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THE

PARLIAMENTARY   DEBATES

OFFICIAL REPORT

IN THE FOURTH SESSION OF THE FIFTY–THIRD PARLIAMENT OF THE

UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND

[WHICH OPENED 13 JUNE 2001]

FIFTY–THIRD YEAR OF THE REIGN OF

HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II

SIXTH SERIES

VOLUME 429

SECOND VOLUME OF SESSION 2004–2005


 
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House of Commons

Monday 10 January 2005

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

PRAYERS

[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

DEFENCE

The Secretary of State was asked—

Royal Navy

1. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future size of the Royal Navy. [207374]

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We are adapting and modernising the Royal Navy into a versatile maritime force that is structured to meet the challenges of the changing strategic environment of the 21st century. Our investment will see the Navy's capability enhanced through the procurement of new aircraft carriers, Type 45 destroyers, Astute class submarines and amphibious support vessels. That represents the largest shipbuilding programme in decades. Our latest plans for future Royal Navy force levels were detailed in Cmd 6269 on future capabilities, which was published by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence last July.

Mr. Luff: I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the new aircraft carriers. When exactly do the Government
 
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mean to finalise the plans to build those, and what is the exact timetable for their procurement? Are the Government sure that they have the cash to construct those aircraft carriers? Can the Minister confirm or deny the plausible report in The Times last week that they can be built only at the cost of a reduction in the Typhoon fighter programme?

Mr. Ingram: The programme, as has been explained time and again from the Dispatch Box, is currently going through its assessment phase. Proceeding in that way will ensure that we get that part of the early procurement stream right, which is part of the new smart acquisition philosophy. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would support that, although he would not have done so when his party was the Government given that much of the legacy of problems that we have is based on poor procurement decisions taken then. We are trying to ensure that all the steps in the procurement process are correct and accurate, and we seek to get things into service on the dates that we set—2012 and 2015.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the strong links between the north-east of England and the Royal Navy, not just in building of some of the finest ships but in supplying men and women to serve. Does he agree that the expertise of those men and women has once again been demonstrated in the past few weeks by the response of the Royal Navy in Sri Lanka and south-east Asia?

Mr. Ingram: That is an appropriate and timely question, and I pay tribute to those who are building our warships and those who are serving on them throughout the world and carrying out an important role in a troubled part of the globe. The frigate HMS Chatham, which carries two helicopters, and the support ship RFA Diligence have linked up off Sri Lanka and are co-ordinating with an observation, liaison and reconnaissance team that has been deployed to Colombo. They will shortly be joined by RFA Bayleaf,
 
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which will have the capacity to carry fresh water and aviation fuel, as well as sustaining Diligence and Chatham. HMS Chatham began work today to bring assistance to the east of Sri Lanka. They are carrying out important humanitarian work, and a range of other initiatives are taking place, some of which involve other members of our armed forces. I pay tribute to each and every person serving alongside civilian organisations in the area to bring humanitarian aid.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The number of standing tasks undertaken by the Royal Navy has been reduced from seven to six and is to be further reduced to four because of the shortage of ships. Bearing in mind the retirement of two Type 42 frigates and a Type 23, and given the slippage in the in-service date of the Type 45 to 2009, how can we be sure that we have enough ships even to fulfil four standing tasks? Is this the right time to reduce the Navy's presence, when the maritime stability that the Royal Navy is able to provide worldwide is so very valuable?

Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman should have listened to the earlier answer. We are engaged in the largest warship-building programme for many years. That is being done to ensure that we have the capability to meet the threats of the future. That, of itself, means that we have to consider whether the legacy of ships that we have should be retained or decommissioned, and decisions on the contingent tasks expected of them have been taken on the basis of military assessments of what the threat level will be. In the view of the military advisers in the Royal Navy, what we seek to do is deliverable and achievable and will enable the Royal Navy still to rank among the very highest in the world.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland) (Lab): May I congratulate my right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Secretary of State on all their work in securing ships for the Clyde, and say on behalf of workers on the Clyde how grateful they are for the jobs? Both my right hon. Friends know, however, that the most important time is when the steel gets cut, as we then know that the ships will be built. Can the Minister of State tell us when the first steel will be cut for the carriers?

