|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne):
The UK armed forces in Helmand continue to defeat the Taliban tactically, while supporting Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development programmes to improve governance and provide reconstruction. UK armed forces continue to
provide mentoring and assist in the development of the Afghan security forces, as part of our long-term goal to ensure that the Afghans can take responsibility for their own security.
Paul Flynn: Of course there have been successes in Helmand, but there have been dreadful failures, too. The main one is the totally unexpected scale of the deaths of our valiant soldiers18 died during the parliamentary recessas well as the deaths of Afghan civilians. Those are uncounted, and are mostly women and children killed by American bombs. The result of that is that we are losing the crucial battle for hearts and minds, to the extent that many of the Afghans who welcomed us in 2001 and were glad to see the Taliban out of their country are now preparing to welcome the Taliban back, because they do not want to live in a country that is at war without end.
Des Browne: I assume that there was a question in there at some point, Mr. Speaker, so I will treat it as if it had a question mark at the end of it. My hon. Friend is consistent in his opposition to our deployment in Helmand province. We have debated the issue on numerous occasions. We will have to agree to disagree about it, although I think that we can agree that he ought to report accurately the success of our troops in Helmand province.
As I have told the House already this afternoon, I spent a good part of Friday with a fair representation of 12th Mechanised Brigade, which has achieved a considerable amount over the period to which my hon. Friend referred. Those soldiers, their commanders and their commanding officer, Brigadier Lorimer, are in no doubt that they left a large part of Helmand province in a much better state, in terms of security and reconstruction, than they found it six months ago. I will not have people in the House categorising that as failure. It is not failure; it is significant success.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Given the number of deaths in Helmand province that result in the repatriation of bodies to Wiltshirecases that it falls to the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner to pursuemay I say how grateful Wiltshire is that the budget has been addressed, and that a greater effort is being made by the Ministry of Justice? However, will the Secretary of State say whether the forthcoming coroners Bill will contain any proposals to address the extraordinary anomaly whereby servicemen who, unfortunately, die overseas must have an inquest in England but not in Scotland? Should there not be special provision for military deaths to be treated either with a special military coronerperhaps at the Bulford centreor in another way that gives more consideration to the families of the bereaved than we are able to give at present?
Des Browne: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and his sustained interest in this issue. I also thank him for his recognition of the importance of the additional resources that both the MOD and the Ministry of Justice are providing to support the coroner in Wiltshire. I am confident that those resources, as well as the increased resources in Oxford, will help him to address the increased burden of work that he currently faces as a result of the repatriation of bodies.
The hon. Gentleman addresses an issue that we have known about for some time, a resolution to which we have been discussing with the Scottish Executive. The fact of the matter is that there is no jurisdiction in Scotland for the investigation of deaths abroad. I noted recently that in answer to questions about fatal accident inquiriesthe Scottish equivalent of coroners inqueststhe minority Government Justice Minister in Scotland said that he had no intention of changing the law in relation to them. I hope that he did not really mean that, and that his answer was perhaps just a line that an official had given him, which he had not thought about. We certainly continue to discuss the issue, because we are anxious that families based in Scotland will have the opportunity, in such terribly unfortunate circumstances, to have inquiries conducted near to their homes, as can happen in England and Wales.
Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Minister outline any potential difficulties that the increase in internal problems in Pakistan might cause for troop deployment to Helmand province, given Britains commitment to driving out the Taliban?
Des Browne: As I said earlier, I do not accept that there is necessarily a correlation between our deployment in Afghanistan and the troubles that are internal to Pakistan. I have no doubt that some of the same actors in the insurgency are involved on both sides of the border, and since I first took responsibility for our deployment in Afghanistan as Secretary of State for Defence, I have been in no doubt that there is cross-border traffic from Iran that causes some of the difficulties related to the insurgency. We need to see stable government, progressing towards a democratic Government, and Pakistan is capable of addressing the issue of extremism in that country. However, we should not underestimate the scale and nature of that challenge, and some of the things that we have seen on our television screens over the past week have shown just how difficult it is going to be.
Adam Price (Carmarthen, East and Dinefwr) (PC): Has the Secretary of State had a chance to review the comments made last week by the German Defence Minister, Mr. Franz Josef Jung, in which he criticised the British policy of holding talks with supporters of the Taliban in Musa Qala? When the Secretary of State meets Mr. Jung at the NATO conference, will he point out that if Germany had its troops on the front line in Helmand rather than in the relatively peaceful north, he would appreciate, just as British military commanders do, that this strategy of engagement is essential if we are to have any long-term hope of resolving the conflict?
