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House of Commons

Monday 26 February 2007

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Missile Defence System

2. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the case for a missile defence system for the UK. [122580]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Before I turn to the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I am sure that the whole House will join me in offering my condolences to the family and friends of Marine Jonathan Holland, of 45 Commando, who died in Afghanistan last week. His loss is a further reminder of the bravery and commitment of all our personnel, military and civilian, who serve in dangerous places and do such amazing work.

We continue to examine the potential options for future UK participation in a missile defence system. The NATO summit at Riga last November tasked continued work on the political and military implications of missile defence for the alliance. The work is now under way and the UK remains closely involved in it.

Mr. Goodwill: Many of my constituents work at RAF Fylingdales, which has played a vital role in the defence of our nation, particularly during the cold war. What role does the Secretary of State see RAF Fylingdales playing in the future defence of our country?

Des Browne: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that our view is that RAF Fylingdales, which, as he says, has played such an important role thus far in the defence of our country, will continue to play a very important role. The UK already makes a contribution to the US missile defence system through the early warning radar at RAF Fylingdales, and through well-established technical co-operation programmes, which include the work of Fylingdales. I do not see that that is likely to come to an end in the near future.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): I endorse the words of the Secretary of State in expressing his condolences. What contact has the Prime Minister had with the American President about this missile defence system, and does the Secretary of State recognise that
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reports suggest that the Americans have already spent $90 billion on research? Does he believe that the system actually works, or is there some risk that people might develop a false sense of security if we have it in the UK? What impact does he think that it might have on our relations with Russia and China? More broadly, is there any sense that this might make us a target, and does he think that it will have any impact on—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is already four questions.

Des Browne: I shall endeavour, Mr. Speaker, to give the hon. Gentleman a short answer to his questions. I do not know what he means by asking whether the system “actually works”, and I am not in a position to give the House an assessment of whether the proposed United States system will work, but my understanding is that it is at the developmental stage. As far as Russia and other states that have developed responsible attitudes to missile defence are concerned, the system, as I understand it, is not intended to defend against them, but to address limited threats from states that seek to acquire, and threaten the use of, ballistic missiles. Frankly, talk of being targeted as a consequence of the development of such a system is entirely uncalled for. According to the way in which the system has been explained to me, it does not pose a threat to anyone.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Why has the Secretary of State chosen to reveal the fact that such discussions were going on with the United States only following an article in The Economist last week, given that Members of this House have been asking questions about the subject for more than 18 months? Why does he not want to engender cross-party consensus on this issue by being prepared to discuss it with my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State?

Des Browne: In the time that I have been the Secretary of State I have answered questions on this issue, as the hon. Gentleman will see if he checks the records of this House. Indeed, I have a number of such questions in my brief, and if I could find them I would quote them to him; however, he can check them for himself in the record. I have made it clear, as did my predecessor and his predecessor, that we continue to be involved in discussions with our NATO allies, including the United States of America, on ballistic missile defence. Nothing in what has been revealed is inconsistent with what I have said in the past, and I have checked to make sure that that is the case. No decisions have been taken, no matter what may have been suggested, but frankly, it would be irresponsible of the Government not to explore with the United States and our other NATO allies the implications that the system might offer for the security of the United Kingdom. That is what we are doing and will continue to do, and the House will be informed, as I said in July, of any change to the current position.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): May I begin by associating myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about Jonathan Holland? The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with his family and friends.

May I just jog the Secretary of State’s memory a little? On 1 November last year, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot
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(Mr. Howarth) asking him what discussions he had had with the United States Government about the provision of a ballistic missile defence system site in the United Kingdom, he gave the answer:

Far from there being frankness on the issue, we would not even have known that discussions were taking place had it not been for The Economist. Now that we have had confirmation from Downing street that such talks are taking place, can the Secretary of State tell us exactly what the status of the talks is, what the future plans for talks are, what we may have been committed to in terms of planning or development, and what the time scales for decisions will be?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman’s researches on the questions that I have answered are incomplete. On 29 June, in response to questions posed by a Liberal Member, I told the House:

If the hon. Gentleman cares to research fully the questions that I and others have answered, he will see that our position is consistent with the position that Governments before our Government have occupied, which is that we do not talk about discussions between Ministers, for the obvious reasons that I have given in answer to the question that he asked. Perhaps if he had asked another question, he might have been given the answer that Liberal Members were given, but in any event his researches should have revealed it.

We have not moved from the position that I have consistently explained to the House. No decisions have been taken, and no amount of presenting what has been going on and has appropriately been reported to the House will alter that fact. We are not at the decision-making stage. The United States has announced the beginning of negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic, and it would be irresponsible of our Government not to explore with the US and NATO the implications that the system might offer for the defence of the United Kingdom. That is all we have been doing.