Mr. Ingram: I cannot. If I could, we would have announced it. Obviously, that is a very important announcement. I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in this matter, and is assiduous in representing not only his constituents' interests but the interests of shipbuilding overall in the UK. He recognises the importance of these programmes, as he did in his question. When we move through the assessment phase, the next part of the process will get under way, and we will see that steel being cut. I am sure that there will be cheers throughout the UK on that.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Is it not now clear that the Government's ill-judged plans to cut the number of frigates and destroyers from 32 to 25, described by the First Sea Lord in post as "a painful cut", will inhibit severely the UK's ability to respond to unforeseen circumstances such as we have witnessed in the Indian ocean? Does the Minister of State agree that
 
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the size of the Royal Navy needs to take into account the ability of Britain's armed forces to respond to such disasters? On the deployment of HMS Chatham, which he mentioned, when did the Secretary of State authorise that deployment? Is there any truth in the report in The Sun today that the Government plan to send a fleet of 12 ships next week, apparently including both aircraft carriers, on a mercy mission? If that is true, where are those ships to come from as they are not there at the moment?

Mr. Ingram: I do not think that I should respond to speculation in any newspaper, even one as illustrious as The Sun. I cannot give the precise date at which the decision was taken on HMS Chatham, but it was taken immediately we were aware that we had capabilities in the region to meet needs there, and that it would serve a good purpose. I can obtain the precise date for the hon. Gentleman and write to him accordingly.

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says about the First Sea Lord's comments. We recognise, and we have always said, that the current process of transition across all three parts of the armed forces is painful. To get to the new, however, we must also deal with legacy issues. If I read him correctly, he is saying that he would keep every capability that we have currently, plus engaging on the same shipbuilding programme on which we are engaged, and possibly even more so. How will he afford that? What is his budget? Is it not better to be a bit more realistic, recognise that this is the biggest warship-building programme for decades, and pay tribute to the MOD and Ministers for achieving that?

Iraq

2. Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): What contribution UK armed forces have made to the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. [207375]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The armed forces' principal role in Iraq is helping to provide the security conditions for reconstruction and political development. We are focused on developing the capability and capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and 115,000 Iraqi security personnel are now trained, equipped, and operating across Iraq. On the recommendation of the General Officer Commanding, we will soon be deploying the extremely high readiness reserve battalion for Operation Telic, which is 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers, from Cyprus to the Multi-National Division (South-East) for a limited period in support of election security. Four hundred extra troops will be deployed to Iraq.

UK armed forces have also contributed—

David Maclean (Penrith and The Border) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is an outrageous abuse. This should be a statement.

Mr. Speaker: Order. Not during Question Time. [Interruption.] From time to time, the Speaker needs advice. I must get advice, and there is no point in anyone shouting. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State can continue.
 
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Mr. Hoon: UK armed forces have also contributed directly to reconstruction, working with the Department for International Development, the US Project and Contracting Office and the Iraqis. We have supported some 1,120 quick impact projects, including repair of essential transport services, the refurbishment of hospitals and schools, and the emergency infrastructure programme.

Hugh Bayley: Unlike Conservative Members, I am pleased that British forces have played a role in training Iraqi security forces. May I ask my right hon. Friend how well those Iraqi forces trained by Britain have been performing the difficult tasks of dealing with the extremist terrorists who want to stop the election taking place?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to give significant praise to those Iraqis who are risking their lives day in, day out for the future of their country. They are working hard to ensure that the date of 30 January is kept to and that democratic elections can take place. It is obviously our responsibility, as part of the coalition in Iraq, to support that effort and that is what we are intending to do. My hon. Friend is certainly right: across the country Iraqis are working hard in the future interest of their country. We want to give them as much training as they require in order to assume full responsibility for their own security.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State decided to slip out this substantial announcement during Defence questions and I fully appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that it placed you in a difficult position. This is an important statement in the lead-up to the elections, when the security situation in Iraq is very serious indeed. It is not sufficient for the Secretary of State to do this; it should be a statement. Many colleagues on both sides of the House would like the opportunity to press him on this. Will the Secretary of State give a guarantee that he will come back to the House and turn this into a proper statement so that all colleagues today might—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I do not want the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) to tell me how to do my job—he just would not know where to start. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) did not take as long as the Secretary of State on his question. The Secretary of State's reply was long and I have given some leeway to the Front Bench. That is the way I do things, so the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green will not tell me what to do.

