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Troop Deployment (Iraq)

3. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): If he will make a statement on troop deployment in Iraq. [199355]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Just under 9,000 UK troops are deployed in Iraq. The level and mix of our forces in Iraq are kept under constant review and adjusted according to the
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changing security situation. Other UK forces are based elsewhere in the middle east and their contribution should not be forgotten.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Secretary of State has reiterated to the House this afternoon that our troops based in Iraq need the very best equipment for the 21st century. How does he respond therefore to the fact that the lives of our troops are being threatened by the problems with the new Bowman communication system and, worse still, by the undemanded firing of the Warrior tanks? What measures, other than posting warning notices of these failures, is the Ministry of Defence going to take considering that it has known about them for some while? The lives of innocent Iraqis and, worse still, the lives of our troops are being put at risk by deficient equipment.

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry, but the hon. Gentleman simply does not have that right. No lives are being put at risk as a result of the introduction of Bowman. It is disgraceful that such a remark should come from a member of the Conservative party, which failed to implement the Bowman project over so very many years, when this piece of equipment is coming into service at long last after years of delay and procrastination. [Interruption.] It is no good him holding up his fingers at me; a Conservative Government spent nearly 20 years trying to get this equipment into service and utterly and completely failed to do so.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): Bearing in mind the security situation, the fact that Prime Minister Allawi has said that the elections will go ahead on 30 January despite his deputy, Adnan al-Pachachi, saying that they should be delayed for six months and the fact that the United Nations is sending only 25 election experts to Iraq—they are not there yet—will UK troops or, indeed, United States troops do any election work?

Mr. Hoon: The work of the multinational force is obviously to provide security to allow the elections to take place. I caution my hon. Friend on simply picking out quotations that apparently serve one side of the argument. If he looks at what the Government of Iraq have been saying, he will find that they have made it clear that they want the elections to take place on time.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): Will the Secretary of State confirm again that the Black Watch troops will be released from Iraq before Christmas? Will they be replaced in the US sector by another British battle group? Everyone in the House hopes that the elections will proceed on time on 30 January, but will the Secretary of State say whether there will be further British troop deployments to the British sector to secure the peace for those elections? Indeed, will there be British deployments to US sectors in the north, because the commander of the US forces in northern Iraq has said that elections could not proceed there at present given the current security situation?

Mr. Hoon: I confirm that the Black Watch will be home in time for Christmas and that I have no plans at all to send British troops to replace them. As for the
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overall situation, there will obviously be further deployments of British troops to replace those who are currently in theatre.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab): What assistance is being afforded by British troops to enable the Red Crescent and Red Cross to deliver and disperse humanitarian aid to Falluja? Given the ferocity and frequency of the aerial bombardments on that city, what will British troops do to assess and make safe any unexploded armaments?

Mr. Hoon: The humanitarian effort in Falluja is under way. However, as I told the House during the debate on the Gracious Speech, one of the practical problems facing those who are trying to distribute aid is the absence of a large number of civilians in the city because many have sought refuge elsewhere in Iraq, often, as I understand it, with friends and relatives. The humanitarian assistance is in place and ready to be delivered as and when it is required.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Following on from the question asked by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), will the Secretary of State confirm that it is his plan to deploy extra troops to Iraq, and not only troops outside the normal roulement? If it were the case that extra troops were required, would it be his intention that they should go to the British area of responsibility, or be deployed elsewhere?

Mr. Hoon: I have no plans to deploy extra troops in the sense that the overall number of British troops in theatre will remain at roughly the 9,000 figure that I set out to the House today. If there were a requirement for more troops, I would inform the House in the normal way.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Further to the Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson), what assistance is being given by British or coalition troops to the 200,000 Iraqis who have left Falluja, many of whom are not with friends and family, but seem to be accommodated in tents? What is their need for water, food, sanitation and medicine?

Mr. Hoon: As I have already said, humanitarian assistance is available. Food, water and shelter could be made readily available immediately if there were an overwhelming requirement for it, but at the moment there is not a large number of civilians in and around Falluja to whom humanitarian assistance could be provided.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): What discussions has the Secretary of State had about the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland for redeployment to Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: I have had no discussions about the withdrawal of troops in Northern Ireland for redeployment to Iraq. Two separate but parallel processes are involved: there is clearly a reduced requirement for British forces in Northern Ireland because of the improving security situation there and,
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obviously, from time to time, forces who might have otherwise served in Northern Ireland will be deployed to Iraq as part of the normal rotation.

Fort George Army Base

4. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab): What his Department's plans are for the Fort George Army base. [199356]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): No decisions have been taken regarding the future role of Fort George. However, options are currently being developed for consideration.

Mr. Stewart: My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the superb facilities at the imposing Fort George base in my constituency. He will also know that it has a rich and varied history that dates back to its commissioning shortly after the battle of Culloden in 1746. Will he agree to meet me in the next few weeks to discuss possible future options for the base, especially using it as a Scottish training facility for the Army?

