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3 Mar 2003 : Column 567—continued

Ministerial Meetings

3. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): What recent meetings he has had with central and eastern European Defence Ministers to discuss developments in the middle east. [99848]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Since 24 September last year, I have had meetings with my counterparts from Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Estonia, Albania, Macedonia and Ukraine. Those meetings addressed a range of topics of mutual interest, including, where appropriate, developments in the middle east.

Mr. Mackay : In the light of President Chirac's deeply unpleasant threat to those central and eastern European Governments who signed the Iraq letter that he would try to ensure that they did not become members of the European Union, was the Secretary of State satisfied or happy with the comments of his French opposite number when she visited Warsaw last week and told the Poles it was better

Is it not time that we told our French allies that they are behaving disgracefully, particularly towards our new friends in NATO, whom the right hon. Gentleman has been visiting in the past year?

Mr. Hoon: We have made it absolutely clear to candidate countries that there will be no change whatever in British Government policy; we welcome the enlargement of NATO, as we welcome the enlargement of the European Union. That will continue to be absolutely central to the Government's policy.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): In any of the discussions that my right hon. Friend has had in the past couple of months, have the Poles or the Czech Republic had a good word to say for the French position; or have they been pointing out that it was France that not only systematically and deliberately supported and strengthened Saddam Hussein, but armed him?

Mr. Hoon: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, may I assure him that we do not spend our time in such bilateral discussions considering the respective position of any other country, other than the relations that exist between this country and the country in question? So I am sorry to disappoint him: we have not had that kind of conversation.

Armed Forces Deployment (Gulf)

4. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): What percentage of the Army is deployed to the Gulf region. [99849]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): As of 25 February 2003, 11.5 per cent. of the trained strength of the Army was deployed to the Gulf region. That number is increasing on a weekly basis, as we continue to deploy those forces previously announced to Parliament. When all the previously

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announced forces are deployed, approximately 25 per cent. of the trained strength of the Army will be deployed to the Gulf region.

Mr. Bellingham : I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am also grateful to the ministerial team for assuring the House that the Army is properly equipped. What percentage of the Army so far deployed has been issued with nuclear, biological and chemical kits? Will he confirm that the required respirators and canisters have not passed their life expectancy? Will he also confirm that the MOD has not extended the relevant warranties on that kit?

Mr. Ingram: We have a wide-ranging support mechanism for all our troops who are deployed on the basis of the perceived and possible real threat that may arise from NBC attack. As for the respirators and the other equipment that the hon. Gentleman mentions, on the basis of the advice that we, as Ministers, have been given, we are wholly satisfied that the equipment being deployed is satisfactory, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who recently visited the troops, will be able to give an equal assurance if he spoke to our people in theatre about it.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet): Whatever the rights and wrongs of issues that we are told may be debated by this House on many occasions, the fact is that the Prime Minister has so squandered his inheritance of trust that large numbers of people in the United Kingdom still do not believe that our troops should be in the Gulf. Many men and women with family members in the armed services are very concerned about the provision for their clothing, accommodation, and, most importantly, equipment. What practical steps is the Minister taking to reassure the families of those who may be required to sacrifice everything on our behalf?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is not just the welfare of the deployed forces and the dangers that they may face that we must consider but the families back home, who, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, have to listen to some of the silly comments made in the press. Clearly, certain shortfalls exist, but there is a very big logistics chain in which thousands of people are employed in moving a wide range of equipment into theatre. It is a huge logistical exercise. In practical terms, much of the communication is done by people in bases, at barracks and at stations, where our service personnel are clustered, as well as by Ministers. We must address any concerns as best we can. We should not minimise the scale of this logistical exercise. We must, however, give the assurance that the equipment and supplies being put into theatre meet the needs of the many thousands of troops who will be deployed, and that we respect the concerns of families in all those regards.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Does the Minister agree that the deployment of tens of thousands of our troops, particularly soldiers, to the Gulf—and the fact that they may be committed to combat shortly—means that their morale and that of their families is crucial? Both my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the Secretary of State have

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emphasised what an important job they are doing, with little practical acknowledgement of that from the media so far. In the last Gulf war, I remember how important it was for the MOD to have a coherent media strategy. One veteran reptile cynically said to me the other day that he believes that the MOD's media strategy is not to have one. Will the Minister tell the House how many journalists are now accredited to UK forces in theatre, and what arrangements have been made for them to accompany UK forces into combat?

Mr. Ingram: I will not descend to the type of language that the hon. Gentleman used to describe the press. [Hon. Members: "Go on."] No, I won't. I am always conscious of how the press report some of my comments, so I shall try to be nice, although I must be truthful, too. There are silly stories out there, but some of them are coming back from theatre, because open and transparent lines of communication exist between the front line and families back home. We must examine each and every comment that has substance to see whether we can address it meaningfully, and, I hope, correct the problem. Alternatively, we must see whether such comments are based on misunderstandings and, subsequently, misreporting and falsehoods by the media.

We are dealing with a difficult media climate. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure on the precise number of journalists, because, if I gave him a figure today, it would probably increase by tomorrow, and it would probably increase in future. That is not the issue we must deal with. Perhaps the particular journalist whom he says is criticising our media strategy should write to tell me where his criticism lies and where the shortfalls are. If we can correct them, we will. We put a lot of effort into handling the media because of the point that he and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) mentioned about the importance of making sure that the families back home are not being fed lies and distortions.