I have very productive discussions with the German Defence Minister, who is committed to the support of NATO operations in Afghanistan. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is a supporter of the electoral method that generated the coalition that is governing Germany, and I must point out that the Defence Ministers need to operate within that coalition often makes it quite difficult to achieve all that he wants to achieve on the basis of his own politics. Also, with all
due respect to the hon. Gentleman, and while I hear what he is saying, the approach that he suggests might not be as successful as he thinks. He is a great loss to the diplomatic corps if he thinks that it would benefit our troops in Afghanistan to approach the German Government in that fashion. Finally, Musa Qala has not turned out to be a success because it was unsustainable by the Afghan Government, but in my view, that kind of local agreement, which allows the Government to take care of their own areas, has to be the basis for moving forward. I am sure that there will be circumstances in the future in which we will make progress and then see it fall away; we will need to learn to cope with that.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): The main defence role of the merchant fleet is to support and supplement the naval fleet and to participate in reinforcement and resupply operations. To this end, certain British ships, including roll-on/roll-off vessels, product tankers and passenger vessels, are designated as strategic ships.
Mr. Hepburn: Is the Minister aware that in the past 30 years the number of British-registered merchant ships over 500 tonnes has been reduced from 1,600 to 300, and the number of British-registered merchant seamen has been reduced from 90,000 to 16,000? Given the importance of the merchant navy to defence, does he share my concern about that? Is he having discussions with any other arm of government on reversing those bad results?
Mr. Ainsworth: I do not know exactly what my hon. Friend is saying. My figures are certainly different from his, so perhaps we should talk further about this matter afterwards. In my recollection, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made some changes in the legal arrangements, which I know he is proud of. It is widely acknowledged within the merchant fleet that that did a lot to increase the amount of tonnage under British flags. My figures show an increase of 148 per cent. in flagged British ships since the year 2000. I also have a different set of figures for merchant seafarers, according to which there are 27,000, rather than the number suggested by my hon. Friend. Perhaps he and I should get together to ensure that we are talking about the same thing, by cross-referencing our information.
9. Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): How many reservists there were in the armed forces in 1997; and how many there were on the most recent date for which figures are available. 
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): As of 1 April 1997, there were a total of 322,100 regular and volunteer reservists; and as of 1 April 2007, there were approximately 206,200. Those numbers are made up of volunteer reservists, such as the Royal Naval Reserve and the Territorial Army, and regular reservistsex-regular personnel who retain a reserve liability.
Simon Hughes: The residents of Bermondsey and Walworth are, like me, proud of the Royal Marines and the Army reservists who are based in our communities. Colleagues around the country will feel the same. Is it policy or accident that the number of reservists has gone down by a quarter during the period of the Labour Government, and the number in the Territorial Army by more than a third? We heard the other day that, because of defence cuts, the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers have been told that they cannot recruit any more reservists, so can the Minister confirm that no other regiment or unit is being held back from recruitment? Many people want to contribute to the country in this way, which has the potential hugely to enhance our capacity at home and abroad.
The hon. Gentlemans question throws up a couple of points. Back in the late 1990s, the strategic defence review did call for a decrease in the number of reservists, because the nature of defence and defence jobs was changing quite substantially. The 1997 figures were distorted by the fact that in the preceding years there had been big cuts in the regular
Army, which led to a residual reserve capacity in 1997 that has obviously changed with time. I wholly agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to encourage more people to get involved with the reserves. There is currently under-recruitment there, which we need to continue to redress. We all need to work within our communities to ensure that we do the maximum we can to reap the benefit from the huge willingness of so many people to participate in the various branches of the reserves.
Our reserves to meet the unexpected (as well as for current operations) are now almost non-existent...We now have almost no capability to react to the unexpected.
