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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD):
Colleagues and I have repeatedly raised the issue of the proliferation of unauthorised Travellers' sites in our constituencies. Given the written answer of yesterday's
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date stating that there are 3,571 caravans on unauthorised encampments or unauthorised developments of land without planning permission, and the court case that occurred in recent weeks, is it not time that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister produced proposals which, to be fair, it has promised, to increase the powers of local planning authorities? Many people worry about the integrity of the planning process and relationships between our communities and travellers.
Mr. Hain: I am sure that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will have noted the hon. Gentleman's question. I hope that he will support the Government in future on all these issues in the legislation that we introduce on antisocial behaviour and similar matters.
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): May I urge the Leader of the House to reconsider the answer that he gave my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) in relation to police authority funding? Given that the Government have loaded additional costs on to police forces around the country yet are speaking about a simple inflation-linked increase in the grant next year, there will be massive shortfalls. In the case of my own constabulary, Greater Manchester police, it would lead to a shortfall of some £40 million. That would mean massive front-line cuts in policing. It is essential that the Government reconsider. May we please have an urgent debate on the matter?
As the hon. Gentleman will understand, there has been a long-standing problem relating to the finances of the pension fund for the police. That has complicated the funding decisions that have to be made. He is right, as a Member of Parliament, to raise the matter in respect of his local area, and I understand that. But he ought to draw the attention of the House and his constituents to the fact that within two years of a Conservative Government taking power, a massive multi-billion pound cut is planned in Home Office budgets, including police funding. His voters ought to know that if the Conservatives won, the problems would be much worse and the council tax would go sky-high to cope with them.
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On Monday I explained to the House that the UK military had received, and was evaluating, a request from the US military command in Iraq for assistance that would involve UK land forces operating outside the Multi-National Division (South-East) area, in support of a combined Iraqi/US force.
A reconnaissance team from MND(SE) deployed to the area in question earlier this week and has now reported back to the chiefs of staff. The team provided information on a number of issues including logistics, the length of the potential operation, the likely tasks, activity levels in the area, the force levels required, and the command and control arrangements. After careful evaluation, the chiefs of staff have advised me that UK forces are able to undertake the proposed operation, that there is a compelling military operational justification for doing so and that it entails a militarily acceptable level of risk for UK forces. Based on this military advice, the Government have decided that we should accept the US request for assistance.
I emphasise again that this was a military request, and has been considered and accepted on operational grounds after a thorough military evaluation by the chiefs of staff. As I said on Monday, and as the Prime Minister said yesterday to the House, this deployment is a vital part of the process of creating the right conditions for the Iraqi elections to take place in January.
We share with the Iraqi Interim Government and with our coalition partners a common goal of creating a secure and stable Iraq, where men, women and children in towns such as Falluja can feel safe from foreign terrorists, from the kidnappers who murdered Ken Bigley and from other criminals. Crucially, Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi and the Interim Iraqi Government want to establish sufficient security for elections to be able to take place in January. Recent successful operations by Iraqi security forces and coalition forces in Tal Afar, Samarra and on the outskirts of Falluja have been undertaken to restore areas under the control of militants and terrorists to the authority of the Iraqi Interim Government. As a direct result, the political process there is now moving ahead.
We cannot consider the current UK area of responsibility in isolation. What goes on in the rest of Iraq affects southern Iraq and affects UK troops wherever they are based. We must therefore consider our contribution in the context of the overall security situation right across Iraq. This means that a UK armoured battle group consisting of the 1st Battalion the Black Watch and supporting units will deploy to an area within Multi-National Force (West) to relieve a US unit for other tasks. They will be deploying with the necessary combat support services such as signallers, engineers and medics, resulting in a total deployment of around 850 personnel. This deployment will be for a very limited and specified period of time, lasting weeks rather than months.
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I cannot give the House further details about the location, duration or specifics of the mission. I know that hon. Members on all sides will understand that to do so would risk the operational security of the mission and potentially the safety of our forces. Speculation from many quarters so far has not been helpful. I emphasise that there are no plans to send a further 1,300 troops to Iraq, as suggested this morning.
Concerns have been expressed about UK forces coming under US command and about their rules of engagement. The arrangements for this deployment are that the force will remain under the operational command of General Rollo, the UK General Officer Commanding Multi-National Division (South-East).
On a day-to-day basis, the Black Watch will, of course, have to co-ordinate its activity with the US chain of command in the locality, but any changes in the mission or the tasking would have to be referred back to General Rollo. As with all UK operations, our forces will operate at all times under UK rules of engagement, which will provide proper protection for our forces, as they have done throughout our operations in MND(SE).
It is not unusual for UK and US forces to work alongside each otherthey have successfully done so not only in Iraq, with US forces often providing logistical support for our own forces and therefore reducing the number of troops and assets that we need in theatre, but in operations all over the world. Indeed, in Bosnia, about 22,000 US troops operated under UK command. As I said in my statement on Monday, UK forces in Iraq work alongside forces from Italy, Denmark, Poland, the Netherlands, Japan and other countries on a daily basis. That is an effective and practical way to ensure coherence both in our own area and with those areas that surround it.
There has also been speculation as to why there is a need for this UK force to backfill for a US unit, when there are around 130,000 US troops in Iraq. The armoured battle group brings important qualities of extensive training, experience, and hard-edged combat capability. It is not the case, as is often implied, that there are 130,000 US troops that could take on that task. In fact, less than one third of US forces in Iraq have the requisite combat capability, and of those even fewer have the armoured capability that is needed.
Specialised armoured forces are already highly committed across Iraq, which is about four fifths the size of France. The chiefs of staff have further concluded therefore that the provision of a UK battle group to that new mission would be a significant contribution to and would materially increase the effect of the continuing operations to maintain pressure on the terrorists before the January elections.
On Monday, hon. Members raised the question of whether that deployment will leave sufficient forces to deal with contingencies in our own area of responsibility in the south. The roulement of British forces currently under way includes an armoured infantry battle group of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards with their own Warrior armoured vehicles, which will fulfil the divisional reserve role currently undertaken by the Black Watch. That will result in General Rollo temporarily having an extra armoured battle group under his command, which will provide a robust force
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capable of dealing with any contingencies. It is also worth remembering that the other UK forces in MND(SE) will continue to carry out their tasks in the professional and effective manner that has become so apparent to the people of Basra and the surrounding areathey restore power, water and basic facilities and support the Iraqi authorities in ensuring a robust level of security.
The deployment is limited in scope, time and space, and it does not represent a permanent significant additional commitment of forces. The overall trend in the numbers deployed in Iraq remains down, from the peak of 46,000 during the war-fighting phase to around 8,500 today. That overall downward trend is expected to continue as we continue to train Iraqi security forces to take over from UK forces, as has happened, for example, in Amarah in Maysan province.
The Government remain totally committed to the Iraqi Interim Government and the need to hold free elections in January. We also remain committed to protecting innocent Iraqis, dealing with terrorists, kidnappers and criminals, training and equipping Iraqi forces so that they can take our place providing security, and seeing a democratic Government in Iraq who will take their rightful place in the international community and who will deliver prosperity and a secure future for the Iraqi people. That should unite both sides of the House, and it is right that the United Kingdom should contribute to those objectives. The deployment of the Black Watch will emphasise to the Iraqi people that the UK will continue to contribute to the coalition and see the task through.
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