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Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The Defence Committee—at least, most of it—is in Cyprus, and it is unfortunate that the debate clashes with that visit. It is not the first time that something like this has happened, and I am sure it will not be the last, but I hope that planners will look at such matters in the future to try to allow as many members of the Committee as possible to attend such debates.

The Defence Committee is visiting our forces in the sovereign base areas on the island. It is part of our ongoing work as a Select Committee that we visit our forces. In the past year, we have visited Kosovo, Bosnia and Iraq, twice. We have also visited British forces in other parts of the world, and we will continue to do so. One of the things that I have learned during my two periods as a member of the Committee is the high quality and calibre of our people in the MOD and our armed forces. I shall not comment on the cases that are currently before the courts, but irrespective of whether the allegations are true, they are extremely damaging to everyone's reputation.

The Defence Committee has three inquiries going on simultaneously, one of which is into the duty of care. That inquiry has taken us to the initial and other training establishments around the country and has involved various other visits. I went to Hendon police college while looking at comparator organisations. I have seen how young people are trained, how instructors do their work and how people learn not just the aspects of the military regime but how to become
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better citizens in the wider sense, so that they can get worthwhile employment in society when they leave our armed forces.

When we see the work that the British Army is doing in southern Iraq, with the quick-fix projects and the enormous skills that are deployed, we realise that it is continuing to have an enormous, positive impact on Iraq. Full-time military personnel and Territorial Army people are assisting with water projects, construction, administration, banking and all kinds of things that the military should not really have to do, because regrettably no one else is around to do them, given the lack of trained people.

I wish that our broadcasters in this country—particularly the BBC—would say something about what we are doing positively in Basra and elsewhere, instead of only basing in Baghdad journalists who take television footage of atrocities and incidents and then comment on them. It is dangerous for journalists—it is dangerous for other civilians—but we have stories tell about what is happening in the south of Iraq. Those stories are not getting out because the journalists are not there to report them. I make an exception for two journalists—one from the Financial Times, the other from The Times—whom I met during our visit to the police training college in December, but it is important that the media give a balanced view of what is happening in Iraq, particularly now in the run-up to the elections and directly afterwards.

In its ongoing inquiry into events in Iraq the Defence Committee has asked a number of questions about investigations into allegations of misconduct. I will not comment on any specific case, as I have said. A memorandum that we were sent in September said:

It said that the number of personnel who had been reported for specific offences was 35 as of 31 August. Will the Under-Secretary tell us how many allegations have now been made and how many personnel have been reported for specific offences?

The memorandum also told us that 55,000 servicemen and women had served in Iraq, and the Prime Minister told us yesterday that the figure is now 65,000. It is clear that a large proportion of our armed forces have gone through Iraq over the past year and a half, and I suspect that many more will go in the coming months as we continue to assist after the constituent assembly is elected and in preparation for the referendum on the new constitution later in the year and the elections for a Parliament, which are scheduled before the end of the year. However, we also need to get many more civilians into Iraq, so the Department for International Development should do far more to assist with the projects that our military have had to carry out over recent months. That could be done safely in the area in which the British military are based, because the situation there is not as it is in other parts of the country.
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The Committee's third inquiry is examining future capabilities. We recently took evidence from the Chief of the Defence Staff and the Secretary of State, and we will take more evidence before we conclude our report. We will publish our three major reports in the next few months. I am sure that we will have them out just before the general election—whenever that is.

As I said earlier, I have visited Kosovo and Bosnia, so I would like an update on what has happened following the transition of the control of forces in Bosnia from the NATO SFOR to the European Union EUFOR. Is it going well, and have we solved the problems caused by different national rules—the so-called national caveats? They prevented co-operation, because countries such as Germany had restrictions on the policing role of the armed forces, and caused other difficulties. Given that we are six weeks on from the transition, may we have an update on the situation?

My right hon. Friend the Minister referred to the situation last March when we had to intervene in Kosovo at short notice because of disgraceful violence and the fact that Albanians were burning out the homes of the Serb minority. Pressure and difficulty are increasing because the majority in Kosovo have expectations that their status will finally be resolved in 2005, but there is no easy resolution to the situation. It is reported that investigations are being held into many leading figures in the Kosovo Administration. The recently appointed Prime Minister of Kosovo, Mr. Ramush Haradinaj, has close links with some of those against whom allegations have been made and his brother has been arrested. If another upsurge of orchestrated activity occurs, I would like an assurance that the NATO forces and our own people will be ready for it and that a period of a few hours, or perhaps even longer, in which they do not intervene does not occur, which was the difficulty in March last year.

I want to move on to my final remarks and shall try to finish in less than the maximum time, to allow Opposition Members to speak. On ethnic minority recruitment into our armed forces, the MOD has published a helpful document, "Race equality scheme 2002–2005 progress report 2004", which reveals that the number of ethnic minority personnel has increased in all three services. However, it admits that progress has been slower than expected and that the percentage goals have not been met in all respects.

I ask the Government to redouble their efforts. My constituency contains large numbers of people from all kinds of ethnic minorities. In my work with the Select Committee, I have seen people from all over the world serving with British forces, which is partly due to recruitment from Commonwealth countries. I have come across Fijians, Samoans and people from other parts of the world, as well as pilots from New Zealand, in our armed forces. However, I hope that we can start to recruit British-black, British-Indian and British-Pakistani people, so that our forces more accurately reflect the diversity and nature of modern Britain.

Finally, the excellent work by British forces, which we always expect, in the relief of people who have suffered from the tsunami has already been mentioned. My Sri Lankan-Tamil constituents want me to put it on record in this House that they greatly appreciate our efforts. They are a little bit concerned that some of the aid to Sri Lanka is not getting through to Tamil areas because of
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the history of internal conflict, and they want the British Government to do whatever they can to facilitate that process so that aid is distributed fairly.

My Sri Lankan-Tamil constituents have nothing but praise for the help that has been given to places such as Batticaloa that were victims of the terrible disaster. We should place on record our thanks to all those involved, whether they are civilians, work in Departments other than the MOD, are on ships such as RFA Diligence and HMS Chatham or whether they are helicopter pilots, for whatever they have done to save lives and to help make at least some lives better after the terrible tragedy.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: As a significant number of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye, Mr. Speaker has decided that the order of the House of 26 October on shorter speeches will apply today. From now until half-past 5, a shorter 10-minute time limit will apply. I remind hon. Members that no added time is allowed for interventions during a period of shorter speeches.

4.33 pm

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