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House of Commons

Monday 26 June 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Canberra Bomber

1. Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): With what he plans to replace the Canberra Bomber as a wet film camera platform. [79710]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): After the retirement from service of the Canberra PR9 at the end of next month, we will continue to provide military intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance capabilities through a combination of in-service systems and new equipment programmes such as ASTOR and Watchkeeper, which will incrementally deliver enhanced capability.

Mr. Gale: The analysts are all agreed that wet film—traditional film—provides a higher definition and resolution than any other service. What the Minister has described is a platform for providing digital surveillance, which is not good enough. We have known for a long time that Canberra is going out of service at the end of the month. What will provide a platform for the wet film cameras?

Mr. Ingram: We propose to invest between £2 billion and £2.5 billion per annum over the next 10 years on our network-enabled capability. That will give us a range of stand-off surveillance systems, which will greatly enhance our capability. The hon. Gentleman says authoritatively that wet film is the only way forward, but that is not the analysis of those who are considering our new requirements for a network-enabled capability, which co-ordinates what is happening in the field and what we see from the sky and provides enhanced communication to people on the ground.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Is there any risk that the successor to the Canberra will not be end-on to the retirement date for Canberra, and that we shall therefore avoid a capability gap of the sort that some analysts have been predicting for some time?

Mr. Ingram: We have a range of new systems coming on-stream, one of which is ASTOR, which is the overall capability, while the Raptor reconnaissance pod will be fitted to Tornados and is expected to be ready for operation before the end of this year. That will provide an enhanced capability and is a wet film concept upgraded to digital technology. I hear what my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) say, but our proposal is based on what we believe to be the appropriate technology for the decades ahead. It is a major investment based on the best analysis of what we need to meet our requirements in the field.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Will the Minister find time today to pay tribute to the last remaining Canberra PR9 squadron based at RAF Marham? Such squadrons are in many ways the
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unsung heroes of numerous conflicts over the past 40 years or so, flying in extremely tough conditions in all weathers.

Mr. Ingram: I am only too happy to do so. The media has shown some good news footage about all that recently, pointing to the age of some of the crew who have been with that aircraft for a considerable number of years and provided work of incredibly high quality. I am sure that those who fly on the replacement reconnaissance aircraft, combined with the unmanned facility, will provide an equally high standard in the decades to come.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): I join my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) in paying tribute to this singular aircraft, its contribution to the Royal Air Force and its capabilities over the past 55 years. No other aeroplane can hold a candle to the service that the Canberra has given. I understand that even Her Majesty the Queen had a small tear in her eye as she saw the last Canberra fly over Buckingham palace.

I have seen the Canberra in operation in Oman, where I spoke to the crew. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) says, there is no substitute for wet film. Given the Minister’s acceptance of the singular capability of the Canberra, its replacement with what he described as a combination of incremental improvements is no substitute for the Canberra. When will Project Dabinett, the Ministry of Defence’s study of the long-term replacement for that capability report? Are not our armed forces again being made to carry the operational risk of yet another capability gap because the Ministry of Defence makes it decisions not on military imperatives but to deliver more short-term savings to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who now struts around the country pretending to be the new friend of the armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman wanted to ask a question or to make a political attack. I shall deal with the political attack first. Let us remember that we have seen the largest real-terms increase in defence expenditure for 20 years. That will procure, for land, sea and air, a substantial upgrade of all our equipment needs for decades ahead.

The hon. Gentleman asked about a specific project. I do not have any information to hand on when a report on it is likely, but I will write to him.

As for the idea that what we are doing is short-term and represents a cut, I have given the figure for the investment that we shall be making in digital technology. What we are doing is all about improving the capability of our operatives in the field. That is the direction in which our European allies and the United States are going, and it will give us inter-operability with our main allies. I do not see it as a cut; I see it as an enhanced capability.


2. Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [79711]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Before I answer the question I will, with the permission of the House, take the opportunity on a special day to pay tribute to those who, through their exceptional valour, have earned either the Victoria Cross or the George Cross. My ministerial colleagues, along with members of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition and representatives of the Liberal Democrats, were privileged to be at a commemorative service for the 150th anniversary of the Victoria Cross and the 50th anniversary of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association in Westminster abbey this morning in the presence of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Those of us who were present at that very simple and dignified service, in the presence of holders of those decorations, were both honoured and humbled to be there.

While there has been an increase in violence across Iraq in recent months, the majority of attacks remain confined to four out of 18 provinces. Although across three of the provinces in Multi-National Division (South-East) the security situation remains relatively calm, in Basra there has been a recent increase in violence. However, on 19( )June the Prime Minister of Iraq announced a security plan for Basra which has been agreed with the coalition forces. He also announced that the Iraqi security forces would take responsibility for the security of Muthanna province from next month. Both those events were unfolding during my visit last week. As they have very important implications for our troops, I am sure Members will understand why I decided there and then to extend my visit at the expense of my contribution to the defence policy debate in the House on Thursday.

