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Infantry (Urgent Deployments)

4. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): What assessment he has made of the (a) adequacy and (b) availability of British infantry to respond to additional urgent deployments. [173152]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): A number of British infantry units are routinely held in reserve at very high readiness to deploy. This
 
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ensures that the Army always has prepared troops available to respond to additional urgent deployments. The adequacy of this system was perfectly illustrated by our extremely swift response to the recent difficulties in Kosovo. The spearhead land element, in this case the 1st Battalion the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, deployed to theatre in less than 24 hours, undertaking its first patrol the very next day.

Tim Loughton : That of course is nothing new, but given the massive overstretch facing the infantry battalions of the British Army as a result of the concurrent operations overseas, and the fact that they now face the prospect of non-combat activities in the UK to deal with fuel tax protesters and possibly another firemen's strike, at what point does the Secretary of State anticipate that infantry availability will run out?

Mr. Hoon: The absolute determination of the Opposition to talk down the skills and successes of our armed forces is remarkable. I have just given the hon. Gentleman an excellent illustration of just how ready and available our armed forces are. Within days, they are able to go out on patrol and conduct extremely effective operations in Kosovo, but what happens? The hon. Gentleman talks them down. That is becoming typical of the Opposition as a whole.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State give the House a vote on the possible deployment of more troops to Iraq? If not, will he give us an assurance that any such deployment will be in the areas where our troops are now, and not in the positions that the Americans are asking us for?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend has been in the House for much longer than I have and knows full well that decisions on whether votes are taken are a matter for the House. We keep under constant review the question of the number of troops required in Iraq. We have from time to time increased that number in response to specific requests from commanding officers on the ground. Nothing has changed about the situation. I am sure that she and other hon. Members recognise that, if there were an urgent request for extra troops, it would be the responsibility of the Government to satisfy that request, before the possibility of any House of Commons vote.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): In how many countries are British troops currently deployed?

Mr. Hoon: Quite a number.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I thank the Secretary of State for that accurate answer. Members on both sides of the House recognise the fact that infantry battalions are the workhorses of the British Army. They are vital in both military operations and peacekeeping. There are few other armies in which the infantry can move as easily from one aspect of operations to another as our troops can. However, the Select Committee, the chiefs of staff and the former Chief of the Defence Staff have all indicated time and again that the Army is suffering from serious overstretch, particularly in the infantry. The decision to put the 1st Battalion the Black
 
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Watch on stand-by for reinforcing Iraq is an illustration of just how serious that situation is. That regiment has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and is now the UK land forces training battalion at Warminster. If the MOD now has to deploy training units, what infantry will be left for further urgent deployments?

Mr. Hoon: Here we go again. The Opposition are absolutely determined to talk down every aspect of the considerable success of the armed forces. Whenever I give illustrations—as I do repeatedly from the Dispatch Box—of just how successful we are, not only in the armed forces but in the management in the Ministry of Defence, all we get from the other side is this determined effort to run down our armed forces.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we ask our armed forces to undertake duties on behalf of our country, we should reward, defend and protect them? If it comes to a point at which they are overstretched, can he estimate how much it would cost to equip and man the extra five infantry regiments that the Opposition are talking about, and where would the money come from?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the Opposition appear determined to cut the size of the defence budget. In those circumstances, I am sure that the people of this country would draw the appropriate conclusions about whether they could possibly trust this country's defence to the Opposition.

Iraq

5. Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [173153]

9. Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): If he will make a statement on the situation in Iraq. [173157]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The whole House will join me in condemning the recent violence and especially the bombing in Baghdad this morning that resulted in the death of Iraq governing council member Izz al-Din Salim. The undemocratic actions of a minority, often perpetrated against fellow Iraqis, will not deter them or the coalition from continuing down the path that we have set out to achieve a democratic transition in Iraq.

Away from the headlines, we are continuing to make steady progress in Iraq. Some 80,000 Iraqi police are helping to provide security to their people. Almost 20,000 reconstruction projects have been completed. Following years of neglect, Iraq's infrastructure is being modernised, with bridges, pylons, railways and water pipelines being constructed right across the country. But we recognise that improving the security situation is crucial to the continuing success of reconstruction. This continues to cause concern, with more than 100 engagements between insurgents and coalition forces just the weekend before last.