Mr. Hoon: As Opposition Front-Bench Members well know, the force to be deployed to Iraq for a limited period to deal with election security is held at very, very high readiness specifically for that purpose—something that is well known to Members on the Opposition Front Bench, so their supposed outrage is entirely synthetic. To suggest that coming to the Dispatch Box and making a statement is somehow slipping out an announcement, is, as they well know, nonsense.

Mr. Simpson: I think that the Secretary of State has missed the point. This is a serious issue. It is obviously
 
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a further deployment. Does he not accept the fact that Members on both sides of the House see it as a good supporting issue in terms of the cuts of the four infantry battalions that he only announced before Christmas? In fact, it seems to me and to Opposition Members that it means that we require more infantry, not the cuts that he has carried out.

Mr. Hoon: Again, the hon. Gentleman knows full well that those forces were held in Cyprus before Christmas at the time when I was making the announcement to which he has referred, so this has no relevance whatever to the question of adjustments in the infantry—no relevance at all. He knows that. All that he is doing, once again, is making the cheapest political points—party political points—out of something that is very important and very serious.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh) (Lab): While the tasks of troops are clearly a matter for military leaders in Iraq, will my right hon. Friend indicate whether any movement of the additional forces—to the north, to Baghdad, to the so-called Sunni triangle—would require a decision of the Prime Minister on his recommendation?

Mr. Hoon: All these matters are obviously discussed in detail with the Prime Minister. A major deployment to Baghdad would certainly involve a decision by the Prime Minister on my recommendation, but I assure my right hon. Friend and the House that no such decision has been taken, or is indeed in prospect.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): The statement slipped out by the Secretary of State is indeed outrageous, because it comes at a time when newspaper reports in the United States talk about their forces becoming hit squads, when a senior US general is visiting Iraq to determine the process and the role of forces there and when our Prime Minister has said that he is in discussions with President Bush about the future role of British forces in Iraq. The announcement today should have been properly determined and discussed by the House of Commons through a statement, not simply slipped out.

Finally, does the Secretary of State realise that if he is deploying troops inside the British sector to support our purposes—our own force protection—Liberal Democrat Members and people throughout the country would accept it, but to deploy forces, potentially, outside the British sector will not receive the wholehearted support of many people in this country?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman missed the answer that I gave to the previous question—perhaps he prepared his question well in advance of today's Defence questions. But this is Defence questions and I simply do not understand why in the course of Defence questions—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman looks at the Order Paper, he will see that four of the first six questions are about Iraq, giving right hon. and hon. Members every opportunity of raising whatever questions on the subject they think fit.
 
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Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Last week, Hadi Saleh, the international secretary of the Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions, was murdered in Iraq. What role will British troops play in ensuring the ongoing security of people who are trying to build up civil society in Iraq over the months to come?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that appalling murder, alongside a number of others that have regrettably occurred. As my hon. Friend said, it demonstrates that those who perpetrate those appalling acts are trying to undermine the fabric of Iraqi society and our efforts to support the election process due to take place on 30 January, by trying to murder and intimidate those who are trying to build other aspects of a civil society. We should all join in our praise for those people who are working so hard, risking their lives in that effort, because it is something that every Member should support.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): In view of the desirability of achieving as much consensus as possible in the House on these issues, why did the Secretary of State at least not follow the convention whereby if he has a lot of information to impart on a certain question, it is taken at the end of Question Time, with notice, and treated by Mr. Speaker as a mini statement? Why did he not at least do that?