Mr. Ainsworth: It is not the view of the chiefs of the defence staff that we are asking more than is possible of our armed forces. We, as Ministers, share the concern that our armed forces are extremely busy and that there is not a great residue of capacity left aside. We all know that we have two current operations going on. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman is saying that all our armed forces are working extremely hard. No one is trying to hide that at all, but we are dealing with the situation, and our armed forces are dealing with it in an exemplary fashion.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): With permission, Mr Speaker, I want to make a statement about the outcome of the informal European Council in Lisbon. The new agreed text of the amending treaty to support the enlargement of the European Union has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Alongside the treaty, it was agreed at Lisbon that the priority for the European Union must now be the global challenges that we face in relation to employment, prosperity, competitiveness, climate change and security. Todayin a document, Global Europe, published this afternoon and available to the House nowthe Government set out how we will advance those new priorities in the future.
the constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing Treaties and replacing them with a single text called Constitution, is abandoned.
My intention throughout the summer and autumn of negotiations has also been to ensure that the detailed safeguards for the British national interest are written into the text of the treaty. I invite the House to examine in detail both the treaty and the protections that we have secured by our insistence on special treatment for the UK in a range of areas where our national interests demand it.
First, I will ensure that Parliament has the fullest opportunity to examine the protocol on the charter of fundamental rights. The protocol, which is legally binding and enshrined in the treaty itself, provides an essential safeguard for the UK. It states that
the Charter does not extend the ability of the Court of Justice, or any court or tribunal of the United Kingdom, to find that the laws, regulations or administrative provisions, practices or action of the United Kingdom are inconsistent with the fundamental rights, freedoms and principles that the Charter reaffirms.
The legally binding protocol ensures that nothing in the charter of fundamental rights challenges or undermines the rights already set out in UK law. The treaty also ensures that nothing in the charter extends the ability of any court, European or national, to strike down UK law. The point is reaffirmed in the protocol:
in particular, and for the avoidance of doubt, nothing in Title IV of the charter creates justiciable rights applicable to the United Kingdom except in so far as the United Kingdom has provided for such rights in its national law.
Secondly, we have secured in detail vital safeguards to our criminal law system and police and judicial processes, while making it possible to co-operate across borders when we choose to do so and when it is right in matters vital to our security. The safeguards are also enshrined in legally binding protocols to the treaty. They prescribe in detail our sovereign right to opt in on individual measures when we consider it in the British interest to do so, but also to remain outside if that is in
our interests. In the past, for example, we have opted in on measures dealing with combating illegal immigration and the exchange of information when such measures are unquestionably in Britain's interests. The new treaty gives us freedom to protect the fundamentals of our common law system if we believe that it could be jeopardised, while at the same time allowing us to participate in areas where co-operation is in the national interest. The agreement set out in the details of the text is that it will be in our exclusive power to decide, on a measure-by-measure basis.
As a result of our recent negotiations, the opt-in now covers all types of measures, including completely new measures and amendments to existing measures. When measures come forward under the Schengen agreement, we also have the right to opt out. We can choose to participate in any and every measure, but we cannot be forced to do so. If we choose not to, there is a fair, objective and robust system for consequential changes, but no financial or other penalties. We have secured a comprehensive, legally binding opt-in on all justice and home affairs measures, which will enable the UK to choose whether or not to participate in any justice or home affairs measure in the future.
I turn to the common foreign and security policy. I welcome further scrutiny by this House of the agreements that we have secured because, again, I believe it is now absolutely clear that the basis of foreign and security policy will remain intergovernmentala matter for Governments to decide. The intergovernmental basis is unchanged, and subject to distinct rules and procedures that protect that position. The declaration that we secured expressly states that nothing in the treaty affects the existing powers of member states to formulate and conduct their foreign policy, including maintaining their own national diplomatic services and membership of the United Nations Security Council. There is no sole right of initiative for the Commission, and there is no role for the European Parliament in decision taking. Voting by unanimity is the rule for all policy decisions. Apart from two specific and limited provisions in foreign policyappeals against EU sanctions and, as now, any overlap, for example, with international development assistancethere is no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice.
The declaration agreed on Friday made it clear that the European Parliament would have no new role in the appointment to the new post of high representative, which will be made by the European Council. And there will be no change to the way EU foreign policy is decidedit will continue to be governed by unanimity. There is, in addition, a clear declaration that nothing in the treaty, including the Office of the High Representative and the External Action Service will
affect in any way the existing legal basis, responsibilities, and powers of each Member State in relation to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy, its national diplomatic service, relations with third countries, and participation in international organisations, including a Member States membership of the Security Council of the UN.
|Next Section||Index||Home Page|