On 1 July, authority will pass to an Iraqi interim Government, who will prepare the ground for full elections to a transitional assembly some time around
 
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the turn of the year. Iraq will then have, for the first time in many years, a representative, democratic body, chosen by all the people, working on behalf of the entire country. In preparation for this, many Iraqi Ministries have already passed to Iraqi control.

Charles Hendry: I am grateful for the Secretary of State's detailed reply, but does he understand that most people now regard the Government's approach to Iraq as increasingly incompetent? The Government seem to be acting on a day-to-day basis, rather than working to any coherent strategy. Ministers seem not to understand what is going on; they seem more concerned about how they explain that the buck does not stop with them. Does he understand the serious effect that that must be having on the morale of our troops in Iraq, who continue to do the most courageous and professional work despite the lack of political backing from their masters?

Mr. Hoon: The strategy has been clearly set out on many occasions. I was able to repeat only the highlights. No doubt in the forthcoming debate, we will have the opportunity to identify precisely what the Opposition are complaining about. Aside from the bluster that we sadly have heard repeatedly from the hon. Gentleman, and consistently from Opposition Front Benchers, I have not a single idea as to what the Opposition say about Iraq.

Mr. Carmichael: Further to the Secretary of State's answer to the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), when the House consented last year to committing British troops to war in Iraq, it did so on the basis of that country possessing weapons of mass destruction and progress being made in the wider peace process in the middle east. Progress on both fronts has been difficult to come by. Does he accept that, if a more substantial commitment of British forces is to be made, or if those troops who are already there are to be used differently, it is essential that the House has a say in that first?

Mr. Hoon: It is important that I correct the hon. Gentleman. As he will recall, if he checks the record, we committed forces to Iraq to deal with the failure of Saddam Hussein's regime to co-operate fully with international resolutions, particularly those set out by the United Nations. Certainly, they concern weapons of mass destruction, and efforts are continuing to identify the nature and location of those weapons. However, the hon. Gentleman must understand that we have to deal with attacks on coalition forces, and, as we have seen so tragically this morning, attacks on individual Iraqis, who are all trying to rebuild that country.

The simple question for the Liberal Democrats is, what action would they take now? It is all very well trying to rewrite history, as the hon. Gentleman has done, but what would they do with the situation that British forces now face?

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): May I put to the Secretary of State a point that I have put to him before? Mass unemployment among Iraqis gives a real kick to the lack of security in Iraq and the American policy of privatisation and favoured contractors does
 
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not provide jobs for Iraqis. Will he, on behalf of the UK Government, put distance between the UK and US policies, so that we argue for jobs for Iraqis?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend needs to recognise that the largest single employer in Iraq is the coalition provisional authority, which is the authority responsible for the distribution of large amounts of international aid, the great majority of which comes from the United States. The CPA employs large numbers of Iraqis on reconstruction projects of the kind that I have just set out.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Saddam Hussein is going to be returned to the Iraqi interim government in six weeks. Who will guard him: Iraqis or coalition personnel?

Mr. Hoon: Some of those details are still to be resolved between the Iraqis and coalition forces, but I emphasise that there will be a full transfer of authority on 30 June. It is for the Iraqis to determine the way ahead on these matters and the British Government in particular will co-operate fully in that respect.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): Can the Secretary of State assure me that, in the current security situation in Iraq and in any anticipated developments over the next few months, British deployments will still be for six months only, and not for nine months?

Mr. Hoon: Decisions of that kind are taken in response to circumstances on the ground, but I have not seen any need to change the current length of deployments.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that some people argue that the British Government should distance themselves from the Bush Administration in their policy on Iraq. Does he believe that to do so, far from assisting the establishment of security in Iraq, would further undermine the likelihood of security and stability for the people of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: I agree entirely. We are working together as a coalition and all those who make complaints must answer the question of what they would do. Anyone who seriously suggests early withdrawal from Iraq must recognise that they would be responsible for any conflict that followed.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): My right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to associate themselves with the remarks made by the Secretary of State about the dreadful bombing in Iraq this morning.

Given that it is hard to exaggerate how disastrous the last two weeks have been for the Government, and now that their policy on post-conflict Iraq has been so brutally exposed by the absence of any clear political strategy, will the Secretary of State take this moment to set out to the House and the wider country the Government's strategic objectives for the next 45 days until the transfer of power and for the subsequent period until elections?