Dr. Fox: It is clear that the answers from the Secretary of State’s Department are, at the very least, inconsistent. Opposition Members—those on the Conservative Benches, in particular—would welcome any discussions that we had with the United States about such a system, or, indeed, any system that might increase the security of the United Kingdom. Can the Secretary of State tell us when he feels that he will be able to give the House an assessment of the technical capabilities of such a system as it develops—and with both Iran and Russia among the large number of countries that are increasing their ballistic missile spending, does he not believe that it would be prudent
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for us to be involved in such talks? Also on that issue, who does he believe is likely to be the main threat in the years ahead?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that NATO carried out a feasibility study, which was commissioned in Prague in 2002. Although the detail of that study is classified, it is perfectly clear that it has come to the conclusion that although at the moment there is not a coincidence of capability and intent, there is, in the view of the Government, a strong possibility of that developing in the years to come. The hon. Gentleman identifies Iran as one of the countries that may be developing such a capability, and of course we saw the developments over the weekend. I agree with his assessment that it would be entirely appropriate for the UK Government, commensurate with our responsibility for the defence of the United Kingdom, to keep abreast of discussions and developments in relation to that potentially very important capability, which is exactly what we have been doing.


3. Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [122581]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The security situation in some parts of Iraq, especially Baghdad, remains serious, mainly as a result of inter-communal violence and indiscriminate attacks by terrorist and militant groups. A new Iraqi-US security plan for Baghdad, Fard al-Qanoon, which translates as Operation Enforce the Law, and which is aimed at improving the security situation there, commenced on 14 February. Elsewhere in Iraq the security situation is better, particularly in the north and south of the country. That is why last week my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was able to announce our plans to reposture UK forces in Basra and draw down some 1,600 troops.

Mr. Leigh: The Secretary of State will recall the many warnings given at the time of the invasion about the difficulties facing western powers in imposing a security solution on an Arab nation. Looking forward, can he give a candid assessment of the quality and integrity of the Iraqi security forces, particularly those in the south of the country, and appraise the House of the detailed conditions that will have to be met before there can be a major withdrawal of British troops?

Des Browne: The hon. Gentleman identifies exactly what will be the measure of our ability to withdraw from Iraq—the ability of the Iraqi forces and their Government to deliver security for the people of Iraq. He asks me for a candid assessment of the ability of the security forces, particularly those in the south, and he will be aware that we are working there with the 10th division of the Iraqi army. Those who assess the capabilities of those forces advise me that, bearing in mind the fact that they have been in existence for less than four years, they have made significant progress and have reached the stage at which they can take the lead in relation to delivering security for their people. That is why in Operation Sinbad they were able to take the lead and carry out the later phases of the operation. In my view, the Iraqi police force is further behind in its
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development. There are still significant difficulties in terms of militia infiltration of the force, but one of the advantages of Operation Sinbad was that it even led to an improvement in the Iraqi police.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether there has been any movement in relation to the release of detainees by the Iraqi Government? Does he agree that that is important to achieving buy-in by all sectors of the Government to achieving security?

Des Browne: My hon. Friend identifies a significant challenge for the Iraqi Government in the future. Many thousands of people are at present detained and the Iraqi Government, as they take over responsibility, will have to face the challenge of processing those people though their justice system and ensuring that there is not a long residue of discontent among a substantial part of the population when the Government take more control. As a matter of fact, I understand that many thousands of detainees have been released recently, but it is anticipated that as a consequence of the current operation in Baghdad, others may be detained to fill those spaces. The challenge remains, and the Iraqi Government’s ability to deal with it will be more a function of their ability to stand up a justice system and to stand up security forces.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Is not the case that the military have almost lost the ability to fight an insurgency war, and are certainly inadequately equipped to do so? This, coupled with the present rules of engagement, makes it well nigh impossible to make progress in this theatre, and that is not good for the security situation as a whole.

Des Browne: I do not agree with the hon. Lady. Our troops are simply not ill-equipped. We have introduced a range of new systems over the past few years that have enhanced our troops’ capability quite significantly—for example, new body armour, underslung grenade launchers, night vision equipment, light machine guns, ballistic eye protection and a range of other offensive and defensive systems, not to mention the progress that we have made in past months in relation to protected vehicles.

