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Tony Cunningham (Workington): My right hon. Friend rightly talks about the value of aircrew. Sometimes we forget the incredible job that our RAF pilots do in the no-fly zones over Iraq. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the pilots who, day in, day out, risk

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their lives trying to protect the people of Iraq—and especially the Kurds in the north of the country—from the tremendous threat posed by Saddam Hussein?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have had the considerable privilege of visiting both the bases from which our aircrew operate. I have talked to a number of pilots and crew about the hazards that they face and the astonishing skill that they deploy in those operations. I know that the whole House will be grateful to them for the courage that they display and for the job they do in protecting people on the ground in Iraq.

I want to emphasise, however, that we do not rely solely on financial inducements. People are not simply motivated by money, so the recent TOPMAST initiative in the Navy, for example, aims to tackle retention by introducing a more efficient use of manpower and by providing service men and women with more geographic stability and a greater ability to plan their own lives and careers. TOPMAST will also allow better career management, giving "employing units" more involvement in personal development and, where appropriate, in the medical rehabilitation of injured or wounded personnel.

I should also mention the medical quinquennial review, which has just been completed and whose conclusions are being placed in the Library of the House today. The review looked at the functions and organisation of the Ministry of Defence's four medical agencies—the Defence Secondary Care Agency, the Defence Dental Agency, the Defence Medical Training Organisation, and the Medical Supplies Agency—and at other aspects of medical provision.

The review concluded that there must be a clearer focus on the delivery of the two key defence medical outputs—deployable operational medical capability and timely appropriate health care for service personnel. The defence medical services will be realigned and restructured to focus more effectively on those two key outputs. Importantly, we will also establish a stronger partnership between the defence medical services and the national health service. In particular, we will draw on the NHS to strengthen management capabilities throughout the defence medical services.

That is an important area of work. There have been significant improvements in the defence medical services since we announced the new strategy for them in 1998, but there is still a great deal of work to do. The Government are committed to restoring the services' capability and to ensuring that key defence medical outputs are delivered. That will have a significant impact on improving the welfare of our service men and women and their families.

We face a number of challenges in recruiting, retaining and caring for our service men and women. We are working hard to tackle them, but we are not taking these initiatives in isolation. As I have indicated, they fit within the overarching armed forces personnel strategy, which we established two years ago to provide a framework to guide our work across the whole personnel agenda.

The framework encompasses the work that we must do right across the board, from encouraging the young to join up to supporting and remembering former service personnel. Hence the framework's five themes—cultivate, obtain, retain, sustain and remember. It sets out the overall direction that the Department wishes to pursue in

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achieving its objectives by good management and care of its people. It also aims to maintain the diversity, identity, and ethos of the single services, because the Royal Navy, the Army, and the Royal Air Force must continue to take the leading responsibility in meeting these challenges.

Mr. Hancock: On the key issue of provision for service families, will the Secretary of State assure the House that the service families taskforce, although highly successful, will receive greater resources? Some of the Defence Committee's recommendations have still not been implemented, such as setting transparent targets for education, social health and housing so that families can see what should be achieved. Will the Secretary of State consider introducing greater transparency in the way evaluations for service personnel are carried out and how they interact with TOPMAST? In particular, will he consider the resentment that many service personnel have about Pay 2000 and the fact that the evaluations were not addressed?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman touches on significant issues, some of which I dealt with when I emphasised the importance of families as well as the careers of service men and women. However, I repeat that the work of the taskforce is important and assure the House that we will continue to support its activities. I will give careful consideration to any recommendations made by the Defence Committee that have not been fully or properly implemented.

Mr. Francois: I have a specific point to raise. One thing that infuriates service personnel is that units are often rotated in the summer and by the time they get the address for their new posting it is nigh on impossible to get their children a school place for the start of the school year. That has been a long-running problem for several years. Although the Government say that they will do more to address it, according to anecdotal evidence whatever they have tried is not working. Will they reconsider the problem and try even harder to solve it?

Mr. Hoon: I am well aware of the difficulty and it has exercised my mind for some time. That is why I welcome the changes involving the Department for Education and Skills, and we will continue to pursue that matter. However, there is a wider problem of stability, especially for those in the Army, and we need to find ways to give greater certainty on future postings. The Army is considering that carefully. Although I cannot give full details now, I am keen to see that provision in place in future.

Our people are our most prized asset. They make the difference time after time and in place after place, both at home and across the world. They are engaged in operations that involve considerable risk and significant danger. They work in areas where they may be required to face real danger to protect the principles and rights that we at home perhaps too frequently take for granted. They undertake those missions on our behalf with determination, skill and compassion. We owe it to them to do all we can to ensure that they have the right conditions of service, the right support for their families and the right benefits to get the job done. I do not pretend that that is an easy task or that success has come or will come quickly, but I know that we are on the right road and making good progress.

