthened the position of local leaders, some of whom are now pursuing peaceful negotiations with our commanders and with the Afghan Government. “In Afghanistan we have reached a key point in the campaign. On Sunday I spoke to General Richards and he described the situation as a window of opportunity. If we can build upon the blow we have delivered to the Taliban, if we can quickly deliver real, concrete changes to the lives of ordinary Afghans through development and reconstruction, then we can begin to generate the lasting support the Government need. “So we are moving forward, but consistently I have made clear the challenges we still face. The assumption of complete military command for Afghanistan is a significant achievement for NATO, but also a significant test. There are still shortfalls in the planned force structure. Caveats on the use of some forces remain. I have been in frequent, often daily discussions with the secretary-general and fellow defence ministers to reinforce the message that as an alliance we must live up to our commitment to Afghanistan, sharing the burden and the risks. I ensured this subject was top of the agenda at the NATO summit in Slovenia two weeks ago and I will continue to press for urgent action. We have made some progress; some caveats are lifting. The Poles have confirmed they will provide a battalion, and the Canadians plan to put further troops into the south. Importantly, General Richards judges he has the forces to maintain the relatively stable security situation that now exists. But I will continue to push for his requirements to be met in full as a matter of urgency. “In Helmand, the UK Task Force also faces challenges. The battles we have fought in the north of the province have brought us to the relative stability we have seen in recent weeks. Taliban

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activity is down, and engagement with local leaders is growing. But we must capitalise quickly with progress on reconstruction. We are rebalancing our forces, taking advantage of the steady improvement in the Afghan army and police to concentrate our forces on the central area surrounding the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. This should increase the scope for other government departments to act in safety, and should also increase the confidence of local enterprises and international NGOs to begin the reconstruction that is at the core of our strategy.“Back in the UK, the main challenge for me, my department and the joint headquarters and chiefs is to give our troops the resources they need to get the job done. This is a relentless task, but we are rising to it. We have now almost completely deployed the reinforcements I described to the House on 10 July, with the last few elements due in to Afghanistan in the next few weeks. That includes: two more Chinook helicopters and more flying hours for helicopters across the fleet, more capacity to train the Afghan National Army, engineers to take forward development, and more infantry. On 24 July, I announced a new package for protected vehicles for both Afghanistan and Iraq, including 100 new Mastiff and 100 additional Vector, funded by new money from the Treasury. We continue to invest heavily in force protection, including countermeasures to protect vehicles against attack, defensive aids for aircraft and personal body armour. I believe we have shown we can be responsive to the requests of commanders and we will continue to be so.“Of course, support for our troops is not just about numbers of people and equipment; it is also about pay, conditions, welfare and medical care. In all these areas we are constantly reviewing what more is needed, and for some weeks now I have specifically been looking at pay levels for forces on operations.“Our forces are some of the best paid in the world. Only Canada pays more across the ranks. But forces from other countries do not pay tax when on operations, and this has led some to demand that we do the same for our people. I think we can do better.“I am pleased to announce today that we intend to introduce a new, tax-free, flat-rate, operational bonus, which, for a six-month tour, would amount to £2,240. For an average private or lance corporal, this is equivalent to the amount of tax they would pay during a six-month tour. It means that half our people on operations will be better off than under a tax exemption, increasingly so for the lower paid. The most junior will be over £500 better off after a six-month tour than if we had simply exempted them from tax. As importantly, everyone on operations will be equally better off than they are now, by just under £100 per week, free of tax.“I would like to thank my right honourable friend the Chancellor for making over £60 million of new money available so we can fund this new bonus, without taking any existing defence funding away from front-line needs.

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“This is a complex area. I have been looking at these questions for weeks, but I can assure the House that the troops who have been fighting in Afghanistan over the summer will not lose out. The payment will be backdated to 1 April 2006, as an adjustment to pay arrangements in the current financial year. Full details of eligibility will be made public shortly but I can confirm that, besides Afghanistan, it will apply to our forces in Iraq and the Balkans.“Let me finally deal with the issue of medical care for those injured on operations. First, I want to challenge the notion that the current system is in any way inferior to what went before. In particular, the relentless attack on the work of the outstanding medical staff, military and civilian, at Selly Oak Hospital is unfair and misplaced. I have been there twice in recent months. It is one of the highest performing and most successful hospital trusts in the NHS and provides major specialist centres for trauma, burns, plastic surgery and neuroscience.“Our primary concern is to give our injured people the best medical care available. This is to be found inside the NHS. While some have been calling in public for a return to military hospitals, we have been quietly getting on with the job of establishing a military-managed ward at Selly Oak in partnership with the NHS. I can confirm that this will be operational before the end of the year.“I have been open about the nature of the challenges we face in our operational theatres. I do not seek to hide from this House the difficulties we face in overcoming them, but I am convinced our strategy remains the right one.“In Afghanistan, we have to tackle the south and the east if we are to secure what has already been achieved in the rest of the country. We have to make the comprehensive approach work, with all government departments acting together to achieve our objectives. We have to get NATO to live up to its commitments.“In Iraq, we have to support the Iraqi Government, their army and police in taking responsibility for their own security and holding the line against sectarian infighting. We will do all these things; we cannot afford not to.“I have spoken many times about the debt we owe to the men and women who serve in our Armed Forces and who carry out this hard and dangerous work on our behalf. I am sure the House will join me in paying tribute to them again today”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.15 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches also express our condolences to the families of those troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during this long, hot and difficult summer. Our thoughts are also with those who have been wounded, some very

