Previous SectionIndexHome Page

7 Jan 2003 : Column 25—continued

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to see his statement in advance. The House will acknowledge that such decisions as he has made today will have a dramatic effect on the lives of individuals and their families, and that those individuals might ultimately be asked to put their lives at risk. Servicemen and their families have had to endure a long period of uncertainty, fuelled by intense media speculation about the Government's policy. The whole House respects and admires our armed forces; the Government should be careful not to take them for granted.

The Opposition continue broadly to support the Government's policy towards Iraq, as set out by the Foreign Secretary. War is not inevitable, and everything should be done to try to avoid it. Even without further United Nations endorsement, British and US policy must continue to comply with international law. Moreover, if war becomes unavoidable, no effort should be spared to persuade our partners and allies in the UN Security Council to support the policy to which President Bush and the Prime Minister are so profoundly committed. Today, the Prime Minister has reiterated:

We wholly support this stated resolve and welcome the Secretary of State's statement today, so far as it goes.

On reservists, will the Secretary of State make it clear that he is referring only to members of the Territorial Army, and not to those on the civilian regular reserve list? Will he also tell us how long those who are called up may be required to serve? What discussions has he had with their employers to mitigate the effects of their call-up on their continued employment and their career prospects? What effect will the call up of medical staff have on the national health service? Will the Government support measures to ensure that the burden is fairly spread across the whole of the NHS and not concentrated on particular hospitals? On the subject of HMS Ark Royal and the naval task group, how many service men and women does this commitment involve? What is the new total of British service men and women now committed to operations or exercises associated with possible military operations against Iraq?

7 Jan 2003 : Column 26

For the House to have confidence that the Government can demonstrate what the Secretary of State refers to as the

the House is surely entitled to greater clarity from the Government on the preparations for possible military action against Iraq. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government will not announce clearer decisions about all the forces that they intend to make available, to demonstrate how they will back the Prime Minister's words? Why, instead, do they appear to be delaying decisions about deployments and playing down our military commitment? The Secretary of State has just announced what I believe to be the largest call-out of reserves since 1991. He has announced the commitment of possibly 5,000 additional service men and women to operations. Why will he not say that? Why are these figures not included in his statement? Is it the policy of the Government to have British tanks and armoured vehicles available at the outset of possible military operations? If so, I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the hour is already very late for such decisions.

To make a fuller announcement would not betray tactics, compromise security or set limitations on later commitments, as the Secretary of State tries to suggest. Why will the Government not explain that HMS Ark Royal and the amphibious task group are being deployed to put pressure on Saddam? That would assert the Government's resolve and commitment, and increase the pressure on Saddam to comply. In the interests of those in our armed forces who may be in the front line of military operations—some already are—will the Secretary of State assure the House that none of this present uncertainty is due to differences on the Government Benches? Are the Government truly united behind the Prime Minister's policy?

The publication in September of the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction demonstrated that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, clearly believe that Saddam Hussein is in breach of his UN obligations. It now seems unlikely that the UN inspectors will find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam Hussein has had too much time to conceal them and to destroy the evidence. If the weapons inspectors find nothing and the United States decides to go ahead with military action in any case, what will be the Government's policy?

Mr. Hoon: I welcome what the hon. Gentleman described as his broad support for the Government's position. I will endeavour to answer his questions as best I can, given the obvious reasons why some of those points should not be addressed on the Floor of the House.

I have dealt with the question of reservists on a number of previous occasions, and I am confident that the procedures that we have set out provide an appropriate balance between the needs of our national health service, which the hon. Gentleman rightly recognised, and the need to ensure proper medical assistance to our armed forces should that become necessary. I shall not give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he asked for about dividing responsibility between hospitals. Clearly we have to

7 Jan 2003 : Column 27

have those people who are available and who have the appropriate expertise. We are in continuing discussions with colleagues from the Department of Health with a view to ensuring that there is an appropriate division of the responsibility for meeting our needs.

I shall not set out numbers at this stage because it would simply not be appropriate. Nor would it be appropriate at this stage, as the hon. Gentleman will realise if he gives the matter a moment's thought, to indicate the kinds of capabilities that we would seek to deploy. I have previously given the House, in response to a number of questions, indications of preparations concerning main battle tanks, for example, but at this stage we have made no specific decisions as to the kinds of forces that will be deployed because none has been taken by any nation. It is important that the House realises that. It would simply not be sensible to make such decisions. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman thinks the issue through, he will appreciate why that is the case.