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2.13 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother for her incredible service to the armed forces throughout most of her life. I also pay tribute to the armed forces themselves for the supreme effort and achievement of the ceremonial duties that they undertook and performed with such professionalism throughout the period of mourning and the funeral of Her Majesty. We congratulate them on that without qualification. I am sure that the House will agree that they are a wonderful advertisement not just for the armed forces but for this country and for what it stands.

I also thank the Secretary of State for a lengthy but useful speech and for taking so many interventions, which gave rise to helpful exchanges on the personnel problems faced by the armed forces. Before embarking on my remarks, I emphasise that there is much common ground between the Government and Her Majesty's official Opposition. We should build on that for the benefit of the armed forces rather than picking at the areas of disagreement between us. However, I have a job to perform, so I will have to pursue some matters of disagreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for addressing the situation in Afghanistan. I am grateful for the opportunity that he afforded me last week, when the Minister of State and I accompanied members of the Select Committee on a valuable visit from which we learned a great deal. I congratulate 1 Royal Anglian regiment on the supremely professional performance of its duties in Kabul. We went on patrol with C company on the streets of Kabul and I am distressed to hear of the tragedy that has struck it. I join the Secretary of State, as I am sure the whole House does, in extending the company my condolences.

Morale was high when we were there. The regiment was pleased with its new personal role radios and I am glad that it has the communications that it needs to do the job. It undertook proper patrolling by walking the streets of Kabul. Other armies were less bold in getting out of their armoured personnel carriers to meet the public. We can take pride in what that regiment is achieving in difficult circumstances.

The enthusiasm expressed by the population of Kabul for British forces in particular and the international security assistance force in general was obvious. Children ran after us everywhere we went, wanting to shake our hands. Even though they could not speak English, they kept asking, "How are you?" with great enthusiasm. We were impressed by civil-military projects to build relations between ISAF and the population. It was moving to visit a school where so many children were pleased to be returning to education after years of oppression.

It is difficult to assess the threat levels. By day, patrols took place without hard hats or body armour and were greeted with extreme enthusiasm by the local population. By night, however, things were different and our forces had to undertake difficult operations in the curfew. Underlying that is the extraordinary depth of ethnic tension, not just in Afghanistan as a whole but in the city of Kabul itself.

Kabul politics remains a melting pot, and I pay tribute to General McColl and his command team. They demonstrated in their briefings a supreme grasp of the political sense of direction necessary to build on what has

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been achieved so far, from the Bonn process to the Loya Jirga in the summer, through to the elections two years after that. General McColl has shown extraordinary initiative. For example, he deployed elements of ISAF to help to relieve the disaster caused by the earthquake. That demonstrated for the first time in decades in Afghanistan how the central Government can matter to outlying parts of the country.

The Bonn process remains fraught with difficulties, however. The Interim Administration are dominated by the Tajiks who were dominant in the Northern Alliance. In particular, the Panshiri three—General Fahim, the Defence Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, the Foreign Minister, and Mr. Rabanni—are seen as the main power brokers. Senior Pashtuns were largely excluded from the Interim Administration in Bonn, and the provision in the Bonn agreement to exclude General Fahim's soldiers from the streets of Kabul has not been enforced.

There needs to be a realistic approach to the Loya Jirga in the summer, which in turn needs to reflect a balance between the Tajiks, the Pashtuns and other elements of Afghan society. If a political stalemate arises, there is a danger that the Interim Administration could start to be regarded as a puppet Government kept in power by uninvited foreigners. The rocket attacks mounted by remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, or other extremists, demonstrate that there are forces afoot anxious to capitalise on any discontent with the Interim Administration. Future stability depends on a much more broadly based and ethnically spread administration following the Loya Jirga in the summer, and on the development of the Afghans' own national army, the Afghan national guard. While we were in Kabul, the first battalion of the national guard had its passing-out parade. I regret that I was not present, but I understand that it showed the influence that British armed forces can have on people from any part of the world, whatever their background.

There is a need for realism, and I invite the Government to be realistic. The Secretary of State says that he remains committed to the success of ISAF. Realistically, for ISAF to complete its mission it will need to be there for another two years after the Loya Jirga until the elections that will then take place. That will provide time for training the Afghan national guard to take over from ISAF and to provide security for the whole of Afghanistan. The United States is committed to that project, and we need to be realistic about time frames.

I was disappointed that it was not possible for Members of Parliament on the trip to visit 45 Commando Royal Marines. Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful to the Secretary of State for keeping me informed about the development of Operation Jacana, and I reiterate the Opposition's support for that operation. Those in 45 Commando are preparing for what can only be described as extremely hazardous operations, and Her Majesty's Opposition stand alongside the Government in facing those risks.

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