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18 Dec 2002 : Column 846—continued

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): As the Secretary of State is aware, my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, is in the Gulf visiting British servicemen and women who are already there in some force.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Indeed, we are grateful to him for responding to the call yesterday from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) to make a statement today, the last major parliamentary day before Christmas. However, it is an indictment of the Government's priorities that the media were briefed yesterday and the House of Commons was briefed today. We are clearly the poor relations.

Furthermore, at the now famous press conference held last month by the Secretary of State and the Chief of the Defence Staff, the right hon. Gentleman undertook to brief Parliament during our debate on 25 November. He failed to do so, imperiously confining himself to a reference to Xprudent preparations and planning". Today's mantra, adding to that, seems to be the mere maintenance of a range of options.

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It is some time since the Government reported that the United States had submitted a formal request for UK military support. We recognise that operational security may limit the information that the right hon. Gentleman can give the House, so we shall not seek confirmation of every detail published in today's newspapers. However, the House and the country are entitled to know what level of military commitment the Government have in mind. It is frankly bizarre that our television screens are full of US troop manoeuvres in the Gulf while the Government have so far said virtually nothing about possible British involvement.

Today's bland statement adds very little to what we know. From reading today's newspapers, it seems that the media know more about the detail than the Secretary of State is prepared to share with the House, so let me put some questions to him. What specific capability has the United States requested, and what is the Government's response? What are the options that he referred to in his statement? Can he assure the House that, bearing in mind reports of shortages, there will be sufficient spares and logistical support to sustain a campaign lasting more than a few days? Has the equipment been desertised and will units trained on Exercise Saif Sareea be deployed and not held back for firefighting duties?

Given the consequences for both reservists and employers, surely the Government could be more specific about their call-up plans. Does the Secretary of State have in mind the call-up of formed units, apart from the medical services? What medication will be prescribed to any British contingent and will it be different from that prescribed during the Gulf war, or take into account United States developments in that respect?

Is it not the case that the likely resumption of the firemen's strike will have a damaging limitation on the Secretary of State's ability to deploy troops whose training is up to speed, thus confirming that he is unprepared for the unexpected? Does he accept that publicly preparing British forces for deployment will help to bring pressure to bear on Iraq to comply with UN Security Council resolution 1441, and that being more forthcoming would assist the House and the securing of that objective?

The statement was thinner than I had expected and than the House was entitled to have heard. I hope that the Secretary of State will confirm that, if there are to be deployments during the Christmas recess, the House will be advised.

Finally, as we approach Christmas, I hope that in a spirit of good will and cross-party solidarity the Secretary of State will join me in paying tribute to our armed forces and their families as they stand ready to embark on operations should the need arise.

Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that there was nothing in the briefing to journalists yesterday that had not previously been set out clearly to the House of Commons on two, if not three, occasions? Each of the points that he made—for example, on desertisation, the impact of a possible fire strike or reservists—has been dealt with in some detail already.

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Although hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench are shaking their heads, I invite them to look carefully at reports both of previous debates and of the most recent Defence questions where all those matters were dealt with. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has come to the House with such a long list of requests—if he had carefully read the pages of Hansard, all his questions would have been answered.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): We on the Liberal Democrat Benches welcome the right hon. Gentleman's statement, and I thank him for providing an advance copy. It is right that he brought that information to the House so that we could consider it; no Government can afford to leave themselves unprepared for military action.

This Christmas, many members of our armed forces and their families will be acutely aware of the possibility that they could be involved in future military action, so I am sure that they would like reassurance from the Secretary of State both about the readiness of the armed forces and about the decision-making process that might precede action.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's comment that the lessons of Saif Sareea 2 have been learned, but can he confirm that the MOD did not decline an offer from Vickers to modify the tanks earlier this year? If he has changed his mind, how much will that cost the taxpayer?

What is the availability of our aircraft carriers for action and will our Sea Harriers be able to operate in that climate? Can the Secretary of State make a commitment that any troops sent to the Gulf will have the modified SA80 assault rifle?

Are the necessary medical provisions in place? What provision has been made for the purchase of nuclear, biological and chemical suits and filters? What steps have the Government taken to prevent a repeat of the medical problems experienced after the Gulf war? If troops are sent to the region will the Defence Medical Services have the capability to provide enough field hospitals?

The Secretary of State is right to say that war is not inevitable, but Liberal Democrat Members speak for many people in the House and beyond when we say that military action should be conducted only with the authority of the UN and after a substantive vote in the House. We must not fall into the problems experienced by Europe before the first world war; preparations are necessary but they must not make war inevitable. We must not fall into that trap.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observations and I shall try to deal with each of his points in turn.

Certainly, the Government have learned lessons both from previous exercises and from previous deployments. As I pointed out a few moments ago, I referred on a previous occasion to specific examples in respect of Saif Sareea 2, which was a valuable training exercise and a number of significant lessons were learned—not least about the use of Challenger 2 tanks and the need for desertisation.

As for the SA80, again, we have learned the lessons thrown up by the deployment in Afghanistan, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the modified assault rifle will be available to our forces in the event of there being a need for military action.

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On the medical issues, some of which I have mentioned already today, as I did on a previous occasion, I can also assure him and the House that our forces will be effectively and properly equipped against the risk of exposure to nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. I think that I have already dealt with the point about field hospitals. Certainly, a great deal of effort has been made to learn and understand the lessons from the Gulf war in the early 1990s, and they will be applied in the event of any subsequent operations in similar conditions.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Whatever happens in the next few months—no one quite knows what—I spent this weekend at the Iraqi opposition groups' meeting in London and, as far as I could see, apart from a junior Foreign Office official, there was no British involvement at all, although there was a delegation of 50 Americans present. All those in the Iraqi opposition have always said that they want greater British involvement. Whatever the future of that country, Iraq should be democratic, and we should be involved in those talks from the very first day, so will my right hon. Friend please consider those suggestions and act on them?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments and for her typically constructive approach to such matters. For many years, she has been a champion of the need to observe human rights in Iraq and, indeed, she has not shrunk from the difficult decisions that follow from that. I assure her that the Foreign Office monitored the conference closely during the weekend, but that conference was clearly a matter for the Iraqi opposition groups themselves.

While not attempting to foresee the consequences of military action if it is ultimately required in a place such as Iraq, I believe that we have an important model in what has taken place in Afghanistan. In the months since military action was necessary there, we have seen a determined effort—not without difficulty; in no way do I underestimate the problems that have been faced—by the international community, by people in Afghanistan and, significantly, by many people returning from exile abroad to Afghanistan to help in the considerable task of rebuilding their country. I have every expectation that the same determined effort will be made by the international community and, indeed, Iraqi exiles in rebuilding their own country.

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