On the point about pressure on Saddam Hussein, that was an important part of my statement today and of my previous statements to the House. It is clearly necessary that we demonstrate to Saddam Hussein and his regime that we mean business. I should have thought that my statement clearly indicated that. At this stage, it is important that we approach these matters—I hope that this is consistent with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about our armed forces—with absolute regard to the men and women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. They are doing a vital job on behalf of this country, and they will continue to do so. No one takes that service for granted.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I also thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for keeping the House informed.

Our thoughts should go out to the men and women who are preparing themselves for the possibility of going into battle. That cannot be easy for them, or indeed for their families, in this new year. The news of British troops readying themselves for potential conflict sends a clear political message to Saddam Hussein, but does the Secretary of State agree that we need to tread a very careful line? Saddam Hussein must comply with the United Nations, and the threat of force is an important part of a diplomatic effort, but if Saddam Hussein thinks that war is inevitable, is it not the case that he will have no incentive to comply?

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our other allies concerning their preparations? Will only Britain and the US send troops to the Gulf, and if so, why? While there is still time, I impress once more on the Secretary of State the importance placed by this party and, I believe, many outside the House on a substantive vote in the House of Commons before troops go into action.

On equipment, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Gulf war and Exercise Saif Sareea gave rise to a range of problems associated with desert preparations. The link between the vaccine and Gulf war illness has been an issue. Are the Government confident that vaccines issued to servicemen today will not make them

7 Jan 2003 : Column 28

ill in the future? The National Audit Office report on Saif Sareea said that the Clansman radio was unstable, so how will our soldiers communicate on the ground? Friendly fire continues to be a worry for our forces. What lessons have been learned from the past? If the Ark Royal is to be deployed, will her Sea Harriers be able to operate in the Gulf?

Finally, I stress that I am asking these questions because we believe that the Ministry of Defence must provide the best for our armed forces. Regardless of any political differences that we may have, our thoughts in the House should be with the men and women of our armed forces who are going into the unknown.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, particularly for his final observations, which I strongly support and endorse. He is certainly right—I set out in my statement the fact that Saddam Hussein's compliance is much more likely if he realises that we are prepared to use military force to support the United Nations Security Council's decisions. It is certainly important that that is communicated to him—he can be in no doubt about that, given the military preparations that we, the United States and, indeed, other countries have embarked on. The United States made a request to 50 countries for military assistance, and obviously each country is considering its position. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House have made clear the Government's position on any substantive resolution of the House, and there has been no change in it.

As for vaccination, a key lesson learned from the Gulf conflict was the importance of ensuring that members of the armed forces should not undergo in a short time a series of different vaccinations. That was identified as a particular cause of difficulty, and the lesson has been learned and acted upon, so that there is now a process whereby individual members do not receive a number of vaccinations in a short time frame.

As for the question of friendly fire, we are engaged in a process of ensuring that combat identification is dealt with satisfactorily. There is no single technological solution to that difficult problem, but we will acquire new equipment that will be available in time for any potential conflict in the Gulf. Obviously, I cannot go into precise details, but, as for combat identification, I can assure the House that British troops will be able to work alongside American forces entirely safely and satisfactorily.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Should we not bear in mind the fact that on all previous occasions the Iraqi regime has lied and lied again about weapons of mass destruction—for example, in 1995, when two of the dictator's sons-in-law defected, and the regime admitted that the information given about such weapons was actually accurate. As for military action, which we all, not just the critics, want to avoid, is it not Saddam Hussein's responsibility to do precisely what he promised to do after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991? If he gives up the weapons of mass destruction that he continues to deny having, there will be no need for any form of war whatsoever.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is quite right—the responsibility lies with Saddam Hussein and the present

7 Jan 2003 : Column 29

Iraqi regime, who have been given an opportunity under Security Council resolution 1441 to comply with the will of the international community. My hon. Friend is also right that their observance of UN resolutions has been less than satisfactory. Indeed, it is clear that a preliminary view of the declaration that they made before Christmas shows that it is seriously short on detail and lacks in particular any significant reference to a number of conclusions reached by UNSCOM as long ago as 1999.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Iraqi declaration of weapons of mass destruction fails to give a satisfactory account of Iraq's activities in that area. On what basis is that assertion made?

Next Section

IndexHome Page