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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): On 6 January this year, Iraq's Prime Minister announced that the Iraqi national guard and the new Iraqi army would be merging to form the Iraqi regular army. The mission of the Iraqi national guard is to conduct internal security operations, including support to Ministry of Interior forces and constabulary duties. The training process comprises three weeks' basic training for the individual, followed by four weeks' collective training. Currently, more than 36,500 personnel are trained, equipped and operational in the Iraqi national guard. Multi-National Force Iraq assesses that the future strength of the Iraqi national guard will be more than 56,000 personnel.
Huw Irranca-Davies: I commend the work of our troops in the development of Iraqi forces, knowing that the long-term security of the region should be in the hands of the Iraqis themselves. However, are we on target to achieve readiness of the Iraqi forces by September 2005, as predicted, and what further steps will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the target is achieved?
Mr. Hoon: The advice that I have received is that we are confident that the Iraqi national guard is making significant progress and is on track to be fully operational by September this year. In the south-east area of Iraq, we have decided to speed up the process by gifting more than £27 million-worth of equipment to the Iraqi security forces, to make them still more capable. As I have said several times before, our aim is to ensure that the Iraqi security forces are capable of taking responsibility for their own security. The sooner they are trained and assuming that responsibility, the sooner the security environment will improve and the sooner our troops will be able to come home.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman say what is the present number of fully trained and deployable members of the Iraqi national guard and security forces? Will he confirm the unfortunate news that emerged during the Washington confirmation hearings for the Secretary of Statethat credible security forces, including the national guard, that will be capable of dealing with the insurgency will not emerge for at least a year? What are the implications for the present and future deployment of British forces in Iraq?
I made it clear that there are about 36,500 personnel trained, equipped and operational in the Iraqi national guard, but I accept that it is important that they receive training both individually and collectively. What is important is that they are able to take responsibilitythat is, take decisions, deploy and take effective action. I recognise that we still have some way to go, for example, in ensuring that there are properly trained officers. I am pleased that NATO has undertaken that particular responsibility, but we have
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to make progress, not only in training individuals, but in ensuring that collectively they have the ability to take action.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Ivor Caplin): The armed forces recruiting organisations do not specifically target areas of low unemployment. Recruiting activities are kept under constant review to respond to changing recruiting priorities and to reflect national and regional issues.
Jane Griffiths: With reference to the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment, Anthony West, high sheriff of the royal county of Berkshire, has described as cruel the dismemberment of the Berkshire regiment. In his statement of 16 December, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to specific issues around recruitment. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State bear in mind that unemployment is very low in Berkshire and that therefore recruitment has historically been difficult? Will he give a commitment that recruitment to regiments will be maintained in Reading and Berkshire?
Mr. Caplin: I think that I can give my hon. Friend the assurance she seeks. We employ many techniques to attract people to our armed forces and I am pleased to tell the House that we are on course to meet our recruiting target. At the same time, however, it is important that we have no no-go areas for recruitment into the Army and our armed forces generally.
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): By allowing the Scottish regiments to keep their names, the Minister has acknowledged that name and reputation are a major tool for recruiting areas where there are unemployment difficulties. Will the Minister please consider the case of the Welsh regiments? The Royal Welch Fusiliers have an outstanding recruitment record, which could be damaged if their name is amalgamated.
Mr. Caplin: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already dealt with these matters in his statement on 16 December. It was a matter for the Army, which considered it carefully, working with the regiments and the various colonels commandant.
Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Minister will undoubtedly be aware of the meeting on 19 January between the Secretary of State for Defence, local MPs and representatives of the Royal Gloucester, Berkshire and Wiltshire regiment. Can he confirm that at the meeting the issue of recruitment was discussed? If the infantry is already reviewing recruitment, would it not make sense to put on hold the decision to disband the RGBW?
No, no is the answer, for the clear reasons that I gave the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch)
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just a few moments ago about the efficiency gains from ending the arms plot, including more infantry being available for deployment.
Mr. Swayne: What on earth has happened to all the rest? The Chief of the Naval Staff said that instinctively he did not welcome the early disposal of good ships. What could he possibly have meant? For the record, which frigates and destroyers will be decommissioned this year?
Mr. Ingram: As has been said before at the Dispatch Box, it is the role of the commander-in-chief of each service to argue their case for more resources, and we seek to assist them in that. As in previous years and decades, the available resources must be properly apportioned among the three services. The hon. Gentleman asked which vessels have been withdrawn. Norfolk will be decommissioned in March 2005; Marlborough, in June 2005; and Grafton in March 2006I accept that that is not this year. Of the Type 42s, Glasgow was withdrawn in January 2005, and the same is true of Newcastle. Cardiff will go in August 2005.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that in the strategic defence review the Government endorsed the idea of a strong Navy and promised new aircraft carriers? However, while they were ready to resort to arms and commit our forces, they have ordered very few new ships. The new carriers have, in a magnificent typically new Labour gesture, been named but not ordered, although we hope to hear something about that later today. The Navy will get eight, instead of 12, Type 45s as well as a reduced number of submarines, and the MOD has quietly cancelled the future surface combatant project. With a smaller and ageing fleet, how will the Navy eventually deliver the tasks that Ministers lay upon them, and what will the Government's apparently low priority for the Navy do for its effectiveness as a service?
Mr. Ingram: I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1986 we had 54 frigates and destroyers, but there was a substantial reduction to 35 in 1994. The hon. Gentleman was in government for some of those years, and if he has any advice about the way in which we handle the restructuring of the Navy to ensure that we continue to make it as powerful and effective as it has been in the past, perhaps he will write to me. Interestingly, he listed the range of ships that we have on order. It was quite a significant list, consisting of 10 ships in total, and is the biggest warship construction programme since the second world war. That should be rejoiced at, not knocked.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
(Lab/Co-op): Is not there bogus outrage among Opposition
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Members, given that in government their party reduced the number of submarines from 18 to 10, the number of frigates from 22 to 19, and naval personnel from 55,000 to 45,000? How would further cuts on top of the £2 billion already planned impact on the size of the fleet?
Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend makes his point in his own way. I gave other statistics and other information about the reduction of the fleet over the years. An important aspect of the fleet size is that it has all the component parts that give it its powerful effect. None of the ships listed by the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), speaking on behalf of the Opposition, is undesirable or unwanted. They will significantly increase capacity. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has highlighted the paucity of thought on the part of the Conservatives.
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