The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): UK forces in Multi-National Division (South-East) worked with the Iraqi security forces to provide a safe security environment for the elections. On election day, the Iraqi police provided inner-ring security at the polling stations, with the Iraqi national guard in support. UK forces provided back-up as required.
The whole House will wish to join me in taking this opportunity to recognise the hard work of all UK troops deployed in Iraq, which helped create the environment for the successful Iraqi elections. The day was tragically marred by the crash of the Hercules and the death of 10 service personnel. I pay tribute to those men. Investigations into the cause of the crash are continuing and the repatriation of their bodies is planned to take place tomorrow at RAF Lyneham.
Mr. Heath: Whatever one's views on the conflict in Iraq, no one in the House would fail to pay tribute to the servicemen and women who lost their livesand, indeed, to the courage of all those who work in Iraq. Neither would anyone fail to welcome the fact that it was possible to hold democratic elections in a significant part of Iraq.
I understand that the Czech Republic has now decided to keep troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future, but that other coalition partners are likely to withdraw their present contingents. Under those circumstances, what are the right hon. Gentleman's expectations in respect of increased demands on British troops in Iraq, and when does he expect British troops to be withdrawn?
The issue is not so much the withdrawal of other members of the coalition at the end of their planned tours of duty in Iraq, as the speed at which the Iraqi security forces can assume responsibility,
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particularly in the UK's areas of operations. As I have told the House previously, I do not anticipate any significant adjustment in the size of British forces for the moment, though I hope that, as and when the Iraqi security forces become available to take responsibility, any such adjustments will be reductions. That, for want of a better expression, is our exit strategy. It is part of a process of restoring responsibility increasingly across the board. The elections are part of that process, as is the training of Iraqi security forces, and we anticipate it continuing. It is proving successful and I hope to be able to report to the House, in due course, that certain discrete parts of our area of responsibility have been restored to Iraqi responsibility.
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend would pass on my thanks for what I saw happening in Iraq on election day. I saw British troops working discreetly in the background I could catch a glimpse of them from the rooftopsand the whole process was well managed both by coalition troops and by the Iraqi police, who must be commended for their excellent job on election day. I also want to mention the people of Basra, where several hon. Friends and I were present during the election. It is estimated that 80 per cent. of the people there turned out to votea figure that puts some of us in well-established democracies to shame.
Mr. Hoon: I thank my hon. Friend for her observations and I shall certainly ensure that they are passed on to those responsible. In turn, I would like to thank her, two other MPs and two MEPs who were in Britain's area of responsibility on election day. As reported to me by the commanding officer of Britain's armed forces, there was a tremendous response from the people of southern Iraqpredominantly Shi'a, but also Sunniwho turned out to vote in an atmosphere that was positive and encouraging for the future of the whole of Iraq. If I may add to my hon. Friend's observations, a significant degree of courage was displayed in some parts of IraqFalluja, for examplewhen people turned out to vote, despite the intimidation of the recent past. The response of the Iraqi people, it seems to me, provides real encouragement for the future of the country.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): My constituents in and around RAF Lyneham will greatly welcome the Secretary of State's tribute to the men who gave their lives. They will also welcome the announcement that their bodies will be repatriated there tomorrow. Will the Secretary of State join me in expressing some disquiet about the national pressthe local press have, in contrast, been very goodwhich has been extremely intrusive in its activities in and around Lyneham? Will he join me in calling on the national press to leave the bereaved alone to suffer in peace and quiet?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his substantive observation and for the specific point that he made. I visited RAF Lyneham on Thursday afternoon and the same point was put to me on a number of different occasions in different parts of the base both by the families of the deceased and by serving
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members of the Royal Air Force, who were extremely concerned about journalists going to their children's schools, posing as florists or using a range of deceptions in order to gain access to the bereaved families. I echo the hon. Gentleman's observation that this is not an appropriate time for that sort of intrusion.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The strength of the Army, including the Gurkhas, is currently around 103,500. We are planning on it remaining broadly at that level until full normalisation is achieved in Northern Ireland, when we expect to reduce it to around 102,000.
Gregory Barker: The five most recent Chiefs of the Defence Staff are among the many experts who have roundly condemned Labour's proposed defence cuts. In the light of the growing uncertainty in Northern Ireland and the massive ongoing commitment in Iraq, is it not now time to admit that those cuts are wrong and to withdraw them with good grace?
Mr. Caplin: First, I must put the hon. Gentleman straight. This Government are spending more money on defence than his Government ever did. Perhaps he would like me to reflect on the size of the British Army in April 1997, when it was 101,360, compared with today, when it is 103,780. It is clear which party is more interested in getting more people into the British Army.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My hon. Friend finds it easy to bat these silly questions away, but the changes in technology have meant that we have to change and reshape our forces. What is he doing to meet the shortfall in engineering and logistics, especially as such skills are very saleable in a buoyant economy? If he cannot answer that now, will he place his answer in the Library, showing the exact make-up of the Army, the shortfall and the pressures faced?
Mr. Caplin: My hon. Friend has raised an important point. One of the reasons for the changes that were announced on 16 December is to provide the necessary expertise in the right areasthe so-called pinch pointsat the right time. My hon. Friend has asked for a more detailed reply and I will be happy to write to him with that information.
Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)
(Con): The Minister will know that it is not a question of just replacing infantry with logisticians, because the British Army needs both. The Minister mentioned pinch points, so let us look at one. Can he confirm that last week 120 infantry officers received what was in effect a redundancy letter? How does that square with his Department's claim to have a duty of care to its military personnel? What effect will that have on the morale of
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infantry officers in Iraq, some of whom presumably received that redundancy letter? That is a pinch point all right.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) raises an interesting point, but does he want the British Army to fight the battles of yesterday or does he expect it to fight the threats of tomorrow and the day after?
Mr. Caplin: I am not missing the point. If we are to provide a modern, well-equipped Army, it has to be properly arranged and organised. That is what we will achieve with the changes to the regiments.
Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East) (Lab): Given the furore over the Army reforms, will my hon. Friend the Minister give an undertaking that everything will be done to keep recruitment levels high in areas such as mine, which has suffered from the trauma of the reforms more than many others?
Mr. Caplin: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he has done and the support that he gives to the British armed forces. I assure him and the House that we will endeavour to keep recruiting at a very high level in Scotland.
Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): While it is easy to make political points about how Governments have spent more or less on defence than others and while we all accept that we need modern and well-equipped armed forces, is not the reality a balance between modern technology and boots on the ground? Given the wise words of Lords Guthrie, Bramall and Boyce in the other place on 17 January, would it not now be a good idea for the Secretary of State and his colleagues to review what is going on? We understand that we need new technology, but we are also seeing more troops being sent to Iraq and we have in Northern Ireland a situation that, sadly, is not as good as it was a few months ago. Is it not time for the Government to scrap the cutting of the infantry units?
The ending of the arms plot, which has been widely welcomed in this HouseI thought that all parties agreed with itwill make the Army more efficient, because more infantry will be available for deployment. That is not the case today when regiments are moved around the country solely for the purposes of the arms plot. By 2008, that will not be the case and more regiments will be available for deployment. That seems to me to be a modern, practical way forward for the British Army.
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