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War Graves

2. Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester): If he will make a statement on his discussions with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission concerning the graves of soldiers killed at the Somme. [24463]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Neither my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence nor I have had any talks with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission concerning the graves of soldiers killed at the Somme. However, I am aware that the French Government have not released any approved plans for a new international airport which might affect historic battlefields to the north of Paris. Plans for a new airport in Picardy, 15 miles to the south of the Somme battlefields, were prematurely leaked to the media late last year. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in discussion with the French authorities, who will provide details of any proposals that might adversely affect British war graves.

Mr. Dhanda: I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Is he aware that according to the Soldiers of Gloucestershire museum, more than 8,000 men from my constituency and the surrounding area gave their lives for this country in the first world war, and that under the rumoured plans for the airport in France, many of those graves would have ended up being exhumed, as well as 23,000 graves of German soldiers? Does my hon. Friend agree that if that happened, it would be a dishonour to the men who fought for our country and made the ultimate sacrifice for us all?

Dr. Moonie: Yes. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is in close contact with the French Government about the matter. The French Government have, in general, behaved with great sensitivity with regard to any war graves in the vicinity of the Flanders

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battlefield. I can assure my hon. Friend that were plans to proceed and were I to have any doubts at all about what was happening, I would make strong representations on the subject.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I thank the Minister for the assurance that he has just given. Such matters must be handled with the utmost sensitivity by Governments. In that connection, can he tell us how far plans have advanced for a national memorial for service men and women who have died on active service since 1945? Not a lot seems to have been said since the Government announced that last year.

Dr. Moonie: I can say that plans are progressing. Of course, it is not the Government who are doing that planning, but ex-service organisations and others with a great interest in the matter. The plans are proceeding satisfactorily, although I accept that the process may appear slow to the hon. Gentleman. However, progress is being made and I suspect that an announcement will be made in the not-too-distant future.


3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What steps he is taking to avoid overstretch in the Army. [24464]

9. Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): What moves he has made to reduce overstretch of the armed forces. [24470]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We remain committed to achieving a balance of commitments for our armed forces that is consistent with the strategic defence review. We aim to commit personnel to operations for no longer than is necessary to achieve the military aim. The success of that policy is already evident. To date, there has been a significant improvement in the number of personnel committed to operations, in comparison with the position at the height of the Kosovo campaign in 1999. In the Army, although there are variations between units, the average unit tour interval has improved, with the latest assessment being around 28 months—the best figure for five years and one that is above the strategic defence review target of24 months. Royal Navy harmony standards are being maintained, and in the Royal Air Force, only about 2 per cent. of trained personnel are exceeding the planned limit for separated service.

Mr. Prentice: Well, apparently there is no overstretch, but it seems to me that we have troops all around the globe, in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. We have just heard about the commitment of 1,800 personnel in Afghanistan. My question is this: is it our objective to become a global policeman, and if not, why not?

Mr. Ingram: I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in supporting greater commitment in terms of our armed forces from all hon. Members. The more that we recognise the very crucial role that the forces play internationally, the greater the prospect of obtaining people to join them. He is right to say that apparently there is no overstretch, although that is not a word that

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we would use. Clearly, there are pressure points in some of the key areas and we are taking a range of measures to tackle them.

Hugh Robertson: I thank the Minister for his answer. Will he confirm that all the units deploying this year to Northern Ireland, Afghanistan or the Balkans will do so at full manning strength? If so, is that at peacetime or wartime establishment?

Mr. Ingram: We will do our best to achieve those objectives. That depends on two factors, one of which is maintaining recruitment. I know that the hon. Gentleman would support us on all the measures that we are taking in that regard. Also, there must be an improvement on retention of key personnel. If we can achieve those objectives, we will be able to meet the premise that he set out.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow): With this overstretch in mind, is the Minister aware that, in Afghanistan, there are more than 25,000 unexploded ordnances following the American bombing, not to mention the 10 million landmines left in that country following the Soviet era? Will he ensure that our troops are adequately covered and have sufficiently trained men in clearing these unexploded bombs, to ensure that their safety is intact?

