The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Our military campaign objectives contain a commitment to the withdrawal of British military forces from Iraq as soon as is practicable. It is as yet too early to predict when there can be a complete withdrawal of UK forcesthat will obviously depend on the circumstances. We will maintain an appropriate military presence in Iraq as long as that is necessary to set the conditions in which the Iraqi people can get their country back on its feet politically and economically.
Mr. Cunningham : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Although I welcome any withdrawal of British troops from Iraq because they obviously want to get back to their families as soon as possible, what contingency plans have been made for policing in Iraq and the delivery of aid, especially humanitarian aid, in which British troops currently play a major role?
Mr. Hoon: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the need for as many of our forces as possible who have been engaged in war-fighting operations to return to the United Kingdom at the earliest opportunity for some well earned leave. Hon. Members may have noticed that some 400 Royal Marines arrived home this morning.
With many of our forces returning, I am pleased to assure the House that others will be available to continue to bring security and stability to southern Iraq. That includes involvement in the reconstruction effort. British forces have already made a significant contribution to the stability and security of southern Iraq as well as to ensuring the availability of humanitarian assistance. That effort will go on.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): May I join the Secretary of State in hoping that our forces will be home as soon as possible? I also wish to ask him about the comments of the retiring Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, whom the Secretary of State would doubtless like to join me in congratulating on his peerage. He said that the British Army would suffer "serious pain" if it had to make future deployments in the next few years. In Iraq, it appears that the Territorial Army is filling some of the gaps among our overstretched regulars. What proportion of UK forces in Iraq is from the Territorials? Does the right hon. Gentleman have plans to send more Territorials there? Since TA units do not have the same training opportunities and welfare packages as regular forces, does the Secretary of State intend to make any improvements to the TA's welfare package?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for commenting on the Chief of the Defence Staff's elevation. I was able to pass on my personal congratulations and I am sure that other hon. Members would like to echo that.
The reserves are making a substantial contribution in Iraq and will continue to do so. The important point in the strategic defence review about the way in which we reorganise reservist forces is making them useful and useable. They have made a tremendous contribution so far and I am confident that they will continue to do so.
Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the mothers in support of troops movement, commonly known as MIST, in Portsmouth? It has organised two marches so far in support of our troops so that we do not forget their sacrifices and activities on our behalf.
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to draw to the House's attention the tremendous contribution of families in support of those who have served in the armed forces in Iraq and other places. I am delighted to endorse his comments.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): The Secretary of State will be aware that there are threatened large-scale resignations from the reserve forces because of the perception that they have not been handled well in Iraq. Will he comment on that and let hon. Members know what he plans to do about it?
Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): Many tributes have rightly been paid to British service personnel serving in the Gulf. Would not the best tribute be to ensure that the ongoing and enduring medical needs of service personnel returning to the UK are catered for and that all the medical lessons of the first Gulf war are learned?
Mr. Hoon: That will remain a priority for the Ministry of Defence. Considerable effort has been made to ensure the availability of high-class medical facilities in theatre. That effort must continue, as my hon. Friend says, once our forces have returned to the United Kingdom.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): May I add my voice and that of the Opposition to those of congratulation to Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who looks forward to taking his peerage? He stood shoulder to shoulder with the Secretary of State through many difficulties and appears to have earned an early peerage for plain speaking. I presume that such an invitation will not be extended to members of the right hon. Gentleman's party.
I congratulate all the armed forced on the crucial role that they continue to play in the effort to stabilise post-war Iraq. During the war, our armed forces distributed leaflets that assured the people of Iraq:
Mr. Hoon: It is neither open-ended nor unfunded. What is important, however, as the leaflet illustrated to the Iraqi people, is that British forces remain there as long as is necessary to ensure stability and security, and to play a part in the reconstruction of Iraq. Once those tasks are completed, I should want to see British forces return home as soon as is practicable.
Mr. Jenkin: So it is not open-ended, but the Secretary of State cannot say when it will end. Today, we still have reports of looting and of the continuing breakdown of law and order crippling efforts to rebuild Iraq, and it is our troops who have to wrestle with the consequences. Does he recall how the Conservatives warned the Government about the lack of preparation for post-war reconstruction? Now that the Secretary of State for International Development has resigned, is it not clear that the Government's planning for post-conflict Iraq was paralysed by splits at the heart of Government?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman makes two foolish points; given more time, he would probably have made more. So far as his apparent criticism of open-ended commitments is concerned, I invite him and other Members sitting behind him to think for a second about whether they would want to put a specific date on the conclusion of British military operations, given what has been achieved so far. He is simply making silly points[Interruption]and he repeats them now from the Front Bench. He really needs to give a little more thought to his observations before he gets up, even from his present position on the Front Bench, dependent as he appears to be on the Leader of the Opposition's grace and favour. In those circumstances, he ought to think about certain other observations as well. We have just seen an extremely successful military operation in Iraq, and a Government who were in any way divided could not have conducted it.
