This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
In 2006, we sent 3,000 troops into Afghanistan as part of a reconstruction mission. Now, our objectives are to defeat terrorism and to make Afghanistan a stable and effective state. Many of my constituents are not convinced that we have a credible strategy for achieving those objectives. Will the Prime Minister look again at those objectives in the context of what is achievable, so that I can explain to people in my constituency how we are to judge success?
I have to say to the hon. Gentleman's constituents that, since 2001, our objective has been to restrain, contain and defeat terrorism by acting in Afghanistan and working with the Pakistan Government. It was true that, in 2001, al-Qaeda was based in Afghanistan and given cover by the Taliban there. It is also true that it is now based mainly in north Pakistan. We have to make sure that terrorism cannot hit the streets of Britain, and that is why we cannot allow the Taliban or al-Qaeda-related activities to flourish in Afghanistan, and why we cannot allow the Pakistan Government to be overrun by people who are operating through al-Qaeda and the Pakistan Taliban. What I think is encouraging-and why I think that the hon. Gentleman should be able to tell his constituents that things are moving forward-is that, for the first time, the Pakistan Government are taking direct action in a systematic way, with the support of the population of Pakistan, against the Taliban and against al-Qaeda in Pakistan. That means that we have complementary action in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and that is a necessary means of defeating terrorism in the world.
My right hon. Friend asked your predecessor, Mr. Speaker, to set up a Speaker's Conference to report on how we could increase the numbers of women, people from ethnic minorities and disabled people being elected to this House. This morning, the conference has published an interim report that makes proposals to increase the diversity of candidates standing for all the parties at the next general election as a step towards restoring people's faith in the democratic process, and in this House in particular. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to giving their wholehearted support to the important recommendations in the report, and encourage the leaders of all the parties in the House to do the same?
We should thank my hon. Friend, who was vice-chairman of the group that has submitted the interim report today. This is an important opportunity further to increase the number of women and disabled, black, Asian and minority ethnic people in our Parliament. The Government are committed to ensuring greater diversity of representation in public and political life-
Yesterday, the whole country shared in the sorrow of our armed forces' families as they saw their loved ones come home. We support our troops and the reasons for their being in Afghanistan, but is not there a need for an even tighter definition of our mission? We are not trying to build a perfect democracy; we must focus solely on building security and stability so that the terrorists can never return. We have been in Afghanistan for eight years now. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that, if we are to maintain public support here and, vitally, in Afghanistan, we will have to show greater urgency and make more visible progress?
The whole country joins the people of Wootton Bassett in the dignified way in which they recognise the service and sacrifice of our armed forces. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people of Wootton Bassett who have to endure great tragedies and effectively see them happen as they welcome back the people who have died on behalf of our country. I hope-in fact, I know so-that everybody in the House will thank them for what they did yesterday.
The purpose of our mission in Afghanistan is very clear: it is to prevent terrorism coming to the streets of Britain. We are complementing the military action we are taking with action to build up the Afghan forces-the police and the military forces-and with economic and social development programmes that we are pursuing in Afghanistan to give people in that country a stake in the future.
As I have said, we must work on two fronts. We must ensure that we attack terrorism in Pakistan as well as defeat what is happening in Afghanistan. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we increased the number of forces from 8,100 to 9,000 so that we could clear ground and make it safe for the population of many areas of Afghanistan to vote in the coming general election and at the same time to enjoy the schools and the hospitals that are denied to them by the activities of the Taliban.
I want to thank our forces involved in Operation Panther's Claw for what they are doing. They have the support of the whole country, and they have the resources and equipment they need. Of course we keep under review the numbers and the equipment needed for the future. I have said that we will look again at this after we have seen the Afghan election pass, peacefully and democratically, we hope. At the same time, I have talked to President Karzai about Afghanistan's own responsibilities-that the Afghans should provide army and police to Operation Panther's Claw. President Karzai has promised that he will provide additional resources for that purpose, and I believe that that is now starting to happen. I have also said to President Karzai that after October-[Hon. Members: "Come on"] I think it is important for the House to know this-after October, we are prepared to do more work mentoring and training the Afghan security services. We will consider that as we make our decisions on what we do after October.
