The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I take every opportunity to discuss with my European colleagues the need for improved co-ordination of military capabilities, particularly in the context of European security and defence policy, NATO's Prague capabilities commitment initiative and the United Kingdom's bilateral defence relationships. I will be meeting EU colleagues on 19 May and NATO colleagues in mid-June.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, but does he agree that, with the one laudable exception of the UK, our European partners to date have failed to perform in terms of military procurement and commitment of troops, whether for peacekeeping purposes or conflict resolution? Is he surprised to hear voices in the Opposition criticise our support for enhancing European capabilities? Would he describe the position of Opposition Members as (a) ludicrous, (b) untenable, (c) illogical or (d) all of the above?
Mr. Hoon: Nevertheless, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations. It is important that the UK set an example both in spending more money on defence and in spending that money more effectivelysomething that I should hope Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen would support. What is interesting about their criticisms is the extent to which they fail to recognise the need for European nations to work
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to examine the composition of EUFORthe European Union force in Macedonia? Is he aware that it is made up of a number of very small contingents from a large number of countries, rather than units of command from single countries under their own commanders, as I would have expected? Does he believe that that is an effective way of deploying a European force?
Mr. Hoon: Obviously, that is a matter for military judgment as to the capabilities of the particular force and from where it should be drawn. I am satisfied that the military advice that has been given is the right advice and that the force in Macedonia is doing a good job.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Decisive combat operations in Iraq have been completed. Saddam Hussein's regime, which had for years brutalised Iraq and threatened the wider region, has collapsed.
In most areas of Iraq, coalition forces are now focusing upon stabilisation operations, setting the conditions for the restoration of the country's political and administrative structures. We will continue the humanitarian efforts already under way.
British forces have played a major part in the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. They have once again demonstrated their professionalism and expertise, combining combat operations with support for the civilian population. They are now helping the Iraqi people to take the first significant steps along the road to greater political and economic freedom and security.
Hugh Robertson : The Americans apparently plan to publish their report on the friendly fire incidents on the internet this week. Given the sensitivity of the subject, not least for those units and regiments, such as my own, which lost soldiers in tragic incidents of that sort, will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely how many British personnel are involved in the investigations, when they intend to publish their findings, and what consultations they have had with our US allies on the subject?
Mr. Hoon: There have been extensive consultations. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the investigations are conducted in parallel form through the national chain of command. We are represented in the American
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Am I the only one to be utterly astonished that, after interviewing goodness knows how many Iraqi scientists who were allegedly involved in developing weapons of mass destruction, the only thing that we have found to date is the transporter to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier? How many Iraqi scientists have been interviewed, and what has transpired as a result?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend had better prepare himself for further astonishment, because I have to tell him that sometimes when they are interviewed, people do not tell us the truth. It is therefore necessary for us to continue investigations into where weapons of mass destruction have been hidden. As I said earlier, the Iraqi regime had many months in which to hide weapons of mass destruction; we have to have a similar period in which to locate them.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) about friendly fire, will the Secretary of State say more about what work has been done since the end of the conflict? Will he give the House a commitment that any progress made by the Americans will be matched by us? In particular, has he done any research into BCISbattlefield combat identification systemdeveloped by Northrop Grumman, an American company, which puts transponders into American tanks so that they have technical facility to deal with friendly fire? It is important that our kit for our soldiers is as good as the Americans'.
Mr. Hoon: I think that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will accept that the most important work that needs to be done in the light of the conflict is to investigate thoroughly the friendly fire incidents in question, so that we can properly understand what went wrongclearly, things did go wrongbefore we take decisions on potential solutions. The Ministry of Defence and I are willing to consider any solution that guarantees the safety of our services personnel.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): My right hon. Friend will know that 2,000 extended range bomblets and shells were used in the British battle for Basra. Will he ensure that the impact points of those munitions will be made available to the United Nations mine action service and to non-government organisations? Will he warn civilians of the consequences of unexploded bomblets? Does he agree that it would be more appropriate for the funding of such clean-up operations to be provided by the MOD rather than by the Department for International Development?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right. Determined efforts are made to identify the location of unexploded bomblets. Records are kept, and members of Britain's forces are routinely engaged in making safe any unexploded ordnance. That work is under way in Iraq
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I pay tribute to all those who gave their lives serving in the recent conflict in the Gulf and to their families. The country owes them a deep debt which we are determined to meet.
Long-term financial support is provided to widows and dependants under the armed forces pension scheme and the war pension scheme. Where a service person died as a result of the conflict, and left a partner with whom there was a substantial relationship of interdependence, ex-gratia payments equivalent to benefits paid to a surviving spouse will be awarded to unmarried partners under the armed forces pension scheme.
In addition to the financial support, my Department is providing emotional and administrative support and assistance to the families. That support will be maintained for as long as the families require it.
Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware that, on top of the measures to which he has referred, for a modest monthly sum, generous pay-outs can be received from PAX, the private insurance scheme. The difficulty is that that is a private insurance scheme, so it costs servicemen to buy it. Secondly, not every serviceman is enrolled in the scheme. Is it not now time for the Government to take on that burden to provide proper insurance for our servicemen so that their widows have a generous settlement?
Dr. Moonie: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a review of pensions and compensation is being undertaken. I hope to return to the House in the near future to discuss some of the changes that we shall be making. However, the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head. For a modest payment, additional insurance can be provided. We always recommend to our people that they should take that out. Whatever we provide for them, it will always be essential for people to take additional cover for themselves to provide for their families. It would be prudent for them to do that, and something that we would encourage them to do.