Mr. Ruffley: Nearly a quarter of the British soldiers lost in hostile action in Iraq were in Snatch Land Rovers at the time. Those vehicles are widely recognised to be inadequately armoured to withstand roadside bombs, and are consequently seen as a soft target for insurgents. In the interests of preventing unnecessary deaths, will the Secretary of State tell us which specific vehicles he is considering deploying as replacements for Snatch Land Rovers in Iraq?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. The Snatch Land Rover was a popular option earlier in the campaign in Afghanistan, because it was mobile and a good all-rounder, and had the right profile to help our troops to engage with the people of Basra in Multi-National Division (South-East). I think Members will appreciate that a vision of our troops thundering down narrow streets with battle tanks was not exactly what we wanted to convey to the people of Basra and other parts of south-east Iraq.

Things are changing. As I have said, the level of violence in Basra has increased. I will not go into detail for obvious reasons, but the weapons that the terrorists are using have changed radically, as I have seen for myself on visits. I have seen that that is a serious issue, and have asked for a review. There are medium and long-term plans relating to vehicles, and I shall be considering what we can do to respond to the situation in the short term—although we do also respond by means of tactics and operational instructions.

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John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that enough is being done to secure the border with Iran, and to prevent Iranian influence in southern Iraq and Basra? I am thinking particularly of the transport of improvised explosive devices which are being used against Snatch vehicles.

Des Browne: I am sure my hon. Friend is aware of the size of the land border between Iraq and Iran. I am sure he is also aware of something that is very clear to me: many of the people living in that area do not necessarily accept in their lifestyles the lines that others have drawn on the maps for them. There are tribes that move freely across the borders and have done so for generations, long before any European country had any interest in that part of the world. It is highly unlikely that any military operation will change that way of life. That having been said, we are very aware of the malign influence that interference by those outside Iraq’s borders can have on its politics and destiny. My hon. Friend can rest assured that that is significantly high in our interest and that of the Iraqi Government, and will figure as part of the Basra security plan.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The Minister of State said last week in the debate:

Bearing that in mind, what street parameters are regarded as reasonably acceptable—including width and spacing between buildings—for Snatch armoured Land Rovers to patrol in urban areas in Iraq?

Des Browne: I cannot give the hon. Lady a response to a specific question about sizes of streets, and I apologise to her if she thinks that I should be able to do so. I shall look into the issue and if it is of any relevance to the point that I think underlies her question, I will be in touch with her. Decisions on which vehicles to use on operations are for the commanders on the ground. They have to weigh up several points—including the levels of protection, which have been the focus of the debate on the Snatch Land Rover, its mobility, and the ability to reduce the threat through tactics—and they then make a choice. In the view of the general who has responsibility for that area, protection is 30 per cent. about equipment, 60 per cent. about tactics and—because soldiering is a difficult and dangerous operation in those circumstances—the other 10 per cent. is accounted for by other elements.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (North-East Hampshire) (Con): In Baghdad a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to discover that NATO has a training mission there. What does the Secretary of State envisage as the future of that training mission? Does he envisage that it will take over the whole of the training in Iraq when the multinational security transition command is wound up next year?

Des Browne: I know that the right hon. Gentleman had an important and informative visit to Iraq with his Select Committee. I am not in a position to give him a direct response to that question at this stage, but NATO training is very important to building capacity in the Iraqi security forces. It is certain that beyond the date that he mentions, when the planned multinational
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training comes to an end, there will continue to be a need for training for the Iraqi security forces, and it is almost certain that NATO countries, if not NATO itself, will make a significant contribution to that.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): What assessment does the Secretary of State make of the effect that the indefinite detention of 14,000 Iraqi prisoners, under the authority of the multinational forces, is having on perpetuating the insurgency? What measures are in place to charge and try those people under any recognisable judicial procedure and what hope is there that the reconciliation moves being mooted by the new Prime Minister might lead to the release of some of those people soon?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in addition to those who are in the detention principally of the United States, some 30,000 others are in the detention of the Iraqi Government. In all my meetings last week with a significant number of Iraqi Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the President, I discussed the issue of detention. It is an important issue and, in my view, there is no possibility of a sustainable and long-term future for the new Government of Iraq beyond the point of relying on coalition forces if they have large numbers of people in detention and insufficient judicial capacity to deal with them. Consequently, I was pleased that the need to address the significant number of people in detention was a significant part of the reconciliation statement made yesterday by Prime Minister Maliki. However, hon. Members have to understand that many of those people are detained because they are a danger to the Iraqi people. The Government’s ability to deal with those detained in the context of reconciliation will be a function of their ability to build a judicial system that can deal with that number of people.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): General Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, said last week:

Do the Government share that very serious American assessment of Iranian involvement, and what increased risk does it pose to our troops?

Des Browne: I have said, and my predecessor said, that from the nature of some of those weapons, and the coincidence in the description of them and the weapons in the hands of those who have been associated with Iran in the delivery of violence through terrorist activity in other parts of the world, some of them are believed to have their roots in Iran. Whether they are being brought into Iran on the instructions and direction of the Iranian Government or by other elements is not yet clear. However, those sophisticated weapons pose a considerable threat to our forces.