Mr. Hoon: I answered that question right at the start of Question Time, but I shall take the opportunity to
 
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repeat myself, as I shall again in the debate to follow. It is important that we are able on 30 June to hand over to the Iraqi people not only sovereignty, but authority—the ability to take real decisions on the future of their own country. That will lead towards a situation by the end of this year or early next year in which there can be elections and a Government elected for all the people of Iraq. As we do that, we need to become less and less responsible for security as more and more Iraqis assume that responsibility for themselves. We will, however, be there to assist the Iraqis in delivering that security for the benefit of the Iraqi people.

Mr. Soames: The truth is that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have accepted almost limitless liability for what happens in Iraq in exchange for very little control over events. At one moment the Prime Minister claims that he is in discussion with the Americans over further troop deployments, but within hours his spokesman denies it. The next moment we are told that we are staying to see this through, but we are subsequently told that the Prime Minister and President Bush are speeding up plans to withdraw troops from Iraq and hand over security to the Iraqis. What kind of message does that send to our troops on the ground and to the Iraqis themselves? Are the Iraqis to co-operate with the coalition, or should they simply sit out our presence and hope for the best when we leave? Does the Secretary of State agree that the absence of a clear political strategy has been the single most serious failing of the occupation? Let us not make it the main feature of the post-occupation period, too.

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must say that in future I expect shorter supplementaries.

Mr. Hoon: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. The hon. Gentleman was clearly warming up for his speech later.

The importance of this matter should not be underestimated. I cannot understand from the Opposition what they would do differently. It is all very well to stand there blustering about the absence of a clear political strategy, but one has been set out time and again.

Clearly, we have responsibilities to the Iraqi people to ensure that there is the possibility of reconstruction and improvement in the face of determined terrorist attacks, not only against coalition forces but against the Iraqis themselves, as the events of this morning so vividly and tragically demonstrated. It is important that the Opposition think through their opposition; at the moment, they are simply opposing, with nothing whatsoever constructive to say.

6. Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr) (PC): Whether UK armed forces personnel have been based at the Abu Ghraib detention facility since 1 May 2003. [173154]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Three members of the United Kingdom armed forces were based at the Abu Ghraib detention facility between January and April 2004.

Adam Price : The US Administration have admitted the use of so-called stress positions in the interrogation
 
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of Iraqi detainees, a practice that they say has now stopped. Did the service personnel mentioned by the Secretary of State report the use of those techniques? If so, to whom did they report and what action was taken? Is there any evidence that stress postures were used by British service personnel in the interrogation of Iraqis at any other detention centre?

Mr. Hoon: This matter has already been reported to the House but I repeat the information so that the hon. Gentleman is not in any doubt. The investigation by the US authorities was into events that took place between October and December 2003. As I have told the House already, the three British service personnel were at Abu Ghraib for a limited period after the events under investigation and did not, therefore, witness any of the events that have been the subject of so much speculation in the press—to which, from the way in which the hon. Gentleman asked his question, he is clearly trying to add. Moreover, the American investigation was already under way by the time that those three service personnel arrived at the facilities. Given that, it would be remarkable if they had seen any of those so-called techniques in use. They had no complaints and they did not report the use of such techniques to the American authorities because they did not witness their use. Nor did they report them to any UK authorities.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that all allegations of mistreatment by British troops of Iraqi citizens are thoroughly investigated?

Mr. Hoon: I can give that assurance. The moment that serious and substantial allegations are made, proper investigations have got under way. Those investigations continue. Should they lead to a situation in which it is judged by an independent prosecuting authority that charges should be preferred, that would obviously follow.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): After 30 June, when we will rightly pass authority for so much to the Iraqi council, will the Abu Ghraib detention centre and other detention centres be staffed by Iraqis?

Mr. Hoon: I have indicated to the House that those are matters that are still under discussion, but in principle the answer is yes. Authority will pass to the Iraqis to be increasingly responsible for their own affairs and it is obviously important that that is seen to be the case on the ground. However, I emphasise to the House that matters are still subject to negotiation.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that it is essential that we are seen to be behaving correctly in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. In his discussions with our coalition partners, will he ask them to ensure that we are aware of any future allegations of systematic misconduct that may be laid against any member of the coalition?