Mr. Hoon: Because I thought it appropriate, as far as the House was concerned, to take the very first opportunity to set out to the House, within minutes of the start of Defence questions, this particular deployment.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has been here long enough to know that we do not have points of order during questions.

3. Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): How many members of the armed forces have been injured in Iraq since March 2003. [207376]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): I take this opportunity to pay tribute to those civilians and the one member of the armed forces who have died in Iraq since the House last met. I know that the whole House would wish to pay tribute to them for their bravery and commitment in helping the people of Iraq.

Since February 2003, the United Kingdom has conducted 2,762 medical evacuations from Iraq. That includes a small number of entitled civilians and Iraqis. Of those, 790 have involved the evacuation of UK service personnel because of injuries sustained as a result of hostile actions, accidents and other incidents.

Mr. Grogan: Does my hon. Friend agree that, whatever hon. Members' views on the war itself, the whole House will be united in wanting to be reassured that service personnel who have been injured in Iraq are receiving the very best possible medical treatment and will be disturbed by some reports, such as those in BBC
 
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1's "Real Story", that that has not always been the case, particularly for some of those who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

Mr. Caplin: My hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on any specific case, but we have a significant number of people from the Defence Medical Services in theatre now—about 400—including surgeons, dental officers, physiotherapists and mental health staff, all of whom are dedicated to providing a high standard of clinical care, and I, and the Secretary of State and others, have visited them in Iraq.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): Just a few weeks ago, Fusilier Gentle of the 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers was killed in action in Iraq. Now that we know that the self-same battalion is about to go back to Iraq yet again, can the Minister confirm whether the soldiers of that fine battalion will have the correct equipment, the correct flak jackets, the correct helmets, the correct training and the correct warning to prevent further injuries?

Mr. Caplin: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

4. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): If he will make a statement on the future of British forces in Iraq. [207377]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We continue to consider, with the Iraqi Government and our partners in the multinational force, the number and disposition of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead, to support the sovereign Interim Government of Iraq through the process leading to elections and subsequent support to the Transitional Assembly and Government.

Mike Gapes: The Secretary of State knows that the Defence Committee visited Basra in the south of Iraq in December. May I ask him to confirm, based on my impressions, that there will be no precipitate withdrawal of British forces from Iraq and that we will see through the support that we are giving to the Iraqi national guard and to police training to enable the Iraqi people, after they have had their constitutional assembly elections, to hold a second election at the end of this year that will establish democracy in a large Arab country for the first time ever? We started this; we have to see it through.

Mr. Hoon: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee for the visits that they have made to Iraq; they are very much appreciated by the armed forces. I was able to see members of the Select Committee in Basra during the visit in December to which my hon. Friend referred. I have looked at the observations made arising from their visit and I am grateful to them for their thoughtful comments.

My hon. Friend is right that we have a continuing obligation to Iraq and its people to try to ensure security there and to allow democratic elections to take place—and, indeed, to the evolution of the constitutional arrangements for Iraq. We will be there so long as we are needed—so long as there is a requirement for external
 
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forces to assist in the preservation of security. As I said to the House earlier, our real ambition is to ensure that training and expertise is available to the Iraqi security forces so that they can assume responsibility for their own security.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): What message does the Secretary of State have for individual British service personnel in the Gulf who are faced with cuts in their numbers and frequently have inadequate equipment, who are faced with the raising of the burden of proof for the purposes of war pensions when they are injured, and perhaps worst of all are faced with the prospect of one of their number being prosecuted by non-combatant lawyers for actions that took place during a battle against the wishes of the military chain of command?

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members would not want me to comment on legal cases going through the courts.

I take the hon. Gentleman back to his first observation and remind all those currently representing the Conservative interest in the House that when a Labour Government were elected in 1997 there were some 101,360 members of the Army. The number now is considerably higher than that, and will still be higher after the adjustments to which I referred. His argument is purely party political. He did not make the same complaints about his own Government. Therefore, such complaints from the Conservative party are entirely determined by their party political self-interest.