Mr. Ingram: I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend; indeed, we had a successful meeting at Fort George after which we met interested parties. It is better to meet when we have a more mature point of view to express, but I am always prepared to listen to views in the community about the uses that could be made of the facility. He is right that there are excellent training facilities in the area, so that is clearly one of the positive aspects that we are considering.

Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment

5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): What the current strength is of the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment; and where it has been deployed in the last five years. [199357]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As at 1 October, the strength of the 1st Battalion the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment was 620 officers and soldiers, including 65 personnel from other units currently attached to the battalion.

In the past five years, the battalion was based at Colchester up to April 2000, as a resident battalion in Northern Ireland from April 2000 to April 2002, and at Hounslow from April 2002 to the present. While at Hounslow, it made two operational deployments to Northern Ireland between December 2002 and June 2003, and to Kosovo between March and April 2004.

Mr. Gray: I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming the full recruitment of the RGBW and its distinguished current service, which is in addition to the 209 battle honours and the 16 VCs and the George cross that it enjoys. It also has the great distinction of wearing the cap badge at the back in memory of the Glorious Gloucesters' distinguished service at the battle of Imjin during the Korean war. Does the Secretary of State agree that if his plans go ahead for the reduction of three
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battalions in England and the creation of super-regiments, that regiment will either be consigned to the regimental museum and the history books, or the super-regiment he creates will have some small part of it in enjoying that distinguished tradition and history? Does he agree that those people fight well together because of that history and the unique deep feeling within the regiment? Does he not worry that he risks destroying it with his plans?

Mr. Hoon: I listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's observations. Of course it is right that we should pay tribute to the distinguished record of the three separate regiments that he relies on for his argument. The various distinctions that he has brought together are the result of—[Interruption.]—at least three different regiments; I am being given helpful assistance by Opposition Back Benchers. He has cumulated those to suggest that the regiment is long standing. He knows that that particular regiment was amalgamated by the last Conservative Government as part of the significant cuts made under the supervision of the then Minister for the armed forces, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), now representing the Opposition on the Front Bench. This process of consolidation and amalgamation has seen a number of such amalgamations down the years.

What is important—I agree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) to this extent—is that we preserve, where we can, the identity and distinctive characteristics of regiments. I stressed that this morning when I met a number of distinguished veterans from the Gloucestershire regiment. To suggest, however, that that identification of history and the association of particular regiments with their very distinguished past is not possible under any reorganisation is completely undermined by his example of an amalgamated regiment and his reliance on its limited recent history.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for joining me in meeting a delegation of members and former members of the Gloucesters. I also warmly thank him for making a commitment to look sympathetically at ways and means of ensuring that the identity of the Glorious Gloucesters is protected, whether through the back badge, the US presidential citation or other such measures, so that it continues to have a strong local link with areas such as mine.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I am particularly grateful to him for arranging the meeting this morning. It was a great privilege to meet distinguished veterans of the Gloucestershire regiment and to emphasise to them the importance of recognising, as part of the reorganisation, the distinguished history of our great regiments and of doing our best to preserve that as part of any restructuring of the Army for the 21st century.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I ask the Secretary of State not to forget the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry in all the discussions. It is a distinguished ancient and single-county regiment. Will he also recognise that there is a political dimension to the decisions? No one is arguing that there should be no modernisation or even
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reorganisation, much as I would regret it, and we cannot deny that there were amalgamations, but the whole point of those that took place under the Government of whom I was proud to be a member was that they recognised the importance of keeping the names of the counties. If we have some great south-west regiment, we will lose all that. So I ask him that when the decision is put to him for final ratification, whatever the military may say on military grounds, he recognises the great affection with which the RGBW is held. It was only on 16 October that it received the freedom of the city of Salisbury.

Mr. Hoon: I have consistently recognised that point. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's observation that no one is suggesting that there should be no reorganisation is not shared by his Front-Bench team, who have argued consistently that there should be no change and that regiments up and down the country should be preserved as they are. He and I agree. I am always delighted to agree with him. He is a voice of common sense on the Conservative Back Benches, and long may he continue to be so. I hope that he manages to persuade those on his Front Bench to adopt a slightly more realistic policy towards both the need for reorganisation and the preservation of identity.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I am not sure that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) has greatly assisted the campaign to retain the RGBW; I will try to do a little better. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has received a considerable number of representations on the future of that fine regiment, which faces either amalgamation or disbandment. Is he able to give me any guarantees on the future of the RGBW, and particularly of Brock barracks in my constituency, which provides a base for no fewer than 20 other service groups and associations, all of which are anxious about the future of our local regiment?

Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that the principles that we have set out will be kept to. It is important that we provide an Army structure that is right for the 21st century, which provides us with the right deployable capabilities for the modern age and at the same time recognises the importance of local identity and, in terms of my hon. Friend's constituency, local connections.

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