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Liam_fox_mpThe House of Commons returned yesterday and got stuck into Defence questions.

Shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox asked about Afghanistan:

"The general consensus on Afghanistan in the House has put the United Kingdom in a strong position in NATO. Does the Secretary of State agree that, if there is to be further British deployment in Afghanistan, four criteria must be met? First, there must be a clear and achievable political mission to support the military mission, as was the case with the surge in Iraq, but that does not currently exist in Afghanistan. Secondly, governance in Afghanistan, including widespread corruption, must be tackled because it is undermining our efforts. Thirdly, as has been said, all NATO allies should be asked to take a fairer share because too many are shamefully failing to do that. Fourthly, any increase in troop numbers must be matched by a proportionate and appropriate increase in equipment such as helicopters and armoured vehicles.

Mr. Hutton: I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Gentleman has said. We would not deploy additional forces to Afghanistan unless they had the right equipment to do their job properly. He has rightly drawn attention to the low number of helicopters that are available to support ISAF. We are working on that, as are our NATO partners and allies. The French-UK helicopter initiative is a small step in the right direction—it has yet to produce significant new assets but I hope that it will do soon.

Although I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said, I caution him about drawing too many parallels between Iraq and Afghanistan. They are two very different countries, with very different security situations.

Dr. Fox: The Secretary of State will know that, over the weekend, reports in the press gave detailed information about the life-changing injuries that some of our troops in Afghanistan have sustained. Will he take the opportunity, relatively early in his time in office, to review the way in which the Ministry of Defence publishes statistics, so that we can have a full and transparent picture of the sacrifices that are being made on our behalf? The British public, our armed forces and their families deserve no less, and are far more able to deal with unpleasant truth than with what many may perceive as half-truths and evasions.

Mr. Hutton: I agree that transparency in the figures is important. Every fortnight, we publish a series of figures, which show the extent of injuries and wounds to service personnel in active theatres. It is not therefore fair or reasonable to criticise the MOD for failing to provide an accurate scorecard on what is happening. We do not have a category of “life-changing injuries”. Neither the statisticians nor the services have identified that as a meaningful definition. However, we publish comprehensive, fortnightly data, which deal with the extent of injuries and wounds. I am happy to draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that, if he wishes."

Newark MP and former Shadow Minister for Homeland Security Patrick Mercer asked about the defence of our coastline:

"The defence of our coastline has never been more important, particularly in the light of the recent attacks in Mumbai, yet in recent evidence to the Defence Committee, the noble Lord West, referring to those defence arrangements, said:

    “It is not what I would call, ultimately, satisfactory”.

Can the Minister reassure me that Lord West’s concerns are ill-founded, and that much more is being done to protect our coastline?

Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know in exactly what circumstances the phrase “ultimately, satisfactory” was used, but plans are in place to provide the necessary capability to counteract a terrorist attack in our country. We believe that they are perfectly adequate, although they obviously have to be kept under review. In the light of circumstances such as those in Mumbai, that is vital, as every Member of the House can see."

The Colonel should be brought back to the front bench if the Conservatives win power at the next election, and preferably beforehand.

Opposition Whip Bill Wiggin was concerned about the joint strike fighter programme:

"Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of progress in the development of the joint combat aircraft. [257883]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I visited Fort Worth for discussions on this programme with Lockheed Martin about 10 days ago, and the programme is proceeding very satisfactorily. I am sure that this is a capability that our country needs, and I hope that we will be able to make an important announcement about it over the next few weeks.

Bill Wiggin: Can the Minister use this opportunity to confirm that the delays to the future carrier programme announced last December are in no way connected with potential delays to the joint strike fighter programme?

Mr. Davies: I can give the hon. Gentleman that unqualified assurance."

Shadow Defence Minister Gerald Howarth then chipped in on the same subject:

"Typically, the Minister piled confusion upon confusion. He has just told the House that there is no connection between the delay in the aircraft carriers and the acquisition of the joint combat aircraft or joint strike fighter. I point out to him that his own Secretary of State made a statement to the House on 11 December—a statement that we have previously had no opportunity to discuss. In that statement he said:

    “We have concluded that there is scope for bringing more closely into line the introduction of the joint combat aircraft and the aircraft carrier. This is likely to mean delaying the in-service
    date of the new carriers by one to two years.”—[ Official Report, 11 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 67WS.]

The Minister and the Secretary of State cannot both be telling the truth. Which one is true?

Mr. Davies: The hon. Gentleman was not listening to me and has got it exactly the wrong way round. It was put to me this afternoon that the reason for reprofiling the dates of the manufacture and delivery of the carriers was the delay in the JSF programme. I have explained that there was no delay and that that is not therefore the reason for reprofiling the carriers. The reason for doing so was, quite simply, that it made no sense to spend money much earlier than required to no possible benefit when we could not advance the date of JSF delivery even if we wanted to. We have made that very clear. It is exactly the other way round. The hon. Gentleman, not for the first time, has completely failed to understand the situation."

Another Shadow Minister, Julian Lewis, drew a bullish comment from the Defence Secretary on Iran:

"Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Within the last few days, it has been revealed by the British ambassador to the United Nations that in 2005 the Iranians offered the British a deal whereby they said:

    “We stop killing you in Iraq…you allow us to carry on with our”

missile and

    “nuclear programme.”

That deal was rightly rejected. This is, I believe, the first time that a senior British official has spoken about an Iranian admission of direct involvement in killing British service personnel. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is also his understanding of that situation?

Mr. Hutton: I do not think that there is any doubt that, in recent years, the Iranians have been assisting various groups in Iraq to attack British forces. That is totally unacceptable. Iran should keep its nose out of Iraq and other countries. Iran has a legitimate set of interests in the middle east, but it has no right whatever to involve itself in the internal security situation of other countries. Its role in assisting those groups to kill British forces is one that we will never forget."

Shadow Health Minister and former soldier Mike Penning wanted to know about adaptations for injured servicemen and women:

"Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): When our brave servicemen and women return home after they have been injured, many of them receive compensation but many need help from local social services for adaptations. Is the Secretary of State aware that some local authorities refuse to give adaptations unless people pay, because their compensation has come through and they are above the threshold? Can we do something to prevent local authorities from taking compensation away and ensure that they give people the adaptations they really need?

Mr. Kevan Jones: That is an issue that I am addressing. Councils should be disregarding compensation lump sums in respect of adaptations. This is part of a bigger piece of work I have asked the Department to do on what is called a welfare pathway, so that when people leave the armed forces we do not just forget about them, but make sure that local authorities and other agencies take into account the fact that those people have been on active service and we owe them a debt of gratitude. That work will be produced later this year, and I am working with other Departments and COBSEO—the Confederation of British Service and Ex-service Organisations—to pull it together. As part of the regional visits, I shall be meeting local authorities to stress the need to treat veterans as a special case."

And former Shadow Defence Secretary Bernard Jenkin reminded the House how long the Afghanistan deployment has lasted:

"Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): May I remind the Secretary of State that when British forces were first deployed to Afghanistan back in 2002, we were promised a six-month deployment, yet we have been there for a period longer than the second world war? May I also draw his attention to the fact that he has issued revised defence planning assumptions that still class Afghanistan as a contingent operation instead of a standing commitment? Is it not about time that we treated our Afghan deployment as a standing commitment, and configured our armed forces accordingly?

Mr. Hutton: Whatever our armed forces need to conduct successful operations in Afghanistan, they will have; I do not think that it matters very much what label we attach to that operation. They will get whatever help, support and resources they need to succeed."

Tom Greeves

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