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend tell us something about our alternative exit strategy in the event that the elections later this month are not as successful as we all very much hope?

Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear to my hon. Friend that the elections themselves are not an exit strategy? They are part of a process of rebuilding Iraq's constitutional arrangements, and an important part, certainly. The key to the contribution of Britain's armed forces is the provision of security to allow those elections and further elections to take place. Every person reporting back from Iraq confirms just how enthusiastic Iraqi people in every part of the country are at the prospect of being able to participate in democratic elections to determine their future.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State undertake to ensure that any future announcements of further deployments to Iraq are announced properly and to officers, soldiers and their families in an appropriate manner, unlike before Christmas when the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment learned of its abolition on television?

Mr. Hoon: May I make it clear that the hon. Gentleman's final observation is simply not right? There was an extensive process of consultation through every part of the Army. It lasted some six months. Therefore, there was a determined effort by the Army to ensure that
 
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all its constituent elements were consulted on any of the changes that I announced immediately before Christmas.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there are now more than 325 foreign fighters in detention in Iraq, many of them having come from Syria? What representations are we as a Government making to the Syrian authorities to try to prevent those who do not want elections in Iraq to take place from continuing to cross the border and carry out terrorist attacks?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. If those foreign fighters are not from Syria, they have certainly come through Syria. It is a matter of great concern that such people are able to make their way to Iraq and perpetrate the kind of atrocities that we have seen in recent weeks and months, deliberately trying to undermine the efforts of the majority of the Iraqi population to rebuild a constitutional basis for their country. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend in Iraq. She has visited different parts of the country on many occasions and is widely admired there for her efforts.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): How far ahead have further deployments been considered and will the Royal Anglian Regiment be sent to Iraq this year?

Mr. Hoon: I am not going to set out details of future deployments. Obviously there is always planning for them, but I repeat what I have set out persistently: we are seeking to ensure the training of Iraqi security forces so that they can assume responsibility for their own security.

5. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on the security situation in Iraq. [207378]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Insurgents and extremists continue in their attempts to destabilise the progress that is being made towards a secure and democratic Iraq. Their efforts to destroy the morale of the Iraqi security forces and to intimidate the people of Iraq in the run-up to elections are not unexpected. With the support of the coalition, Iraqi security forces continue to conduct operations against this insurgency to create the right conditions for elections to take place at the end of this month. Our armed forces are actively involved in developing the capability and capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and 115,000 Iraqi security personnel are now trained, equipped and operating across the country.

Mr. Mackay: Does the Secretary of State not see that, by failing to understand that it is essential to inform the House by way of a statement when there is a further deployment of troops in Iraq, he has lost the confidence of the whole House and is not a fit and proper person to hold that high office?

Mr. Hoon: I do not understand the right hon. Gentleman's argument. The Government have made a
 
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series of statements on Iraq on a regular basis. It has never been the case that adjustments in forces going to Iraq, or indeed any other theatre, has required an oral statement to be delivered when troops are already warned off for that particular purpose. I have acknowledged adjustments in the size of the force, including significant increases, by way of a written statement and announcement at Defence questions. There is nothing unusual for any Government in the practice that I have adopted today.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): Has my right hon. Friend seen press reports this morning that Secretary Rumsfeld is considering using the Salvador operation, which is basically an option that was used by the Reagan regime to fight a dirty war in El Salvador? Will he confirm that British troops will have no truck with such a strategy? Will he take this opportunity to condemn those who believe that such a strategy would be helpful, because it would contribute to pushing Iraq into civil war?

Mr. Hoon: I encourage my hon. Friend not to believe all that he reads in the newspapers, including the more excitable elements of some of those who comment on defence matters.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Is it not a fact that British forces can make up with skill what they lack in numbers in this field because they have more experience of successful counter-insurgency, particularly in the long Malayan campaign, than any other force in the world? What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the skills and experience of British forces are conveyed to our larger American allies to maximise the prospects for success?

