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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1216—continued

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): Everyone will, of course, accept precisely what the Secretary of State has said about keeping the identity and the units of the people tragically killed in the helicopter crash secret until such time as their next of kin have been informed. However, will he go further than that and accept that even the identity of the nature of the service—Navy, Army, Air Force or Marines—being put out on the airwaves causes families unnecessary anxiety? Could he not take steps to make sure that no hint as to those men's identity is given until such time as their next of kin have been informed?

Mr. Hoon: Clearly, there is always a balance to be struck. The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In the context of the House of Commons, it is a very sensible point, but unfortunately, given the nature of the

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modern media, it is extremely difficult to control the kind of speculation that takes place. However, he is right to the extent that many families of many service personnel from right across the country will be worried about the events that have taken place. It is my responsibility to ensure that those who are directly affected hear the news first from the Ministry of Defence rather than from elsewhere.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin): Now that the officer class on the two main Front Benches has been joined by the sad sacks of the Liberal Democrats who have deserted at the first time whiff of grapeshot, there is an iron-clad consensus in the House in support of this war. But that is not, of course, the case in the country. How does the Secretary of State explain to our armed forces the fact that, for the first time in history, the actions—not the soldiers—that he has ordered them to take are not supported by the majority of the British people, as is shown by the demonstrations all over the country yesterday and will be shown again by the demonstrations in London, Glasgow and elsewhere tomorrow?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend raised precisely the same point with me yesterday, and I defended his right to protest as I defend the right of anyone to protest against the decisions taken by the Government. That is essential to the values that underpin why we are all here. As I said to him yesterday, his protests—sincerely held though they are—would have been much stronger if, on the opportunities that he has had to go to Baghdad, he had protested publicly about the need to allow the opposition to speak in Iraq rather than to have their tongues cut out when they protest.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The establishment of the southern beachhead is very welcome, not least because of the avoidance of the mass environmental damage that could have been caused by the pumping of oil into the sea. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) asked about the capture of the oilfields, but will the Secretary of State address the question of what we will do with the burning oilfields? Will he explain the arrangements that are being put in place to minimise the damage to the environment?

Mr. Hoon: We have a number of specialists available who, as soon as their safety and security can be guaranteed, will start work immediately on putting out the fires and ensuring that those oil facilities are made available for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes): I wish to add my voice to the sympathies that have been expressed about those who were lost in that tragic accident. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is, no doubt, having a difficult time at the moment in her constituency.

Does the Secretary of State accept that if bombs are falling on Baghdad, the people of that city will feel that they are being targeted? What steps are being taken to reassure Iraqi civilians that our war is not against them, but against a barbarous, tyrannical regime?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her expression of sympathy. On the bombing campaign in

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Baghdad, I anticipate that the great majority of people there will see for themselves the nature of the targeting. It will be clear that regime targets—Saddam's Ministries and palaces—are being destroyed. As the campaign evolves, there will be no clearer message to the people of Iraq that we have no quarrel with them, but that we do have a serious difference with Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): May I start by associating myself with the comments of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer)? May I also thank the Secretary of State for mentioning the mine countermeasure vessel, HMS Ledbury, named after the town in my constituency?

What steps does the Secretary of State propose to take on the media coverage of events? Some of it is helpful, but some could be detrimental, especially to the special forces who are drawn from my constituency.

Mr. Hoon: I indicated earlier and also yesterday the nature of the modern 24-hour media. From the opportunities that I have had to follow the television reporting of events, I believe that journalists have by and large behaved responsibly. Clearly we have some concerns, but in general they have observed the rules set for them.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): May I associate myself and my constituency with the expression of regret for the forces who have been lost? All of us who participated in the armed forces scheme were impressed by the dedication and courage of our servicemen and servicewomen.

Will the Minister clarify how wide the coalition is? How many countries are participating in the military action and how many have forces who are currently engaged in action? Have any commitments been given to Turkey on her post-war role should she participate, as she now apparently is, in military action?

Mr. Hoon: In fact the number of countries that are providing political and practical support to the coalition is increasing by the day. I mentioned the figure yesterday of at least 30, but the revised figure is at least 40. That support is being given in a range of ways. As I said, I am very encouraged by positive discussions with Turkey. As a NATO ally, we would expect it to be of assistance.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): May I ask the Secretary of State to consider the future not just of Iraq, but of our servicemen? Many ex-servicemen served in Iraq in the earlier war and many who are serving there now will retire. If they retire to France, they will get inflation-proof pension increases, but if they retire to, say, Australia, they will not. That is manifestly unfair and I hope that he will consider that in time.

Mr. Hoon: I am well aware of the anomaly that the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights. It is something that we continue to consider.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): May I take the Secretary of State back to the issue of Turkey? Yesterday the Turkish Grand National Assembly passed two resolutions, one of which was on over-flying

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rights. The second allowed Turkish armed forces, under Turkish command, to cross the frontier into Iraq. Will the Secretary of State make it absolutely clear that there is no agreement with Turkey that its forces can cross into Iraq or that it will be allowed to occupy in any way, or stay for any time at all, in the Kurdish autonomous zone in northern Iraq? There is real fear among the Kurdish community in this country, all over Europe and, of course, in Iraq and Turkey itself about the activities of the Turkish army. We need that important issue clarified.

Mr. Hoon: I spoke earlier about the continuing discussions with Turkey on over-flying rights and the importance of Turkish forces showing restraint. However, I emphasise to my hon. Friend that Turkey shares our view that what is of paramount importance is respect for the territorial integrity of Iraq. That is as important to Turkey as it is to the United Kingdom.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): On the media coverage, the Secretary of State may have seen reports that coalition forces could be in Baghdad in three or four days. Does he agree that exaggerated claims of success in the media will distress the families of service personnel and lead to unrealistic expectations of when their relatives may come home? I worked in Baghdad in 1982 and know that taking the city could be difficult. Every building is designed to have a bunker underneath it and it could take a long time to take people out if they try to resist.

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes a number of good points, which I endorse, as I tried to do yesterday. I do not believe that it is sensible to overplay expectations, not least because of the risks faced by our servicemen and servicewomen.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): I join colleagues in offering my condolences to the families and friends of those people who lost their lives in the Gulf yesterday. Last night, I watched my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister address the nation on the reasons for military action in Iraq. May I stress to the Secretary of State that it is important that we maintain a direct link with the British public to ensure that they are fully informed about what the Government are doing, with the support of the Opposition, to bring about a swift conclusion to the hostilities in Iraq?

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