Of course, the most recent focus on building up the Afghan army and on the co-ordination between Afghanistan and Pakistan is right, but I think it would help to acknowledge that some of the early objectives were slightly lofty, slightly vague and the co-ordination was not there. I think we will take people with us for the future if we actually admit to some of the things that were got wrong in the past.
Let me ask some specific questions about helicopters and Afghanistan. Is not the basic problem this: the number of helicopters in Afghanistan is simply insufficient? Will the Prime Minister confirm that the American marines, who have approximately the same number of troops as us in Helmand, are supported by some 100 helicopters, whereas our troops are supported by fewer than 30? That is the case, isn't it?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to raise issues about the equipment so that I can assure him that we are doing everything that we can. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] I must point out that Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, who is on the ground in Afghanistan, has said:
"There's much speculation about helicopters and have we got enough. It's a sad fact that helicopters would not have saved the lives of the individuals last week."
The commander on the ground, he said,
"has sufficient to get on with the task with which he's been given."
And why? Because we have increased the number of helicopters by 60 per cent. over the last two years and we have increased the capability of helicopters by 84 per cent. I visited RAF Benson on Monday to see the Merlin helicopters that will be deployed in the field by the end of the year, and the training is being done immediately in America- [Interruption.] Look, as they move from Iraq to Afghanistan-I need to explain this-those helicopters are dealing with different terrain. They have to re-equip for the functions in Afghanistan, where they have to deal with heights and problems connected with temperatures and the weather. The helicopters are being refitted for that purpose. The crew have to be trained in different environments to be ready for Afghanistan.
Over the next 10 years, our helicopter budget will be £6 billion, spent to improve our helicopters in the future. We are working with NATO, which is providing through contracts helicopters for the transit of equipment, and at the same time, we have created a helicopter fund, which was our initiative, and others among our allies are now contributing, I believe, 11 helicopters to the allied effort in Afghanistan over the next period. We have done everything that we can to increase the number of helicopters and there will be more Merlin helicopters in the field.
I ask the Conservative party to look at the statements being made by those who speak for our armed forces on the ground. They have made absolutely clear that in this particular instance, while the loss of life is tragic and sad, it is not to do with helicopters.
We must be frank about the difficulties and dangers in Afghanistan, and one of the difficulties is a shortage of helicopters.
Let me take each of the Prime Minister's arguments in turn. He talks of a 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters. That is in comparison with the position three years ago, when we had half as many troops. There has not been a proportional increase in the number of helicopters. Even the 84 per cent. increase in capability relates to helicopter hours. Clearly one helicopter can be in only one place at one time. If we want to move more troops around the battlefield more quickly, we will need more helicopters.
Let us take the argument about Nick Richardson. Of course I listen with respect to the official spokesman of the Army, but I think that the Prime Minister should also listen to someone like Stuart Tootal, who commanded 3 Para and who has said, for instance,
"In Afghanistan in 2006 repeated demands for more helicopters fell on deaf ears."
"of course they need more helicopters. If there had been more, it is... likely that fewer soldiers would have been killed by roadside bombs".
Those are important points, and we should listen to them.
Let me ask the Prime Minister this. Is not the reason we do not have enough helicopters that we did not plan to have enough? When the Prime Minister looks back to 2004 and his decision to reduce the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion, does he remember that the National Audit Office said in that year:
"There is a considerable deficit in the availability of helicopter lift"?
Does he now recognise that that decision was a bad mistake?
First, the number of troops in Afghanistan has risen from just over 7,000 to 9,000 over the last two years. The number of helicopters has risen by 60 per cent. That is a higher percentage rise. Secondly, I have talked to Tim Radford- [Interruption.] That is an increase from 7,000 to 9,000, and a 60 per cent. increase in the number of helicopters.
Secondly, I have talked- [Interruption.] I do hope that we can conduct this debate properly, because our troops will be paying attention to it as well.
I have talked to Tim Radford, the brigadier on the ground, and he has assured me that his troops have the equipment that they need. What we want on the ground are additional Afghanistan national forces, and that is what I have been talking about to President Karzai.