Mr. Hoon: I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman's tribute to British forces. They have done a tremendous job in Iraq, as he rightly indicates, as they have in similar earlier operations. They take every opportunity to pass on their experience and expertise to other members of the coalition operating in Iraq, and that includes American forces.

However, I emphasise that there are aspects of the expertise gained by American forces in other parts of Iraq, such as around Baghdad, where the situation has been a good deal more dangerous than it has been in and around Basra, that are passed back. British forces have paid tribute to the experience of their American colleagues and have learned something from them as well.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): The Secretary of State told my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) not to be excitable, but are we sure that the report in Newsweek has no foundation, not least because Ambassador Negroponte, who is a considerable power in these matters, operated through death squads in the 1980s? Is the Secretary of State quite sure that he is right to dismiss my hon. Friend?

Mr. Hoon: I was not in any way dismissing my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham)—nor, I point out for the clarity of the
 
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record, did I describe him as excitable. I described the commentators as excitable, and I am afraid that that is too often the case with defence comment, as I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will accept.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough) (Con): The Secretary of State will need no persuading from me that when our troops return from Iraq they do so with their reputations as high as when they went, and often enhanced. Sadly, we cannot say that about their political masters. Will the troops who are to be deployed from Cyprus to Iraq over the next few days be deployed only in Basra or in the wider British sector? If they or any of our other troops are to move into other sectors, when will we know about that?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. and learned Gentleman is a careful lawyer, and careful lawyers generally do not repeat questions that have been asked twice already. For the avoidance of doubt, and if for any reason he failed to hear the answer that I gave on two previous occasions to the question that he has just repeated, I can say that there are no plans whatever for British forces to operate outside their current area of operations.

6. Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber) (Lab): What steps the Department is taking to rebuild Basra airport as a commercial airport. [207379]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): To support the process of commercialisation of Basra airport, the UK Ministry of Defence is providing air traffic control, communications support and fire and rescue services to the Iraqi Ministry of Transport. In addition, we continue to support the training of key airport personnel and assist in the installation of new equipment. The reopening of Basra airport represents a boost to the reconstruction efforts in southern Iraq and will help to bring further economic regeneration. Basra airport received its first commercial flight, organised by Iraqi Airways, on 1 January 2005, and the first Hajj flight from Basra to Jeddah took place on 3 January 2005.

Mr. Stewart: My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the strategic importance of Basra airport in both commercial and military terms, but it clearly requires major upgrading, as I discovered the first time I visited it with the armed forces parliamentary scheme in 2003. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the interim Government about the airport's future role?

Mr. Hoon: I can assure my hon. Friend that as a regular visitor to the airport, I can say that there has been a significant improvement since my first visit—and, I expect, since he visited. The process of improving conditions is continuing, and the assistance being provided by British forces is part of that. On my last visit, shortly before Christmas, I had detailed discussions with the governor about the commercial benefits that he anticipated would flow to Basra and the south of Iraq from opening the airport, which is why we were so determined to get the first commercial flight in as soon as we could.
 
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Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that it is not just Basra that needs investment but the whole infrastructure in Iraq—oil, gas, water, electricity and dockyards—and that no investment will be made without the wholehearted support of the private sector? However, the private sector will not invest a penny unless it knows that the situation is secure and will stay secure after it has invested. Does that not indicate that our troops will be present, providing a secure situation, for five or 10 years, or more?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman is right about private investment in Basra, but I would say this about Basra and the south: there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein made the situation there worse than it was in other parts of the country, as a punishment for the Shi'a and their efforts to resist his arbitrary rule.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of securing private sector investment; he is also right to say that that depends on security. The only qualification I would add to his observations is that in my opinion, non-governmental organisations and the private sector too often make assumptions and assessments about the whole of Iraq, and look at the security situation in other parts of Iraq without necessarily considering that the situation in the south is very much better. It may well be that they could provide the necessary investment and personnel in those parts of the country where the security situation is relatively calm and benign.


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