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seriously, and their families. We also pay tribute to those servicemen and servicewomen serving now in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who have served there and those who will be taking their turn for a tour of duty. It is vital that we do everything possible to look after the families of those on active service.

My immediate personal reaction to the wording of the Statement is that it is complacent to the point of being misleading and that it further discloses an inability by the Government to grasp what needs to be done, what should have been done and what must be done now. There is a growing sense that Ministers, in their public utterances, are living in an unreal world, quite different from that in which our troops on the ground are fighting and being killed.

In Afghanistan, we now find ourselves with a conflict out of all proportion to that promised by Ministers. Troops have been engaged in the hardest sustained fighting since the Second World War with a steady stream of casualties sustained in close-quarter battle, with many instances of real heroism. In these circumstances, our servicemen and servicewomen have a right to expect only the best treatment before, during and after combat.

It is the job of a responsible Opposition to scrutinise the Government’s conduct of these operations. We owe that to the soldiers out there. While we have always supported the Government’s aims—it is essential that we do not allow either country to become a breeding ground for terrorism—we have always held and expressed reservations over their actions. We have constantly maintained that, so far as Afghanistan is concerned, the Government were all the time basing their predictions on the best possible scenario.

The Prime Minister went on the record on Saturday to say that whatever our forces needed for Afghanistan would be found and supplied. Splendid. But how does this Statement point to specific actions to give effect to that promise?

The Government’s decision in 2004 to cut the size of the Army has now been exposed as a serious misjudgment, jeopardising both the morale and the safety of our troops. The number of soldiers dismissed from the Army for going absent without leave has nearly doubled since the start of the Iraq war. The Government are putting the lives of our Armed Forces even more at risk with ageing or inadequate equipment. There is an alarming shortage both of equipment—for example, helicopters in Afghanistan—and of personnel. We cannot persist with a situation where the Army is waging extended campaigns while relying heavily on the Reserve Forces to plug the shortfall.

One of the most striking features of both campaigns is how public confidence has been lost. There is a widespread belief that we are not being told the scale of the human cost of the conflict. We need to be honest with the public, as the US Government have been. The number of casualties is far too low for the number of fatalities, whether judged by a typical ratio of fatalities to casualties or by the discrepancy with US casualty figures, where there are eight times as many casualties as fatalities. That makes the figures

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simply not credible. Can the Minister tell the House how many casualties have been sustained in Afghanistan and can he give the House a definition of “casualty”?

Finally, we welcome the Statement’s objective: to give our injured service men and women the best medical care available. That will always be with the NHS. But wounded soldiers have been let down by a failure of “bedside” rather than “clinical” care. What are the Government planning to do to put that right—in particular, to provide more secure military wards manned by service nurses?

5.20 pm

Lord Garden: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating in your Lordships' House the Defence Secretary’s Statement. From these Benches, we join in paying tribute to our brave men and women in the Armed Forces serving under very difficult and challenging circumstances.

Looking first at the Statement’s reference to Iraq and Afghanistan, I again regret that we are having to respond to developments in those two difficult and important operations through the process of a Statement rather than full debates, as we should have. On Iraq, there is much optimism in the Statement but no assessment of why things have been going so badly. Are the Iraqi people really, as it says, seeing,

when they now die violently at the rate of about 100 per day? Does the Minister agree with the assessment of his colleague, Jack Straw, that the situation is “dire”? Does he agree with the US Marine Corps Colonel Devlin’s intelligence assessment sent to the Pentagon about al-Anbar province, in which he said that there were no functioning central Iraqi government institutions in the province and that local governments were under the “control of the insurgents”?

In our area of responsibility, can the Minister tell us in more detail what has been the trend in the security situation? The Statement refers to the handing over of responsibility in two areas. How has al-Muthanna province been in terms of violence and governance since our withdrawal in June? In Basra, what progress has been made in the difficult relationships with the local police?

Most importantly, what is our strategy for the future of Iraq? The Statement talks about there being much debate about the way forward. Are the British Government involved in the work of the US envoy James Baker? What does the Minister feel about the widely discussed US strategy for dividing the country into three parts? What are we going to do if that becomes US policy?