Dr. Fox: Clearly, there is an increased risk. Lord Drayson told the other place recently that in Iraq, the Snatch Land Rover

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Fusilier Gordon Gentle was killed by a road-side bomb way back in June 2004, and since then other soldiers have been killed who would have survived if they had been in properly armed vehicles.

Snatch Land Rovers do not offer the level of protection that our troops need in Iraq, yet we continue to use them. Why are our troops not given the level of protection that they need, and which American troops already enjoy? Commanders cannot deploy vehicles that they do not have.

Des Browne: As I have already said to the House, it is open to commanders to deploy vehicles that have heavier protection than the Snatch Land Rover and they have to make— [Interruption.] Other vehicles are available to them; there is a choice. However, commanders must be free to make decisions in relation to the operations for which they deploy soldiers. I have already said to the House that I am aware of the issue: I could not but be aware of it following my visit last week and, indeed, my earlier visit. I have asked for a review of what we can do in the long term and immediately. I shall see what we can do immediately to respond to the changing situation, although significant measures other than those in relation to the vehicle’s armour must be taken. We are at the leading edge of some of them, and electronic counter-measures, in particular.

Veterans Challenge Fund

3. Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): What projects the veterans challenge fund has supported in the last 12 months. [79712]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): The veterans challenge fund allows communities to celebrate the role veterans play in our society by financing projects that support the three pillars of the veterans strategy. They are: to provide excellent preparation for the transition of service personnel back to civilian life; to provide advice and support for those of our veterans who need it; and to ensure that the nation recognises, understands and commemorates veterans’ contribution to society.

In the past 12 months the fund has supported 23 projects, ranging from work with rough-sleeping veterans to support for the ongoing Victoria Cross and George Cross anniversary celebrations.

Mr. Joyce: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. A number of my constituents have contacted me with a view to setting up a local advice facility for veterans. Will he agree to meet them along with me at some point?

Mr. Watson: I should be delighted to meet them. That sounds exactly the sort of initiative for which the veterans challenge fund was created.


4. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): When he expects UK forces to leave Basra. [79713]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The requirement for a continuing coalition presence in Basra will persist until clearly defined conditions are achieved. As with all 18 Iraqi provinces, it is the achievement of those conditions that will ultimately determine when Iraqi security forces can take over responsibility for security.

Harry Cohen: Is not the purpose of UK forces in Basra to maintain order and to ensure basic amenities? If so, why did a state of emergency have to be declared after a surge of killings, and why is Bill Neely, ITN’s international editor, reporting on limbs amputated for lack of basic medical supplies, children dying from preventable diseases, and no treatment for cancer patients for three years in Basra’s main hospital? Why are Ministers sleep-walking when they should be waking up to their responsibilities? If they say, “Can’t do”, should not it be a case of “Can’t stay”?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend’s position on the presence of British forces in Iraq is well known, as it has been over the years. The fact is that British forces in Basra have seen an improvement in a significant number of the services available to the people of Basra. There has been an increase in violence over the last few months, but that is entirely coincidental with the period between the election and the formation of the Iraqi Government. The Iraqi Government are now in place and the Prime Minister, the new Defence Minister and the new Minister of the Interior have publicly stated that security in Basra is a priority. They have developed a plan that will be led by the Iraqi security forces themselves, in the form of the Iraqi army. There are significant difficulties; the Iraqi police have been significantly infiltrated by violent groups who are part of an outside process and there is a degree of corruption, but the plan addresses those issues. To suggest that the situation for the ordinary people of Basra is no better since British forces have been there is not true—it has improved for them.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Whatever the time scale for our armed forces in Basra, the Secretary of State’s earlier comments on possible replacements for the Snatch Land Rover in Basra and elsewhere in Iraq are welcome, provided they lead to early action. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the grievous gap in our capability for clearing mines for light forces, which in practice means most of our forces in Iraq, and indeed in Afghanistan. Both those factors are putting lives at risk unnecessarily.

Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. I have already made my position clear to the House, so it is unnecessary to repeat it. I shall take into account the hon. Gentleman’s second point, although I am not aware of a level of risk immediately generated by the absence of capability that he suggests.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): When the members of the Select Committee on Defence were in Iraq recently we met members of the 10th Division and General Latif. As well as giving the Iraqis support in training, did my right hon. Friend hold discussions
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with the Iraqi Government about how they can be resourced in terms of equipment and other things they need to do the job that they are eager and willing to take over in neighbouring states, as well as playing their part in bringing security to Basra?

Des Browne: I, too, met General Latif and visited the 10th Division. At that stage, he was proudly showing off to me the equipment allocated to him. The indications were that if there had been a blockage in relation to the necessary equipment, the equipment was now forthcoming. The 10th Division was deploying forces in Basra city when I was there, giving security in the city a clear Iraqi face, which was welcome both to our troops and to the people of the city.

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