Iraqi Armed Forces

5. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): What assessment he has made of the morale of the Iraqi armed forces. [99850]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Given the nature of the Iraqi regime and the lack of information available, it is not easy to make these assessments. However, from what information we have, we judge that the morale of the regular Iraqi armed forces is low.

Mr. Robathan : In 1991, Iraqi conscripts surrendered in their thousands. They were badly led, cold, wet, demoralised and terrified. When they discovered that we were not going to murder them, they actually rather enjoyed being in prison camps, because we fed, watered and sheltered them, and gave them clothing. We saved many lives among those who were threatened by dehydration.

Those conscripts believed that we were bringing them freedom; but it is rumoured that, after the Gulf war, when many of them were returned to Iraq, a great many were butchered by the regime. This time round, they will be worse equipped and they will be similarly

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demoralised. What plans do the Government have to use any prisoners that may be taken—in conjunction with Iraqi opposition groups, or, perhaps, in information programmes, during the occupation of Baghdad or the reconstruction of Iraq—should there be conflict?

Mr. Hoon: I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's expertise in this area. I know that he served in the Gulf war and was responsible for dealing with prisoners of war.

The judgment that I make on the morale of Iraq's armed forces depends on the extent to which they have a stake in the survival of the regime. For example, organisations that are more closely associated with the regime—such as the special republican guard and Saddam Hussein's personal security apparatus—are much more under the regime's control and therefore much more likely to continue the fight. However, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the position of conscripts. I understand that the majority of the members of the regular forces are Shi'as and that they have no particular enthusiasm for the regime in Iraq—although they undoubtedly feel fear because of the kind of action that Saddam Hussein has taken against their people over many years.

In the planning that is under way for any post-conflict situation in Iraq, it is important to take account of a range of factors—including how to deal with potentially a large number of prisoners, and how to ensure that basic steps are taken to provide initial security leading to the reconstruction of the country. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that a great deal of thinking is under way along those lines.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be a big mistake to talk down the war-fighting capability of the Iraqi army—even if it does lack morale and is motivated by the fear of retribution from its leadership? Our soldiers will face a grave challenge going into battle.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Because I was asked a specific question about morale, I gave the best assessment that is currently available to the Ministry of Defence. However, that does not mean that we in any way underestimate the threat that our forces face. All our planning is based on the highest level of resistance that we might anticipate, in order that our forces may be properly protected in the job that they may have to do.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): It is to be hoped that the increasing and continued deployment of United States and British armed forces in the Gulf will have an adverse effect on the morale of Iraq's armed forces. Can the Secretary of State persuade me that having about 64 per cent. of the British Army deployed on active service throughout the world is not having an adverse effect on the sustainability of the effectiveness of our armed forces in the Gulf and elsewhere? Can he assure

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me that the effectiveness of our armed forces—in the Army, the Air Force or the Navy—is not affected by the huge number of tasks that he rightly imposes on them?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to raise that issue. Previously, I have responded to questions about stretch and about the impact that our various commitments have on our armed forces. There is no doubt that our armed forces are busy right around the world. The commitment in the Gulf is part of the challenge that they face. However, I rely on the military advice and judgment of the chiefs of staff and they assure me that they are perfectly capable of undertaking this particular deployment at this time.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): The answer that my right hon. Friend gave to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) indicated to me at least that, in practice, the state of the Iraqi military poses no threat. If it is so weak, why do we have to have a proposed military invasion of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: I did not say that at all. Indeed, I want to make it clear to my hon. Friend and to the House that no one should assume that there is not a direct threat from Saddam Hussein's forces. I have already dealt today with the risk that will undoubtedly be faced if Saddam Hussein authorises the use of chemical or biological weapons against our forces. That is a significant threat that we might have to deal with in the event of military action being necessary. There is a range of threats and no one should underestimate the ruthlessness that Saddam Hussein has shown over the years in the use of his armed forces and in putting down a series of insurrections inside Iraq and in attacking two of his neighbouring countries.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): During its recent visit to Washington, the Defence Committee was briefed by senior US officials about the extensive contingency arrangements currently under consideration for any post-war reconstruction of Iraq. Are the British Government being consulted on that, as we were led to believe? If so, why will Ministers not share with the House these plans which involve extensive assistance to the Iraqi people to ensure that they have supplies of food and water and medical facilities?

I am afraid to say that the Secretary of State's reaction to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) illustrates my point. My hon. Friend made a very serious point about the possible use of Iraqi soldiers in any post-conflict reconstruction of Iraq. Can the Secretary of State not be more forthcoming or will we have to go back to Washington to get the answers?

Mr. Hoon: I am slightly surprised by the hon. Gentleman's question, because the Defence Committee has been briefed on these matters. That information is not such that I am not willing to share it with the House. I, too, have recently visited Washington where we had detailed discussions about the arrangements in hand for preparing Iraq for a return to the international community and for the reconstruction of that country. A senior British military officer is engaged day to day in this work in Washington and, during my recent visit to the Gulf, I saw that a great effort is also being made in

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British headquarters to prepare for what might happen to Iraq thereafter in the event of there being a conflict. A great deal of work is being done and I would be delighted to continue the briefing of right hon. and hon. Members that is already under way.

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