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6 Feb 2003 : Column 453—continued

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): In considering the options for the future of Lords reform, does my right hon. Friend agree that how Parliament should be composed, how many Houses there should be and who should be in them are questions not just for parliamentarians in this place or the other place, but for the public, who might also have a view? Given that they voted in an election for a more democratic second Chamber, that polls indicate that they still support that proposal, and that the other place voted that the public should keep their noses out, does my right hon. Friend feel that we should find a way of gauging whether the public do indeed still feel the same way?

Mr. Cook: I agree with my hon. Friend that this is not a matter in which we should simply indulge ourselves by choosing our own preference; we must also carry the public with us. Having been through the debates on House of Lords reform that we have had in the past 18 months, I certainly do not want this issue to continue for a further 18 years. It is therefore very important that when we make a change, we make one that will stand the test of time. It will do so only if we can carry with it the confidence of the public.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Can the Leader of the House find space in the schedule to debate the recent rise in unemployment in Germany of almost 10 per cent.? German unemployment is now above 11 per cent., and more than 4.5 million Germans are unemployed. The euro is clearly not working for Germany, and ought we not to debate this issue as a matter of urgency?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend frequently expresses concern about the state of the German economy, and I am sure that his remarks will be well reported in Bonn

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and Berlin. I hesitate to suggest that I will draw his remarks to the attention of the Chancellor of Germany and invite him to write to my hon. Friend, which would be my normal response on these occasions. However, the decision on whether this country should join the single currency must be based on a rigorous assessment of the economic impact on Britain, not on Germany. It is very important that we recognise that one reason why so many companies have come to, and invested in, Britain—and, if I may say so, in Livingston in particular—is precisely so that they can export to the whole of the European market. It appears that many of these companies, in view of the recent figures, are reflecting on whether they wish to invest outside the eurozone.

Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): Would it be possible to have a debate on the United States' refusal to allow international inspectors into many of its chemical plants in order to verify its compliance with the chemical weapons convention? Does the Leader of the House agree that if we had such a debate, the Government could explain why it seems to be easier for international inspectors to access chemical plants in Iraq than those in the United States?

Mr. Cook: I am not entirely sure to what extent such a debate would illuminate the general question of Iraq. However, it is of course the Government's policy that all countries should comply with the chemical weapons convention; indeed, we have urged the Americans to accept an inspection regime.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): May I encourage my right hon. Friend in his use of statistics in respect of Tuesday's votes? Can he confirm that, if the votes of those who voted for 60 per cent. and 80 per cent. elected are taken together—bearing it in mind that the same people were not always involved—of those voting on that night, there was a majority in this House for a substantially elected House of Lords?

Mr. Cook: I would not disagree with my hon. Friend, but as I have already said, the fact remains that no one option was carried. If we are to find a way forward and a majority for one option, we will have to have more flexibility in future than we saw on Tuesday.

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Iraq: Further Contingency Preparations

1.28 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on further contingency preparations in relation to Iraq.

In a statement on 7 January, I announced the deployment of maritime forces including 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and a substantial naval task force. In a further statement on 20 January, I announced the composition and deployment of land forces involving Headquarters 1 UK Armoured Division, 7 Armoured Brigade, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. Today, I would like to set out to the House our plans for the deployment of air forces.

As with the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force already maintains a significant presence in the middle east region, routinely involving around 25 aircraft and 1,000 personnel. For more than a decade, the Royal Air Force has played an important part in patrolling and enforcing the northern and southern no-fly zones over Iraq, in support of UN Security Council resolution 688, in order to provide the Iraqi people with some protection from Saddam Hussein's regime. In carrying out this task, it has on many occasions been attacked by Iraqi forces, and I am sure that the House will join me in saluting its courage and professionalism.

As part of our contingency planning over recent months, we have been considering carefully what additional air capabilities might be required in the event of operations against Iraq. The details of that planning will necessarily continue to evolve. It is in the nature of air forces that they can be deployed over long distances more rapidly than maritime or land forces, but we envisage that in the days and weeks ahead we will increase the Royal Air Force presence in the region to around 100 fixed-wing aircraft supported by around 7,000 personnel, including members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. That will be a balanced and highly capable force, including E-3D Sentry aircraft for airborne command and control; Jaguar and Tornado aircraft in the reconnaissance role; VC10 and Tristar air-to-air refuelling aircraft; Hercules transport aircraft; Tornado F3 aircraft, with the newly integrated ASRAAM missile providing an air defence capability; and Tornado GR4 and Harrier GR7 aircraft providing an offensive capability should it be required, including precision-guided weapons. The Royal Air Force Regiment will protect the deployed forces. In addition, the Royal Air Force element of the joint helicopter command will deploy a very substantial proportion of its equipment and personnel, providing helicopter support to other deployed forces. Its contribution will consist of 27 Puma and Chinook helicopters and about 1,100 people.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Air Force's air transport squadrons, which, in addition to operating in the region itself, will work to maximum capacity in deploying and sustaining forces of all three services, supplemented as necessary by civilian charter aircraft. As with the maritime and land forces that we are deploying, these air deployments will provide a balanced and flexible force package, bringing together a wide range of capabilities. I do not intend to

