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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): British forces will not be deployed to the region any longer than is necessary, but will remain there while the operational situation requires it. I have already announced a number of withdrawals and replacements of our forces and I shall continue to keep the House informed.
Dr. Palmer : As my right hon. Friend is aware, the reserve armed forces who have been operating in the Gulf have been admirably supported by the national headquarters in my constituency. There are those who intermittently criticise aspects of what is happening in Iraq, but may I express the hope that he will agree that our forces will be in safe hands when they return with the support of the mobilisation centre in Chilwell?
Mr. Hoon: I am delighted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution of the reserves in Iraq and, indeed, to the work of the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have had the privilege of visiting the centre on a number of occasions.
Although we will need to send further reservists to Iraq to help our forces to meet their continuing obligations there, we are also seeking to bring home as soon as is practicable those reservists whose tasks have been completed.
My hon. Friend might like to know that Chilwell is playing its part in the reconstruction of Iraq. Secondees from British Government Departments to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance are receiving their pre-deployment briefing and training at the centre.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the Secretary of State turn his attention to the terms and conditions of members of the reserves and, especially, the situation faced by one of my constituents, who is a police inspector and a member of the volunteer reserves? If he is called to serve in Iraq, he will face a pay cut of £20,000 a year, which is a source of grave concern for his
Mr. Hoon: The bands are kept under constant review, and I shall certainly examine any specific case that the hon. Gentleman cares to bring to my attention. Arrangements for the payment of reserves are long standing, tried and tested and generally work very satisfactorily.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Bearing it in mind that conflicts such as that in Iraq put pressure on our armed forces and front-line troops, will the Secretary of State reassure us that even if the political situation improves in Northern Ireland, the British Government will look on the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment as a rich reservoir of skilled and professional soldiers, at low cost, who should be maintained in their existing numbers and not given up as a political pawn in some settlement?
Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend's tribute to the Royal Irish Regiment. I have had the privilege of seeing it in action in Northern Ireland and elsewhere on a number of occasions, and it does a tremendous job.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): There is no doubt that Saddam's regime continued to develop weapons of mass destruction in breach of United Nations resolutions, and that we will continue to find evidence of these programmes. Coalition forces are actively investigating sites, documentation and specific individuals connected with Iraq's WMD programmes. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have deployed specialist personnel and will send more in the near future.
These investigations will take time. The Iraqi regime had every opportunity to hide these programmes, given their considerable experience in concealment. Gathering and collating evidence of WMD programmes from the various sources will be a long and complex task.
I can confirm that UK experts have conducted preliminary assessments of the suspect mobile vehicle referred to by members of the US Administration last week. It is clear that this vehicle is military, and is a transportable system designed for producing micro-organisms. As such it should have been declared by Iraq under United Nations Security Council resolution 1441, but it was not. It appears to match the information on Iraqi mobile biological agent production facilities described in our dossier of last September and by the US Secretary of State to the Security Council in February.
Mr. Hoon: The purpose of the Iraq survey group is to provide a core of experts drawn from several different countries, including the United Kingdom, to pursue the necessary scientific inquiries that such investigations require. There is no diminution at all of the coalition's efforts to identify weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, to publicise them when appropriate.
Mr. Rosindell: Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to observe what was published in yesterday's Washington Post? It said that the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which is charged with finding weapons of mass destruction, has found places that have been "looted and burned". Is there evidence that potential terrorists have looted any of those weapons, or that they could be used against the west?
Mr. Hoon: I am aware of those reports and they are being investigated. There are reports of looting, although I cannot confirm them. It is obviously a matter of concern, which is why it is so important that we have detailed investigations on the ground carried out by experts.
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance of re-establishing UN inspection teams, first, to reassert the UN's authority, which is also vital for the administration of Iraq, and, secondly, to provide credibility because there are growing suspicions that the immediacy and extent of the threat from Iraqi WMDthe reason given for the rush to warwas massively hyped on the basis of the selective use of unreliable or even specious intelligence information?
Mr. Hoon: As the Prime Minister and the President agreed at Hillsborough, the UN has a vital role to play in the continuing efforts to rebuild Iraq. We have made it clear that it would be useful to have an independent source of verification for findings of weapons of mass destruction, and that might well include a role for the UN. As far as my hon. Friend's final observation is concerned, I have just drawn the House's attention to the discovery of a facility that was set out in the dossier on the basis of intelligence available to us last September which was also referred to by the US Secretary of State. I hope that my hon. Friend might reconsider his observations.
Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): My right hon. Friend will recall that one argument for the invasion of Iraq was the discovery of weapons of mass destruction and the need to destroy them, especially as there was a danger that they would pass into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Does he think that there is any possibility that weapons of mass destruction may have been transmitted to terrorist organisations in the present period?
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Given the great importance of uncovering Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, his links with terrorist organisations, will the Secretary of State explain how it was possible that British journalists were able to obtain key documents from Ministries several days after the fighting had ceased when such documents should previously have been secured by British and American intelligence officers?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman knows full well that for a short period there was serious disorder and looting in parts of Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. That was specifically aimed at elements of the regime, in particular the governing part. Not surprisingly, journalists on the spot were able to get access to documents that were not secured by the coalition. That should not come as a great surprise to the hon. Gentleman.