Mr. Hoon: Certainly it is important that there is a full and frank exchange of information when such issues arise and I take note of my hon. Friend's suggestion.

7. Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): What arrangements have been made for counselling troops in units that have suffered casualties in Iraq. [173155]
 
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The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): Military personnel deployed to Iraq receive pre-deployment and post-deployment briefing on mental health issues. Trained mental health professionals have also been deployed and are available to military personnel in theatre. However, psychiatric debriefing is not routinely offered to individuals or units who have been exposed to combat.

Mr. Steen : Surely when young servicemen lose colleagues in the theatre of war, they should not so much be offered as receive, from non-military personnel, guidance, help and support. They should be able to work through their anger and distress and that should not be recorded as a weakness by military personnel.

Mr. Ingram: There are extensive arrangements in place to deal with all those issues. Procedures were put in place after the last Gulf war that were found to have no real clinical advantage and as a result they were not continued. It is about ensuring that, if a request for help is made, it is made available. It is also about monitoring by senior officers and others in the chain of command of what is happening to those under their command. The way in which we handle such situations is very sensitive and they are taken seriously, but no significant complaints—or any complaints—have been made to date that would support the way in which the hon. Gentleman has raised that question.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): May I ask my right hon. Friend about the recording of casualties in Iraq? Does he feel that there is a moral, if not necessarily strictly legal, obligation on the occupying forces to record civilian deaths as well as military deaths; and does he feel that the failure to record Iraqi civilian deaths has an adverse impact on Iraqi people's perception of the occupying forces?

Mr. Ingram: The question was about the counselling of our troops. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is suggesting that their being asked to do certain things, then doing them, causes them additional stress.

On the counting of civilian deaths, Iraq is a most difficult environment in which to operate. Where face-to-face conflict has taken place, there may be no indication that a civilian casualty or death has occurred, but a body is then removed from the scene and buried almost immediately. Some people are saying that we should take those bodies out of the ground and examine them for medical and other evidence. That is a completely nonsensical approach.

This is a very difficult situation and we do our best to ensure that proper counting takes place. Indeed, we are currently trawling all our records to ensure that we have not missed any matters that may have been reported. We are trying very seriously to deal with this, but I hope that my hon. Friend recognises just how difficult the environment is.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I associate myself with the Secretary of State's remarks about this morning's appalling outrage in Iraq.

The Minister knows that in addition to the casualties in Iraq from the initial war-fighting phase and the ongoing peacekeeping support operation, several
 
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members of the British forces have tragically been killed in accidents. What facilities for counselling are available to their families? Given that our forces are effectively on duty in Iraq for 24 hours a day, does he agree that the partners of any British troops killed in Iraq should be entitled to a full war pension?

Mr. Ingram: We have identified some shortfalls in the way in which the counselling of families is approached. That is why the point-of-contact approach of those who report injuries or fatalities to families has been looked at again to see whether there is a more appropriate way of dealing with such situations and to ensure that all personnel who have to carry out an undoubtedly very difficult task are appropriately trained and understand the sensitivity of the issue. It is a learning process, and we have taken on board some valuable lessons in recent months and years. That process can never rest, because we are likely in future to turn up new problems that we must revisit. We have to try to get it right at all times and to understand the sensitivities involved.

As regards pensions, I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

8. Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his assessment of the reports by (a) the International Committee of the Red Cross and (b) Amnesty International on the role of British troops in operating prisons in southern Iraq. [173156]

11. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): If he will make it his policy to ensure that all reports received from Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross concerning the behaviour of British forces are drawn immediately to the attention of Ministers. [173159]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Ministry of Defence receives millions of individual items of correspondence each year. Clearly, it would be impractical for Ministers to see it all, and we must therefore rely on officials' judgment to select those items that require ministerial attention. Some correspondence and reports from organisations such as those mentioned in both questions will fall into this category; others can be dealt with by officials. However, I would normally expect Ministers to see the kinds of reports that were mentioned.

I have seen two reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross that deal with the role of British troops in operating detention facilities in southern Iraq. One raises two serious issues affecting UK armed forces that had been dealt with well before the report was received; the other is a more recent working paper.

I am not aware of any Amnesty International reports that deal specifically with the way in which we operate our detention facilities, but it has reported allegations of abuse in UK custody that have been investigated and replied to. Two recent reports from Amnesty make serious allegations about the conduct of UK personnel more generally, covering the period since British troops went into Iraq. Those are being investigated and will be dealt with in the same way.
 
