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Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The right hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention to the heroic achievements of the chief executive of the NHS. Earlier this week, I received a letter from a lady who, having reached the politically sensitive threshold of having waited 18 months for an operation, was telephoned and asked whether she wanted to take up the opportunity of having the operation carried out by another NHS trust. She accepted, and when some three months later she inquired as to when the operation would be she was told that, as she had been waiting for only three months, she did not have a prayer. The trick was that the clock had started again when she moved to the other trust. May we have a debate on those heroic achievements so that we can scrutinise precisely how they have been achieved?
Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health with the details of that case, we shall certainly pursue it. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that if he looks at the figuresproduced by the chief executive of the NHS, not by Ministershe will see that we have made dramatic progress in both in-patient and out-patient waiting times. We have also reduced by a quarter the delay in discharge resulting from bed blocking. Those are substantial achievements and the chief executive was right to say that we should sometimes congratulate NHS staff on the progress that they are making instead of constantly knocking them.
Mr. Speaker: Before we begin the debate on armed forces personnel, I draw the House's attention to the following documents, which are relevant: Second report from the Defence Committee, Session 2000-01, The Strategic Defence Review: Policy for People: Government response thereto; Fourth special report from the Defence Committee, Session 2000-01, HC 462; Minutes of Evidence taken by the Defence Committee on 6 and 13 March 2002, on Ministry of Defence reviews of armed forces pensions and compensation arrangements, HC 666. Copies are available in the Vote Office.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Today's debate on armed forces personnel matters provides an opportunity for me to pay tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother on behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces. The magnificent part that so many members of the armed forcesfrom all three servicesplayed in last Friday's ceremonial procession to Her Majesty's lying-in-state and in her funeral on Tuesday provided the most eloquent tribute possible.
Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother had long-standing and close links with the armed forces. She was an inspiration to many during the first world war, when she helped to tend the wounded who were being cared for at Glamis castle. With His Majesty King George Vl, she was an inspiration to many more, both civilians and those serving in the United Kingdom, as well as those fighting overseas, during the dark days of the second world war.
Her Majesty was the Commandant-in-Chief for women in both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. The men and women who have served aboard HMS Ark Royal have taken considerable pride in the fact that she was the ship's sponsor and presided at the launch of all three aircraft carriers that bore that name, including at the rededication ceremony in November last year.
Her Majesty was the Colonel-in-Chief of eight regiments in the Regular Army, Royal Honorary Colonel of three units in the Territorial Army, and Colonel- in-Chief of five Army units from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Perhaps the most affectionate of her relationships with Army units was with the Irish Guards, who had the privilege of providing the bearer party on both Friday and Tuesday. Her Majesty was also Commandant-in-Chief of the RAF central flying school and Honorary Air Commodore of 600 (City of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force. I know that service men and women throughout the armed forces, and their Commonwealth counterparts, will mourn her passing.
I want specifically to mention that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother was Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Anglian Regiment. The 1st Battalion, Royal Anglian Regiment is currently serving in Kabul as part of the international security assistance force, and held its own memorial service on Tuesday as a mark of respect.
Today's debate is the first opportunity that the House has had since the events of 11 September to consider and discuss issues affecting those who serve in the armed forces. Before I deal with specific issues, I would like to bring right hon. and hon. Members up to date on the most recent developments concerning operations in Afghanistan. A number of Members of this House have recently visited British troops deployed there, and have seen the excellent work that they are doing.
I shall begin with the international security assistance force. The United Kingdom agreed to lead ISAF at its inception for a limited period. We took on that responsibility because our forces had the knowledge, experience and ability to organise and establish a multinational expeditionary deployment. They have done just that, with genuine distinction. ISAF has been a significant success, and has provided considerable support to the Afghan Interim Administration as they have taken the first steps in rebuilding their country. We can be proud of the contribution that the United Kingdom's armed forces have made.
Now we must look to ISAF's future. We remain committed to its success. In all probability, the United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the force will be extended, so that ISAF can remain in place beyond June. We support that entirely, as there is still work for it to do.
Although British troops will continue to play a part in ISAF, it will not remain under our leadership. Following his meeting with Hamid Karzai on 4 April, Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit made it clear that the Turkish Government intend to take over as lead nation. I know that the House will welcome that good news.
We have still to agree the exact date on which we will transfer leadership. It is now unlikely that we will be able to hand over to Turkey at the end of April, as we had originally hoped. We may well remain as lead nation until June, probably until after the interim Loya Jirga, although we anticipate that, before then, Turkey will continue to build up the already considerable number of troops that it has deployed.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): What financial arrangements are being made with the Turkish Government to enable them to undertake this task? What contribution are the United Kingdom Government making?
Mr. Hoon: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that at this stage, before all the arrangements have been finalised, it would not be appropriate for me to go into any detail. Appropriate financial support will be made available. The agreement has not yet been finalised, and I do not want to anticipate those practical arrangements, but if the hon. Gentleman asks me that question again in due course, I shall be able to provide him with a more comprehensive answer.
I make no apology for the fact that the United Kingdom may remain as lead nation until June, rather than the end of April. It is far more important that ISAF continues to do its vital work than that we stick absolutely to the letter of our original aim and end our period as lead nation at the end of this month.
Turkey expressed interest in taking on this responsibility from the very start. We have always been candid in our discussions with the Turkish authorities, and have set out very clearly the complexities involved in leading ISAF. We very much welcome the statement by Prime Minister Ecevit.
We have always made it clear that the size of the British contingent serving with ISAF would reduce over time, particularly once it had been established. Our contribution has now reduced in size. We currently have about 1,500 personnel serving with ISAF, rather than the 1,800 who were out there at the start. We now expect those numbers to reduce still further, as Turkey takes over as lead nation. I should emphasise that our commitment to ISAF will continue, and that a significant number of British troops will remain in Kabul under Turkish command.
ISAF is only one strand of the United Kingdom's contribution to operations in Afghanistan. We are also working with our allies, as we have from the very start, in continuing operations to defeat al-Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban supporters. Those operations have been remarkably successful, but we need to remain vigilant and committed to completing the task. That is why we have decided to deploy 45 Commando Group and the headquarters of 3 Commando Brigade to Afghanistan to take part in operations against the remnants of the al-Qaeda network and the Taliban.
Overall, the deployment is going well. Five hundred members of the force have now arrived in Bagram. Although it will be the end of April before all the members of 45 Commando Group will be in Afghanistan, they will soon be ready to conduct operations against remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.