As for the defence spending programme, we have experienced the longest sustainable increase in defence spending in any period over 20 years. The reason is that, in addition to the defence budget, £14 billion has been spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, and £4 billion of that has been spent on urgent operational requirements for the troops. Part of the spending is on helicopters, and we have now committed £6 billion over the next 10 years to helicopter spending. We have already announced that more Merlins will arrive in the field later this year, and the helicopter fund is producing helicopters from allies as well. We have an order for more helicopters for the future. So the helicopter equipment programme continues, and we work with our allies to deliver the best services on the ground.
I think that we should look at this particular operation, Operation Panther's Claw, and be absolutely clear that it is not an absence of helicopters that has cost the loss of lives. We are dealing with improvised explosive devices on the ground, bombs that are against- [Interruption.] Since April, we have brought in more engineers to deal with that problem. Moreover, Operation Panther's Claw is making progress-despite the implication of some of these comments-and is gaining ground. That too is an important aspect of this operation. I hope that we can have a cross-party consensus on what we are doing to help our armed forces.
Order. Before the Leader of the Opposition asks another question, let me say that I am very conscious today that we are hearing long questions and long answers from the Front Benches. I want Back Benchers to get in on this session, and I appeal to the Front Benchers to take account of that.
The Prime Minister is right that our armed forces and their families are watching this debate, but on this issue they expect responsible questions to hold the Government to account and proper answers from the Government. The Prime Minister mentions the international helicopter fund. Will he accept that so far-it was announced 16 months ago-it has not yet added one single helicopter? The public will find it hard to understand why as a country we have 500 helicopters, yet fewer than 30 of them are in Afghanistan. Let me take one group specifically: why is it that only one of the eight Chinooks that were delivered in 2001 at great cost is now ready? Why has there not been greater urgency to deliver? That is a legitimate question, and it requires a proper answer.
The Chinooks are in the process of being adapted for Afghanistan. On the allies' contribution, three helicopters have either arrived or are about to arrive, 11 in total have been promised, and £30 million has been put into the helicopter fund by us and others. May I just explain to the right hon. Gentleman that helicopters have got to be adapted for the terrain in Afghanistan because they need to deal with excess heat and with height? Our helicopter crews have got to be trained for that particular operation in Afghanistan, and the reason that we have greater capability now is that we not only have more helicopters in the field, but more flying hours are being done by helicopter pilots and more staff are available, and we have readapted some of the helicopters to be able to make those flights.
It is important to recognise that, yes, our military commanders will always want more equipment-and rightly so-but Sir Jock Stirrup, the chief of the defence forces, has said that our armed forces are better equipped than ever before. I am not complacent-we will always be vigilant-but I do not believe this should be a subject of cross-party disagreement. I believe that we are making the provision that is necessary both for helicopters and for equipment on the ground.
There is one way to help settle this important debate. The Ministry of Defence asked Bernard Gray to conduct a review of our helicopter procurement. That report is meant to be out in July, but there are rumours that it is being delayed and rewritten. Can the Prime Minister make it clear that this report will be published in full, and unredacted, before the summer?
We said last week that we are doing work related to a new defence review. We are looking first of all at the strategic aspects of that review, and then in the next Parliament there will be a full defence review. I think that is the right way to proceed, and I believe that Bernard Gray's report will be a significant part of the review, but we will start the review with the publication of what we believe are the strategic tasks ahead.
That was absolutely no answer to the question about this important review. What the public want to know is that the Government have a relentless commitment to getting this right, but I have to say that they look at the fact that we are on our fourth Defence Secretary in four years, that defence procurement is shared by two unpaid and basically part-time Ministers, and that the Secretary of State ranks 21st out of 23 in the Cabinet. Are not the public right to ask, is the commitment and relentless activity really there?
I hoped that this debate could have escaped party politics and partisan points. I believe that at this particular time we have a duty to our armed forces. I think it is right that I explain to the House what equipment is available, what we are doing on helicopters, what we are doing on other equipment and what we are doing on the numbers of our armed forces. These are all legitimate questions and they should be answered by the Government, but I hope that the all-party agreement on what we do in Afghanistan and what we have to do to defeat terrorism will remain in being, and I hope we will recognise that in this particular exercise, Operation Panther's Claw, we are doing everything we can, and will continue to, to support our brave and courageous armed forces, who are both professional and determined, and who need, and will have, all our support.
Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the Ministry of Defence decision to appeal against the judgment that would allow hearings of cases of nuclear test veterans seeking compensation against the military for injury that they or their relatives may have suffered as a consequence of their exposure to nuclear explosion?
I will of course look at this, but as my hon. Friend knows, these are legal matters that have ended up in the courts and we must look very carefully at what we do.
After everything that has happened over the last few months, people are crying out for change, yet we have the spectacle of a Prime Minister busy doing nothing. He pretends to control bankers' bonuses; they rise. He pretends to want to have a serious discussion on the economic mess we are in, yet he fiddles the figures. He pretends to want to reform this place and to clean up politics, yet nothing has really happened. People want action. They want something different, so what has been stopping him?
What the country wants us to do is take us through this difficult world recession, and that is what we are doing. The Opposition parties have no policies for jobs, no policies to tackle the recession, no policies for a recovery, no policies to help home owners and no policies to help small businesses. We have the policies and we are taking people through this difficult time.
Who does the Prime Minister think he is kidding? We have seen huge executive pay packages in the banks that we own, city bonuses back in fashion, still no action taken to split up the big banks, no action on electoral reform and no action on party funding, and he has recently blocked giving people the right to sack disgraced MPs. Is this not just business as usual: a deliberate betrayal of people's demand for change?
We are bringing in the Political Parties and Elections Bill, the Constitutional Reform Bill and the Bill to reform the House of Commons. The right hon. Gentleman and the Leader of the Opposition should go away for the summer and think why it is that the Opposition parties have no policies to deal with the recession, no policies for recovery, no policies to help us create jobs and no policies for the future of this country. Perhaps, having gone back to the drawing board, they will think again.
Comrade leader, in these difficult and troubled times, do you agree that what the country needs more than anything else is a third aircraft carrier? [ Interruption.] I repeat, in case that was not heard, that we need a third aircraft carrier. Does my right hon. Friend also agree that it is necessary for the Royal Navy, for the shipyards and for a big chunk of British industry that we have these aircraft carriers? Can he tell me why only the Government are firmly committed to building the two aircraft carriers and why neither of the two Opposition parties are so committed?
We are committed to building aircraft carriers; that gives work to people in all parts of the country, including those in my hon. Friend's constituency. We believe that aircraft carriers are an important part of our naval equipment for the future, and the programme will proceed, whatever the views of Opposition parties.
I think that the Prime Minister will be aware of the case of a young girl in my constituency who was taken into care two years ago, at the age of five, and is now being proposed for permanent adoption, even though there is no suggestion that her well-being was under threat at home. East Sussex has a very good reputation for its children's services, but does he share my concern that too often these cases go through the courts in a manner that can do lasting damage to the child and that parents cannot ever hope to match the resources being allocated by the local authorities? Will he have a meeting with me and others, so that we can discuss this in order to ensure that the children's interests will be paramount and that parents can be assured of a fair hearing?
It is of course, as the hon. Gentleman will recognise, very difficult for me to enter into a discussion of an individual case, but if it is essential, either I or a Minister will meet him to discuss this. Local authorities are unable to place a child for adoption with prospective adopters without their parents' consent unless they have a placement order issued by the court. The debate that the hon. Gentleman has about what is happening in his constituency centres on that issue. I should tell him that we have tried to streamline the family courts to make them far more responsive to the needs of all concerned, particularly the children.
My right hon. Friend will remember the strong support that we had from church organisations in this country on the Make Poverty History campaign, with which he was very much involved. Church leaders in my constituency are involved in the Get Fair campaign, which seeks to tackle child poverty in this country. Will he give the same commitment to that campaign as he did to the Make Poverty History campaign, so that I can respond to my constituents?
My hon. Friend was a leader in the Make Poverty History campaign in Wales, and I congratulate her on that. The campaign to abolish child poverty is so important that we are going to bring forward a Bill that commits the Government to abolish child poverty. It is very important to recognise that 1.5 million children have been taken out of absolute poverty under this Government and 800,000 children have been taken out of relative poverty. We are raising child benefit and child tax credits, and we are creating Sure Start centres in this country that the Conservative party refuses to support.