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Mr. Barnes: The Secretary of State's reply is somewhat different from the one given by the Minister of State during the debate on Thursday, which, as regards Amnesty International, was merely centred in a one-page letter sent about seven months ago about one incident. Should not reports from Amnesty International be seriously considered by the House? Traditionally, Amnesty International has been held in the highest regard by the labour movement, so what it has to say should be taken on board and examined.

Mr. Hoon: I emphasise that we have received a number of reports, letters and a dossier from Amnesty International—some from the UK section and at least one letter from the Italian section. Each was replied to, once appropriate investigations were completed; for example, the most recent letter we received from Amnesty prompted us to conduct yet a further investigation of all our files relating to Iraq to establish whether Amnesty had raised any new matters in its correspondence. One of the problems that we have faced with that particular organisation is that it has recycled many previous cases in new items of correspondence. Nevertheless, we treat each of those matters very seriously and give each the appropriate investigation.

Mr. Luff: The Secretary of State's attitude to this question today is rather different from that of his Minister of State last Thursday. In the words of the popular song, "Sorry may be the hardest word", but would not the Minister have been well advised to use that word last Thursday rather than seeking to twist the word "report" away from any recognisable dictionary definition of it? Would not the Secretary of State, too, be well advised to say sorry to our troops in Iraq for his failure to put proper procedures in place to ensure that he and his Minister of State were fully aware of accusations, ill founded or well founded, made against those troops by reputable international organisations?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that for a moment. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman understood more about the way Departments operate he would thoroughly understand that Ministers have investigated those matters, in detail and at length, whenever allegations have been made at an appropriate stage.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): Could the Secretary of State help me? I am very, very confused as to what happens to reports from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The reports are obviously serious and important and come from an international organisation of enormous repute, so can he tell us what has happened to those officials who apparently decided either that Sir Jeremy Greenstock did not need to see the reports or that they were to be sent to joint staff headquarters, the Foreign Office basement, or wherever? What procedures have been put in place to ensure that in future Ministers—Ministers—see such reports when they are produced?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend asks a fair question about the situation. We ask officials to exercise their judgment.
 
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When officials in the Ministry of Defence saw the report they judged, in the light of the two serious allegations concerning UK soldiers, that those matters were well in hand; indeed, investigations had begun about five months before. Nevertheless, as I made clear in the answer that I have just given the House, it is important that Ministers see such reports and appropriate action has been taken to ensure that that happens in the future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): It is surely unacceptable for the Secretary of State to try to use his officials as a bombproof shelter for him and his fellow Ministers. Is it not a fact that anybody with any appreciation of the situation in Iraq must know that the worst thing for coalition aims is that abuses of this sort rally the population behind the insurgents? It should have been blindingly obvious that those reports should have been at the top of the Secretary of State's agenda; and his failure, and that of his colleagues, to treat them with due gravity is partly responsible for the fact that, having won a military campaign, we are now losing the political settlement afterwards.

Mr. Hoon: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman discuss with those of his Front-Bench colleagues who have some experience of government what happens when officials assess reports. In this case, I have taken appropriate responsibility. I am not—as the hon. Gentleman is—seeking to blame officials. Officials looked at the report and made their judgment. I accept that they must exercise their judgment and that Ministers are responsible for their judgment. That is what happened in this case, and no matter the amount of effort by the Opposition to turn this into some sort of ministerial responsibility as far as the actual decision is concerned, it simply will not wash. The hon. Gentleman should talk to those who have been in government. We can all recall occasions on which Conservative Members have had to come to the House and apologise for their failures in government, so the hon. Gentleman really ought to know better.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State agree that the work of the Red Cross and Amnesty International in highlighting abuses across the world is held in very high regard on both sides of the House and that there is an urgent need to investigate these allegations? However, does he also agree that they remain allegations and that, until they are proven otherwise, it is of great disservice to the troops who are still serving in Iraq and to their families back home to pretend otherwise?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him for that note of common sense in this debate, a note of common sense that the Opposition have sadly been incapable of demonstrating on this issue, as they are determined to score very poor political points. It is important that the people against whom allegations are made be given the opportunity of responding to those allegations and that thorough investigations be conducted. That is precisely what the Government set out.
 
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