Mr. Ingram: We take this issue very seriously indeed. My hon. Friend is right about the potential extent of the problem in Afghanistan, although it is not exclusive to that particular theatre. If time permits, all troops are given the best information that we can possibly provide in training terms and in practical terms on the ground. Of course, we deploy very significant key personnel to tackle the threat posed by unexploded ordnance.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Can the Minister deny that the Government themselves are partly responsible for overstretch, because the number of medically downgraded personnel in the armed forces has increased by more than 50 per cent. since they came to power and more than10 per cent. of the Army is now medically downgraded? Bearing in mind that the injuries are often caused by the rigorous nature of training and duties, will the Government agree to fast-tracking of service personnel for medical purposes?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know what the hon. Gentleman is trying to prove. Is he saying that our forces are incapable of carrying out the functions that we ask of them? If so, I wholly disagree with him. Being downgraded does not necessarily mean that someone is unfit for duty. The issue is clearly more complex than the hon. Gentleman's simplistic approach implies.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What did the former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, mean when he said on 17 December at column 46 of Hansard that our armed forces were "dangerously over- committed"? The Secretary of State has said that he takes advice from the current Chief of the Defence Staff. However, in his Royal United Services Institute lecture,

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the current chief said that something would have to give. Did he mean that we are attempting to do too much with too little? If not, what could he have meant?

Mr. Ingram: That was a range of open-ended questions. The hon. Gentleman may wish to raise Lord Guthrie's comments with the noble Member, who is an independent voice in the other place and is entitled to express his opinion. A healthy debate is taking place about what we do to tackle all our commitments. A key factor is getting resources from the centre. That is what the current Chief of the Defence Staff meant. We cannot go on doing everything, and we therefore have to be specific. That was implicit and explicit in the strategic defence review.

International Terrorism

7. James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde): What recent discussions he has had with his NATO counterparts on measures to combat international terrorism. [24468]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As reaffirmed during discussions at NATO Defence Ministers' meetings in Brussels on 18 and19 December, the Alliance is committed to countering the threat posed by international terrorism. In particular, Defence Ministers agreed that the Alliance's military concepts should evolve in keeping with the threat posed by international terrorism, and that NATO's defence capabilities should be adequate to meet the demands that it will face.

James Purnell: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I am sure that, like me, he welcomes Russia's support for the coalition against international terrorism. What implications will that have for Russia's future relationship with NATO?

Mr. Hoon: I have had several opportunities to meet Russian colleagues, including the December NATO ministerial meetings, when we discussed the impact of international terrorism. The Russian Defence Minister visited the United Kingdom on 19 to 21 December for extended talks on the fight against terrorism. He informed us that he had issued instructions that a hospital that the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations had set up north of Kabul should be available for British and other ISAF troops if required.

Russian support in the current crisis has been exceptional and has led us to believe that we have a unique opportunity to enter into a new security relationship with Russia. Consequently, the Prime Minister suggested in November new arrangements for the NATO-Russia relationship, including a new NATO-Russia council, operating with 20 members rather than the current 19 plus one. We hope that the arrangement will be in place at or around this year's spring ministerial meetings.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in expressing the House's appreciation of the tremendous work of British troops in providing security and stability in Afghanistan and many other locations? Does he agree that many of those troops are double-hatted for NATO purposes? Despite the

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onerous and unavoidable operations in which they are engaged, it is essential that the tempo of their training to fight at the highest intensity is maintained. Will he assure us that, whatever the demands and obligations that the troops are invited to undertake, the tempo of training will be maintained at all costs?

Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for British deployment to Afghanistan and his general observations about British troops. He is right to emphasise the importance of the tempo of training. Like other hon. Members, he is aware that members of Britain's armed forces recently participated in Operation Saif Sareea II, which is the largest such exercise since the Gulf war. All aspects of our requirement to deploy rapidly were thoroughly and rigorously tested. Recent events in Afghanistan have again demonstrated that ability. The hon. Gentleman is right; training must be maintained if we are to keep up those high standards.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): In his discussions with his NATO counterparts, what has the Defence Secretary had to say about the role of a NATO member, namely the United States, in removing prisoners from Afghanistan, hooded and manacled together, and flying them in that condition for 24 hours to an airbase in Cuba? Is that legal? What law is being applied? Does the Secretary of State not think that, if the international community is preaching democracy and the rule of law, it is time for it to practise it, rather than taking people out of Afghanistan illegally?

Mr. Hoon: As I indicated earlier, there is no doubting the legality of the way in which those combatants have been imprisoned, or the legality of the right of the United States or any other country to remove them for trial. There is also no doubting the United States' commitment, publicly expressed, to recognise and maintain standards of international law relating to the way in which prisoners are dealt with.

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