Dr. Lewis Moonie): All personnel returning from Operation Telic, whether regulars or reservists, are being provided with appropriate support measures, acknowledging that each individual's experience of the conflict will be different. The procedures vary slightly between each service according to need, but are essentially similar and delivered in three stages: recovery, normalisation and after care. Support services include debriefings and post-operational tour leave. Reservists will receive all appropriate briefs, a medical screening and support with the potential for follow-up action as required, including specific guidance on returning to their previous employer. Post-deployment medical screening is not provided automatically to regulars, as they are subject to routine health surveillance, and all personnel are able to consult medical staff at any time, should they feel the need to do so.
Mrs. Gillan : Will the Minister tell me why our service personnel get such a raw deal when they are risking their lives on the front line, and why they lose out financially, particularly when compared with the American forces, alongside whom they are serving in the Gulf? Will the Minister now get the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to bring our soldiers' benefits to the level enjoyed by our American allies, and pay their council tax for them and give them income tax relief while they are deployed on active service? Is not it about time that the Government gave our forces a fair deal?
Dr. Moonie: This seems to be one of the many myths that the Opposition perpetuate. The body responsible for armed forces pay and remuneration last year conducted an independent study into the package of benefits available to all serving men and women in a vast number of countries, including the United States of America, and concluded that our package, taken overall, was the equivalent of all of them. I do not think that we have anything to apologise for.
Mr. Flook: Marines of 40 Commando returning home from Iraq this weekend may consider that now is the time to leave the forces and settle down to civilian life in Somerset and Taunton. Some of them may be suffering from the mental scars of conflict, so I welcome the setting up of the medical assessment programme run by the MOD at St. Thomas's, but given that it will assess patients and only recommend treatment, what discussions are being held to ensure that local NHS hospitals such as that in Taunton have the knowledge and resources to treat ex-servicemen properly?
Dr. Moonie: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. The measures that we have introduced should go a long way towards allaying anxieties about the support that we intend to give people on their return from the Gulf. We must try to cover every possibility, but he makes a good point about the management of mental stress, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.
We have come a long way in the past 10 years, and we certainly have a much larger body of expert advice available in the NHS, which has experience of treating such people. The medical assessment programme can provide help and advice too, so, all in all, while we
Llew Smith (Blaenau Gwent): On the welfare of service and ex-service personnel, what are the Government doing to clean up the toxic and radioactive contamination that has resulted from the use of depleted uranium in the recent invasion of Iraq?
Dr. Moonie: Any environmental programme will have to be drawn up as Iraq develops under its peaceful administration, and we are well aware of our obligations to take part in that, but I make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no evidence whatever from anything that I have seen in the records of our people that any of our soldiers have been damaged by contact with uranium, depleted or otherwise.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): After the first Gulf conflict, the medical screening that was available for returning UK service personnel was incomplete, incoherent and utterly unsatisfactory. Further to the Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), will the Minister give a little more detail to show how we have learned from those serious mistakes of a decade or more ago in terms of the personnel returning from this conflict?
Dr. Moonie: Our medical package has been carefully tailored to manage people appropriately within the situation in Iraq and on returning home. To that end, we keep better records and conduct more medical surveillance. We shall also take a great many steps as people return to debrief them adequately on their experiences and to provide medical help and assistance where necessary.
In addition, as the House is aware, I announced last week a programme of research, which will look in great detail prospectivelythat is importantat the health of a large cohort of those returning from service in the Gulf. That will aid us in helping with individual problems and in establishing a proper database on which future research and work can be conducted.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): On behalf of the official Opposition, may I warmly welcome the statement made last week by the MOD on setting up the research programme on the physical and psychological health of those involved in the recent Gulf conflict? Everybody will appreciate that move.
May I raise unfinished business from the earlier Gulf conflict? On 4 February, the MOD launched a High Court challenge against the pensions appeal tribunal ruling last May in favour of Shaun Rusling, which officially recognised Gulf war syndrome. Is it still the case that the MOD does not recognise Gulf war syndrome as a medical condition? Given that the Department is not planning to appeal against the successful claim of Alex Izzet on 5 May at a pensions tribunal that the concoction of drugs that he was given
Dr. Moonie: May I take the second point first? We did not appeal the Izzet decision because there are no grounds in law for an appeal. The fact that almost all informed medical opinioncertainly among all those who have studied the work that has been done and the practices used during the Gulf wardisagrees with the tribunal does not alter the fact that it is entitled to come to its decision. We cannot challenge it in law, and we will not do so.
The position is different with regard to the definitionit is purely a definitionof Gulf war syndrome. I feel strongly that we should not use terms that have no basis in medical fact. To use the term "syndrome" to describe conditions that encompass almost every symptom known to man or woman is highly unhelpful. We have challenged that ruling, and our position remains unchanged. In our opinion, there is no such unitary illness or disease as Gulf syndrome. A great many people have become ill as result of their service, but that is quite different.
I stress again that no one gets a penny more pension from us because they are diagnosed as having Gulf war syndrome. Pensions are paid on the basis of disability. At present, more than 1,200 are paid to veterans of the Gulf war. It does not matter to their financial recompense whether their condition is described as Gulf war syndrome. In my opinion, it matters greatly, because medical opinion in this country, in the United States and anywhere else where the condition has been studied properly is entirely in agreement with our position.