David Cameron cancels Middle East visit to lead flooding response

Prime minister warns that worst is far from over and pledges to step up military role in rescue effort

David Cameron served notice that the floods may worsen over the coming days as he underlined the gravity of the crisis by announcing that he is to cancel his first visit to the Middle East as prime minister next week.

In his first press conference in the UK since the summer, the prime minister announced that he was stepping up the role of the military in helping with the rescue effort.

By the end of Tuesday, 1,600 service men and women – with thousands more on call – will have been deployed around the country under the command of Major General Patrick Saunders.

In the “most serious developing situation” in the Thames valley, the military have built a 60 metre wall at Datchet. A 100-strong company of the 1st Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers has been deployed in Wraysbury.

The prime minister, who feared that the government was failing to handle the crisis amid apparent bickering by ministers, moved to impose his authority by saying that he would lead the national response as he said that 65m cubic metres of water has flooded onto the Somerset Levels.

Speaking from Downing Street, Cameron sought to move on to a new footing by saying that money would be no object as he lavished praise on the staff of the much criticised environment agency.

But he said that the worst is far from over and that there are still sixteen severe flood warnings – indicating a danger to life – and 133 flood warnings, meaning that more floods are expected, and a further 225 flood alerts.

The prime minister said: “Things may well get worse before they get better … My message to the country today is this: money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary.”

Cameron then outlined his plans for the coming days and weeks. He said: “I will continue to lead the national response by chairing meetings with the government’s emergency committee, Cobra. I am cancelling my visit to the Middle East next week. I am sending my apologies to Prime Minster Netanyahu and President Abbas. But nothing is more important than dealing with these floods.”

He announced that a new cabinet committee to oversee the recovery, which he will chair on Thursday, will focus on speeding up the work of insurance companies so people can make their claims quickly. As he spoke, officials met the Association of British Insurers in Downing Street.

Cameron said that nobody should resign – which could be seen as offering some support to Lord Smith of Finsbury, the Labour chair of the Environment Agency who has been criticised by Eric Pickles. He praised the “brilliant” work of the agency’s staff although he declined to offer personal support for Smith.

Cameron also rebuked Pickles, the communities secretary who was placed in charge of the government’s response, by saying that …read more    

British forces’ century of unbroken warfare set to end with Afghanistan exit

War-weariness among the public and wariness among politicians mean next year could be the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews are not engaged in fighting

Interactive timeline: Britain’s 100 years of conflict

When British forces pull down the union flag for the last time in Afghanistan this year, it will be a hugely symbolic moment. It is not just that the departure marks the end of 13 years of British involvement in combat in that troubled country. The surprise is that it could also signal the end of a century or more of unbroken warfare by British forces.

Next year is shaping up as the first since at least 1914 that British soldiers, sailors and air crews will not be engaged in fighting somewhere – the first time Britain is totally at peace with the rest of the world.

Since Britain’s declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, not a year has passed without its forces being involved in conflict. It is a statistic that has been largely overlooked, and not one about which the government is likely to boast.

The last 100 years have seen two world wars, large-scale conflicts in Korea and Iraq, and small-scale actions in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. There have been punitive operations in defence of empire, cold war operations, post-9/11 support for the United States, and the Troubles in Ireland.

No other country in the world, even those with similarly militaristic traditions, has been engaged continuously over such a long span. Even during 1968, a year often hailed by members of the British armed forces and some military historians as a year of peace, there was fighting.

The timeline of constant combat may stretch even further back, given Britain’s imperial engagements, all the way to the creation of the British army in 1707.

Britain’s generals and politicians anticipate that 2015 may be a year finally without conflict and are planning accordingly. Senior military staff describe this as a “strategic pause”.

Assuming agreement is reached with the Afghanistan government before the end of the year, a few hundred soldiers will be left behind to help with training at the army academy, and a few others in a consultative role but not for combat. Special forces could be deployed but no one in the Ministry of Defence is going to go public on that.

The potential absence of war is attributed to a number of factors: lack of public support for the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts; cuts in the size of the army, making it harder to mount similar operations; an increasingly multicultural Britain that could make intervention in Muslim countries more problematic; and antipathy among the present generation of politicians to interventions, as demonstrated by last year’s Commons vote against action in Syria.

A report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies this week showed Britain dropping from fourth place to fifth in the world in terms of budget spending on defence. The army is to be …read more    

Britain’s 100 years of conflict

As British forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, senior defence officials are questioning whether public opinion will permit major military interventions for the foreseeable future. If 2015 is a year of peace for the UK, it will be the first for at least 100 years. Here the Guardian charts every conflict in which British forces have engaged since 1914

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Veterans who serve four years in armed forces ‘need more support’ as civilians

Lord Ashcroft report criticises media for reinforcing popular ‘misconception’ of veterans as physically or mentally damaged

Britain needs to do more to help veterans who struggle to return civilian life, find it hard to secure work and risk ending up homeless, in prison or killing themselves, according to a top-level government review.

The 186-page report by the prime minister’s special representative on veterans’ affairs, Lord Ashcroft, found that those leaving the services after a relatively short time – four years – found it the hardest to cope.

But Ashcroft said it was a “misconception” that most veterans ended up in difficulty, and criticised charities and the media for perpetuating the view of veterans suffering from serious mental and physical problems, ending up homeless or in prison.

He said nine out of ten people thought it was common or very common “for former service personnel to be physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their time in the forces. People think that have heard, or read, that veterans are unusually likely to be homeless, to suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, to go to prison, even to commit suicide”.

Ashcroft added: “It is easy to see where these ideas come from. Over the course of two unpopular wars we have become sadly accustomed to hearing reports of British military casualties. The media are naturally drawn to such news, while charities, wanting to raise money and draw attention to their cause, understandably highlight the most difficult cases.”

The report says: “The MoD and the armed forces should be more proactive in changing perceptions of service-leavers. Lord Ashcroft’s research has found that most people think it is common for those leaving the forces to have been physically, mentally or emotionally damaged by their service career. This view is mistaken and has the effect of restricting service-leavers’ prospects in civilian life.”

In spite of that, the report recommended help for some. “Those leaving with less than four years’ service – who may have completed tours in places like Afghanistan – are the most likely to be unemployed and to have a range of problems.”

It recommends that those leaving after four years should receive the same resettlement programme as those leaving after six or more and calls for an employers’ council to help former service personnel find work.

Ashcroft said: “Those who serve four years or less get much more basic advice. Yet these early service-leavers are most likely to have problems when they leave. Only half of them currently manage to find a job within six months, compared to some 85% of those who receive career transition partnership support.

“Despite their relatively short service, these individuals have done their bit – often having completed operational tours in places like Afghanistan.”

Ashcroft said he believed that work placement schemes would be more effective than some of the courses on offer. He questioned the value of someone who took a tiling course because he wanted to do up his house and others who took up courses in fly-fishing.

The report proposes a veterans’ card that would provide a single number …read more