Turning to Afghanistan, as the Statement says, the latest extension of the NATO mission is to cover the whole of the country. That means that NATO is now responsible for all of Afghanistan, but there are still 8,000 US-led troops operating under Operation Enduring Freedom and all their air power is retained under American control. The Pentagon press statement issued at the same time as the NATO press statement states:

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meaning the US—

So we now have both NATO and Operation Enduring Freedom doing the same jobs in overlapping geographical areas. Can the Minister share with us the military logic behind that arrangement?

Next, how are the Government responding to General Richards’s assessment reported yesterday morning that we must improve the lot of the Afghans within the next six months if they are not to turn to the Taliban for support? It is also clear that there is a turf war between the military and development agencies in helping Afghanistan—I trust that we shall explore that more deeply when we debate the Unstarred Question this evening. Can the Minister assure us that the Ministry of Defence is totally content with the work that the Department for International Development is doing and does not have its eyes on the department's funding?

Turning to the pay proposals in the Statement, from these Benches we welcome the tangible recognition through a flat-rate, tax-free operational bonus that the services are not just working in challenging circumstances but have also been operating beyond the defence planning assumptions year after year. We agree that a straight payment is better than trying to introduce some complex tax regime through taking them out of the tax bracket when they are away. However, it will take us some time to consider the detail, which is not in the Statement, to decide how different service men and women are affected and it will be very important that it is seen as a fair system by all members of the Armed Forces and the reserves. Can the Minister assure us that there will be an opportunity for the MoD to change the arrangements when anomalies surface, as they certainly will over the coming months? I also want to know how the Armed Forces Pay Review Body will treat this allowance. It will be bad if we end up having the X factor reduced next April because of the allowance that is now being implemented. Let us hope it is exempted from that.

I welcome in the Statement the assurance that the defence budget will not have to fund this extra money from the current budget. I trust that that will remain the case into future years.

Finally, more generally, what are the Government doing about the degree of tasking that our Armed Forces are now experiencing? They need either more people or fewer tasks. The Government must do something soon.

5.25 pm

Lord Drayson: My Lords, I am grateful for the support that Members on the Benches opposite have given for the aims of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the challenges that our forces face in those theatres. The points that they have made have focused on the implementation of these operations, and on criticisms about the way in which we have gone about it.

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First, as a Defence Minister, I do not accept the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Astor, that Ministers are living in an unreal world, unconnected with what is going on on the ground. I came back from Afghanistan on Sunday having spent some considerable time with our troops at Camp Bastion, at Kandahar and at Kabul, ensuring that I absolutely understood the challenges that they have faced in the past six months, to learn the lessons that need to be learnt about the way in which we respond to the threat that we have encountered and to ensure that we in the Ministry of Defence do absolutely everything that we need to do to support our forces. As the noble Lord said, the Prime Minister made a statement on Saturday that our forces will have everything that they need to carry out these operations.

Being the Minister responsible for defence equipment means ensuring that our processes for delivering urgent operational requirements into theatre are as effective as possible. I spent a considerable amount of time ensuring that I understood what we need to do to learn from the situation on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan and to respond to that. That is working. The defence procurement reforms that we have introduced have led to a more responsive system that is delivering the equipment. There is no doubt that we have issues—the noble Lord opposite has mentioned helicopters several times—and we accept that our helicopter capacity is deficient. As I said yesterday in this House, we are implementing several measures to improve the situation urgently. We have found that helicopters are an important force-multiplier, particularly in Afghanistan, and there are several areas of development that we are undertaking to put ourselves in a position to ensure that, at the next roulement, we have the helicopter capacity to meet any potential threat.

Noble Lords made a point about ageing and inadequate equipment. It is simply not the case across the piece. I accept that there are examples of equipment that has been very hard worked. The WMIK vehicles, which the Parachute Regiment has been using, are being replaced by Viking vehicles, which are new and, I must say, impressive vehicles, which the marines will be taking into theatre. We need to get the WMIK vehicles back and ensure that they are repaired and replaced quickly. We are seeing an improvement. I am monitoring closely the delivery of urgent operational requirements into theatre to ensure that we are delivering what our troops need. I simply do not accept that our procurement process is not responding in the way noble Lords describe.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked specifically about casualty figures. Between 1 January and 31 July 2006, which are the latest figures that I have—I should add that a Question will be asked in the House on Monday about the specifics of casualty figures—four UK personnel were categorised as very seriously injured from all causes excluding disease, five UK personnel were categorised as seriously injured from all causes excluding disease, and 125 UK personnel were aero-medically evacuated from Afghanistan as a result of all causes. I am happy to write to the noble

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Lord. During my visit last week, I spoke to the commander of the field hospital in Camp Bastion, who gave me some figures from the experience that the hospital is having. He mentioned specifically the ratio of troops killed in action to casualties and I would be very happy to expand on that.

On the use of Reserve Forces and general overstretch, we must recognise that it is the policy of this Government to change the way in which our Reserve Forces are now used with our Regular Army on operations. We have found that that has been very effective. It is not a case of using the Reserve Forces because we do not have sufficient Regular Army to do the job. It is a part of the one-army approach which we are now adopting.

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