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31 Mar 2003 : Column 651—continued

Reservists (Gulf)

2. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): How many reservists are deployed in the Gulf region. [105448]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): In total, 4,943 reservists have been accepted into service to support operations in Iraq. The majority of these have been deployed to the Gulf region.

Mike Gapes : I am grateful for that reply. Is my hon. Friend aware that at least nine people living in my borough are serving in the Gulf as reservists, including 25-year-old Peter Wright, my constituent from Seven Kings? He is serving as a skilled mechanical electrical engineer with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Kuwait, having left the Gordon road Territorial Army centre in Ilford to do so. Will my hon. Friend say to those reservists and their families that we will see this job through, that we will do it to create a safer and more secure middle east and to liberate the people of Iraq, and that we will not give in to those who are now calling for us to withdraw and allow Saddam to remain in power?

Dr. Moonie: I am happy to pay tribute to the many skills that reservists are providing for us during this deployment, including those of my hon. Friend's constituent. We often forget that many of our specialist skill areas are dependent on our reserve forces. With regard to my hon. Friend's last remarks, I can only say that I agree with them entirely.

Angus Robertson (Moray): The morale of both our reserve and full-time forces, and of their families back home, is undoubtedly critical at a time of conflict. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the disquiet of many members of the service community about the high cost of sending care packages to the Gulf. What moves is he backing to try to deal with that problem, which is important for both the full-time and reserve forces?

Dr. Moonie: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are looking into this. The service that is being supplied at present is an airmail service. We are extremely short of capacity, as he can imagine, and I believe that the standard rate that is being charged, which is the internal postage rate, represents a reasonable deal for an air freight service. We will, however, see what additional help can be given as things develop.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Given the pressure on our reservists and regular units, and given the threats made over the weekend by Messrs Rumsfeld

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and Powell against Syria and Iran, will the Government give the House some kind of assurance that we shall not become embroiled in a wider war involving those countries?

Dr. Moonie: I can assure my hon. Friend that any threats or otherwise made to those countries will not be a matter for me to decide. He has to recognise that this was a unique situation.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): As the Secretary of State has said, we are all very proud of the contribution that the reserve forces are making in the Gulf at this time. We are also conscious, however, of the additional burdens that will be imposed on them, which will be highlighted when we come to discuss the civil contingency Bill. Is the Minister aware that many of us are concerned at the massive overstretch affecting our reserve forces? Will he seek, through the business managers, to give the House an early opportunity to discuss these matters, so that the Government can announce their intentions in respect of the strength of our reserve forces?

Dr. Moonie: I would certainly dispute the fact that there is any overstretch in our reserve forces. They are doing the job that they are intended for, which is being called up to support operations. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the review is continuing, and I shall let the House know its results as soon as is practicable.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I am sure that the whole House joins other Members in praising the role of all our reserve forces in the Gulf and elsewhere as well as the commitment that they make to their families and, indeed, their employers.

To follow on from the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), last year, the Secretary of State announced the formation of the civil contingency reaction force, manned by the TA for home defence to deal with terrorist attacks. I understand that some TA soldiers who will be sent to the Gulf in the next round of reservist call-ups are serving in those civil contingency reaction units. Will the Minister tell the House how many TA soldiers have a double liability—possible service in the Gulf and home defence—and whether he believes that that undermines the effectiveness of TA units that are being organised to deal with the heightened threat from terrorism within the United Kingdom?

Dr. Moonie: If that information is available, I do not have it to hand. Of course, I am happy to provide it for the hon. Gentleman if it is available in a suitable form. I can say that every effort will be made to deconflict the two areas to ensure that we have adequate cover for both.


5. Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): If he will make a

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statement on the dangers posed by weapons of mass destruction in the war in Iraq and the preparedness of British forces to meet those dangers. [105451]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction pose a threat to his own people, the stability of the Gulf region and, potentially, the rest of the world. His grim record demonstrates that he is prepared to use them to kill many thousands of people.

Planning and preparation for this operation have taken full account of the threat from those terrible weapons to our personnel, who are afforded a comprehensive defence against chemical and biological weapons, including detectors, warning and reporting systems, physical protection such as NBC suits, decontamination procedures and medical countermeasures.

Dr. Cable : What independent verification has emerged over the past week of the various reported findings, from the capture of a chemical weapons plant to this morning's report in a leading daily that there is final proof of large-scale ricin manufacture? Does the Minister feel that there is a useful wartime role for the UN weapons inspectors in making an independent assessment of the various evidence and claims as they emerge?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot confirm the newspaper report to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Clearly, when we get confirmation, that will be relayed through the normal channels. It may well be to the House in the first instance. The role of the UN inspectors is a matter for the UN.

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I join others in expressing my deep sympathy for the families and friends of those who have lost their lives in our armed forces so far, and I pay tribute to the exceptionally high standards shown by our armed forces in the past 12 days. What further evidence does the Minister have of Saddam Hussein's intent to use weapons of mass destruction, particularly in chemical and biological warfare, and does he think that the findings of training equipment made south of Basra yesterday by British troops add further proof of Saddam Hussein's willingness to use unconventional methods of warfare?

Mr. Ingram: I share my hon. Friend's opening sentiments, and she makes some valuable points. The Secretary of State, in his statement of 20 March, issued the warning that

Of course, we have seen examples of that over recent days, including some of Saddam Hussein's paramilitaries operating in civilian clothes and the abuse of prisoners of war. We have discovered stocks of chemical weapons, and other things related to nuclear, biological and chemical threats. A clear conclusion can be drawn—[Interruption.] Well, there is certainly evidence of chemical and biological threats because of the suits that were found.

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Saddam has the capability: that is why we are there in the first place. It must remain our assessment that he has and intends to use the weapons.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): One of the anxieties expressed in the past few days is that Saddam might try to throw missiles at Israel, possibly containing weapons of mass destruction, in an attempt to broaden the conflict. I do not want to draw the Minister into talking about the operational side, but can he reassure us that our forces have been able to minimise that threat?

Mr. Ingram: We have a range of objectives in seeking to minimise all the threats posed by Saddam Hussein's forces. That is obviously one of those threats, and we are taking appropriate action to minimise it.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): How many sites that have been identified by US and UK intelligence as chemical weapons storage sites have so far been inspected, and what has been found?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot give the figures, because, as I said earlier, such verification is not yet available to us. I only hope that my hon. Friend shares my view that Saddam Hussein has the capability, and has been developing it. That was Hans Blix's conclusion in the 173-page document that he produced on 7 March. It is only a matter of time before we find the weapons, and produce verification accordingly.

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