Equally, I do not accept that our military are not capable of undertaking counter-insurgency work. Indeed, the contrary is the case. In my view, the British military are the best in the world at undertaking counter-insurgency. That is why General Petraeus, who is in charge of the coalition forces in Iraq, has drawn substantially on our counter-insurgency strategic approach to inform the way in which the American military will now operate. The evidence of that is the improvement that our troops have made in the south-east of Iraq, and we should not underestimate the achievement for which they have been responsible. It has allowed us to announce the draw-down last week.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Four weeks ago, four hon. Members were in Basra with British troops as part of the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We saw the tented accommodation at the Shatt al-Arab hotel, which British forces were in until Christmas. It has been heavily bombed, and that is where several British troops have died. We also saw the new accommodation that the troops are now in, in the more secure
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circumstances inside the Shatt al-Arab hotel, but they will now all be withdrawn from the hotel to the British air base. Does the Secretary of State worry that British troops will now effectively be a sitting target for insurgents? What is to be done to ensure that we have better ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—support and that we have more secure accommodation, not just tented accommodation, for British troops?

Des Browne: All the issues that my hon. Friend identifies are being actively pursued as we speak. The military advice that I have received is that, as we concentrate our forces back into the Basra air stations, it will easier, and we will be better placed, to defend our troops. There are a number of reasons why that is the case. I do not want to go into them in detail. I am constantly torn when it comes to giving details in the House of the steps that we take to protect our troops, because I do not want to undermine their security. I make my hon. Friend the same offer as I have made to other hon. Members: if he wants a private briefing in relation to this matter, I would be happy to give it to him. I am not prepared to discuss in public the steps that we are taking, but he can rest assured that all the observations that he makes I have made myself on my visits. My top priority for our troops is their safety. Daily, I am involved with the chiefs of staff and others to make sure that we are doing everything that we can to enhance the troops’ protection.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup) (Con): I am aware of the Secretary of State’s understandable reluctance in relation to how much he can tell the House, but perhaps he can tell us what is happening about the deployment of safer vehicles for patrol purposes for our forces in Iraq. Clearly, the Iraqi security forces have a long way to go. That leaves our personnel exposed. The Secretary of State assured the House that that problem would be solved, but everybody seems to say that it is not being solved. Who is telling the truth?

Des Browne: I do not know who “everybody” is. Over the last three or four days, in anticipation of coming to the Dispatch Box, I spoke to General Shaw, who is in command of our troops. I always ask about the deployment of these vehicles, and I am assured that they are being deployed. Again, there is a reluctance on my part—I am sure that the House appreciates this—to go into exact numbers, but we are on course to meet the deployment of the protected vehicles that I announced to the House. We set an enormously challenging target for the procurement of those vehicles. Many people said at the outset that we would never meet that target. I am not prepared to argue with the House about a day here or there, but broadly, we are meeting the target and are on course to deliver within the time scale that I announced to the House.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring) (Con): The Government promised to keep the House informed about Iranian involvement in Iraq. Given that British soldiers have now almost certainly been killed by roadside bombs made in Iran and used by insurgents trained in Iran, will the Secretary of State give us an update on his assessment of Iranian involvement and the risk produced for British troops?

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Des Browne: My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with this issue in response to questions when he made his statement to the House last Wednesday. I am happy to associate myself with everything that the Prime Minister said about it. There is evidence to suggest that there are weapons, and support for militia and those who are attacking our troops in Multi-National Division (South-East), that originate in Iran. There is evidence to suggest that the Quds force has been involved in that. As far as I am aware, there is not evidence that goes any further than that, but of course we are conscious of that situation and configure our response to it in such as way as to address those networks, both at the border and elsewhere in the south-east, and to counter that challenge.


4. Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): What progress has been made in improving basic services in Helmand province. [122582]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The UK-led provincial reconstruction team in Helmand, assisted by 28 Regiment Royal Engineers, has started to implement more than 100 quick impact projects, which are aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Afghans. Those projects include providing a generator in a hospital in the capital, Lashkar Gah; repairs to schools and the construction of classrooms; a new midwifery hospital; the reinforcement of river banks and flood defences; the refurbishment of tractors and ploughs to encourage legitimate agriculture; and emergency food distribution. Under a programme funded by the Department for International Development, for example, wells are being dug that will provide clean water for 120,000 people.

Mr. Jenkins: My right hon. Friend will know that I would usually follow that up rather vigorously by talking about the need for security and a security shield, and the reasons why the security shield might be creaking at present. However, given the statement that I expect later, may I ask him, quite seriously, which of those projects he considers to be the most important—the greatest—in promoting to people in our country and the rest of Europe the reason why NATO is there?

Des Browne: I look forward to my hon. Friend’s question in the context of the statement, if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. Of the projects that are planned for, or taking place in, Helmand, undoubtedly the most important is the development of the Kajaki dam. There is no question but that that reconstruction work, when completed, will make a significant and life-changing difference to more than 1.8 million people in Helmand province and throughout the south of Afghanistan. The reason for that is that the development will not only generate electricity for people and communities who have never had it before, but add substantially to the agricultural potential of the Helmand river valley by doubling the area that can be tilled.

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