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discuss the specific tasks that might be undertaken, but it will be obvious to the House that this represents a very substantial contribution by the Royal Air Force to the building of a credible threat of force in support of the policy objectives that I have previously set out to the House.

I have now announced the composition and deployment of forces from all three services. I recognise that that may tempt some people into speculation about the likelihood or timing of military action. It is still possible for Saddam Hussein to change his behaviour, to co-operate actively with the weapons inspectors and to disarm by peaceful means, but, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said, time is running out. The Iraqi regime must decide whether it will comply with its obligations or face the consequences.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for giving me a copy in advance.

The statement's brevity belies its significance. The Secretary of State has today put in place the final major element of a very substantial taskforce for deployment in preparation for any military action against Iraq. I join him in his tribute to our fixed-wing and helicopter pilots, particularly those who are enforcing the no-fly zones, some of whom I had the privilege of meeting when I visited Prince Sultan airbase in Saudi Arabia at the end of last year. We salute their courage and professionalism.

Let me reiterate, lest the Secretary of State prefers to misunderstand my remarks, that Her Majesty's Opposition have confidence in the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces, but we should not take them and their excellence for granted. The sheer size of the commitment for all three services raises very serious questions about sustainability and overstretch. About 60 per cent. of the Army is now committed—that is, preparing for, on, or recovering from operations. What strain will today's very major Royal Air Force commitment put on the availability of pilots?

When was the last time that personnel in our armed forces truly enjoyed 24 months between operational tours, which was laid down in the 1998 strategic defence review? That is desirable not only so that they can have the time with their families that most of us take for granted, but so that they are fully trained and ready for whatever operations they next face. I fully accept that the present deployment is exceptional in its size, but it raises questions about the overall size of the armed forces.

Will the Secretary of State comment on recent reports that the Government intend to maintain peacekeeping forces in Iraq for up to three years? How could that, or even a much shorter period, be sustained while all three services remain thousands of men short of the Government's own manning targets? For example, in the light of today's announcement and a significant shortage of combat pilots, RAF pilots left with aircraft in the UK for our own air defence must be asking, "How long can we sustain full readiness while we remain so overstretched?"

On the deployment itself, I do not expect the Secretary of State to be any more specific about the RAF's role and purpose in any Gulf operations, but will

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he clarify whether Sea Harrier fighters are included in the deployment? Will he confirm that, with its outstanding Blue Vixen radar, the Sea Harrier remains our most capable air-to-air fighter, which has already proved itself in the Gulf as part of the no-fly zone operation? While Sea Harrier fighters remain operational, it would be rather perverse if they were left at home simply because Ministers have decided to scrap them as obsolete in 2006.

When will the Secretary of State be able to clarify the command arrangements? Will the relationship with the United States be the same as it was in the last Gulf war? If not, what will be different, and why? I have asked that question before, and I can see no reason for the Secretary of State to refuse to inform the House that all the key elements of the force are in place. Will he at least confirm that operating under US command does not mean that Her Majesty's armed forces cease to be accountable to the UK Government and to this House—yet another scare launched by the Liberal Democrats?

On a particular issue of which I have given him notice, can the Secretary of State reassure the House about a report that appeared in The Washington Times yesterday, which said that, according to a US Air Force report,

and it is not ready for war.

This further announcement comes on the day after the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, presented the most damning indictment of Saddam Hussein's record of defiance of the UN. On the day that Dr. Hans Blix is visiting the Prime Minister, the evidence is now clearer than ever that Saddam Hussein is prepared to risk war rather than to disarm. Is it not time for those such as the Liberal Democrats to get off the fence? Does the Secretary of State agree, even at this stage, that military action is not inevitable and that Saddam Hussein still has time to comply with the UN resolutions? Nevertheless, this substantial deployment, which we welcome, demonstrates the determination of our country to back the United Nations with a credible threat.

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