Across the east of England and in Bedfordshire, the Government's policy of moving the assessment of the need for more Gypsy and Traveller sites away from local councils to a regional body is causing intense concern and threatening to disrupt community relations, making them worse rather than better. Will the Prime Minister order an urgent review of a planning policy that is increasingly seen as no longer even-handed?
I believe that local authorities have fair powers to deal with the issue. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says-there has to be a solution found in each region for what is happening. I shall look at what he says, but we have to ensure that we balance the needs of local residents with the other responsibilities that we have as a country.
At 2 o'clock, a hanging plant basket will be handed in to No. 10 for my right hon. Friend by Perfect Pots, a social enterprise run by pupils at the Holbrook centre for autism, with the charity HOPE and local business Amberol, an example that shows how people with severe autism and learning disabilities can be assisted to make a positive contribution to the work force and their local community, rather than just being cared for. Will he ensure that that is taken on board in the current consultation on support for adults with autism and the proposed national care service?
The Autism Bill that is currently before Parliament, and which the Government are supporting, sets out our commitment to publishing an annual strategy on autism, as well as statutory guidance for local authorities and the national health service. I have met members of the different charities that are working to deal with autism, which is a major problem that has gone long unrecognised. We know that more has to be done, and the Autism Bill is one way of doing that. More widely, we want to ensure that people receive the level of care necessary, and that is why yesterday we published our Green Paper on social care. That, too, will make a difference to those who have autism.
I am sure that the Prime Minister is right that it takes time to equip helicopters and to train the crews for Afghanistan, but why does he pretend that the need has only arisen today? The reality is that we have been there for eight years, troop numbers have been rising throughout that time, and the demand for an increase in the number of helicopters has gone on rising. Why are they still being equipped and why are crews still being trained when the demand is there? Will he explain to the House and to our troops-
The hon. Gentleman's question would have some validity if there had not been a 60 per cent. increase in helicopter numbers in the last two years, if we had not increased the operational capability of helicopters and if we were not putting more helicopters in the field as soon as we can. I have to insist that the terrain in Afghanistan is different from that in Iraq, and that is why we have to re-equip the helicopters with new blades, as well as retraining our servicemen to deal with those problems. I hope that the Conservative party will come to accept that we are doing everything that we can to equip our armed forces and that what the Chief of the Defence Staff has said is right-despite all the difficulties, our armed forces are better equipped than ever before.
Last year, I was pleased to table a private Member's Bill to lower the voting age. Now that the Youth Citizenship Commission has reported, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to show a vote of confidence in young people and lower the voting age to 16?
One of the things that is happening over the summer is that the Youth Parliament will sit in this Chamber while we are away-I believe that you have made that possible, Mr. Speaker. The Youth Citizenship Commission has reported in the last few weeks and it looked at the issue of voting at 16. I think that people want to combine any change in the voting age with citizenship education working even more effectively in our schools, and we remain ready to push forward that debate, which has been started by the Youth Citizenship Commission, and get the opinions of young people, as well as of adults.
In recent days, we have paid tribute to our servicemen and women in Afghanistan, and my right hon. Friend indicated that earlier. Previously we did that in Iraq and, for 30 years before that, in Northern Ireland. Surely now would be an appropriate time to consider some form of permanent recognition for these courageous service personnel, who deserve the enduring gratitude of the entire nation.
I shall look at what the hon. Gentleman says, but I think that he knows that there was an announcement in one respect by Her Majesty the Queen only two weeks ago. I shall look specifically at his recommendation.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that this morning Jaguar Land Rover announced that it was phasing out the X-type model and that 300 jobs would be lost at the Halewood plant. Obviously, my right hon. Friend will agree that that is a severe blow to the Liverpool city region. Will he give me an assurance that the Government will do everything that they can to secure the long-term future of Jaguar Land Rover at Halewood?
Any redundancies and any loss of jobs are to be regretted. I believe that we will be able to help those people who are losing their jobs back into work. We also want to secure a future for Halewood. We have offered JLR a grant of £27 million towards the development of low-carbon Land Rovers at the plant. They would be produced there. We are trying to do what we can to replace lost jobs and I will work with my right hon. Friend, because I know that he does a great deal in this area, and with others in the region to make sure that jobs come to Halewood.