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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) on an excellent speech in which he encapsulated the past, present and possible future. It is a pity that he was not in the House when the Iraq debate was going on, because he might have influenced some Opposition Members.
May I ask the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), in maintaining his consistency in criticising his Government's adventure in Iraq, nevertheless to pay tribute to the British troops, who are doing a fantastic job? If he could offer just one or two sentences in praise of our troops, he would go some way towards those who may think that he is being critical of them.
Harry Cohen: I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do just that: when I was a member of the Defence Committee, I spent a lot of time praising British troops. When British troops are given a rotten job, the failure is not theirs but that of President Bush and others.
Bob Russell: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for clarifying his position so eloquently. I congratulate the Chairman of the Defence Committee, which will take away from today's debate one or two points that I shall come to shortly, on his presentation.
I represent the garrison town of Colchester with great pride and affection, and 2 Para is in Iraq, while 3 Para will shortly go to Afghanistan. When 2 Para returns from Iraq, the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, which is the regional regiment for our part of the country, will go out there, so I have more than a passing interest in what happens to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just a week or so ago, I had the privilege of travelling with the Committee considering the Armed Forces Bill to Iraq. The Minister knows this, but I am proud to say that the morale of soldiers, sailors
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and Air Force personnel is great. I have pride and affection for those young men and womenthe number of young ladies is increasingand for the officers.
Sadly, the Committee arrived in Iraq soon after two members of 2 Para lost their lives. I pay tribute to them and to last night's BBC "Panorama" programme, which provided a balanced account of what British troops are doing in Iraq: helping to bring that country up to the democratic standards and civilisation that this Government feel should be provided there. I say that as somebody who voted against the war, because we are not here tonight to discuss why we are there: we are there, and it is our duty to remain there and try to help the Iraqi people.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I acknowledge the points that the hon. Gentleman is making, but does he accept that many families of soldiers who have tragically been killed in Iraq and others in the services community have serious doubts about the strategy and take part in anti-war meetings because they think that British troops should be withdrawn?
Bob Russell: I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's point, but, as I said, we have a duty and responsibility to remain for as long as the Iraqi Government wish us to remain. People who join Her Majesty's armed forces do so in the knowledge that they could be deployed to parts of the world to which they may not want to go, but that is a reality of life. The "Panorama" programme was poignant, because within an hour of an officer being interviewed, that officer and a young private, who also appeared in camera, were tragically killed. The BBC's presentation vividly brought home what is going on.
Others have discussed the broader picture, but I shall concentrate on some relatively minor matters that are nevertheless important in the totality of events. I hope that the Defence Committee will consider the Army Base Repair Organisation. In the space of three months, the Ministry of Defence has gone from proposing large-scale cuts in ABRO to last week's welcome announcement that the job losses will be fewer than originally proposed. My concern is that some MOD boffins concluded three or four months ago that ABRO should be reduced in size, but on reflection concluded that that was not such a bright idea. It may well be that some of the work that ABRO does could be privatised and put out to privatised contractors, but that would take away the dedication, consistency and continuity of a skilled work force who live and breathe the Army just as much as anybody in uniform. I sincerely hope that the MOD will think again, even on the job losses that it is still going ahead with, and I hope that the Defence Committee will consider the whole scenario.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram):
It is worth while the hon. Gentleman reflecting on the fact that 5 per cent. of what ABRO does is already obtained from the commercial sector. We are trying to grow that and to give ABRO's work force, wherever
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they are located, the best possible opportunity in terms of that future. We are some years away from doing what he suggests.
Bob Russell: I thank the Minister for that. Nevertheless, last time I went to the ABRO workshops in Colchester, I saw vehicles having desert camouflage applied, which is not usual for the Colchester garrison area. I assume that there must be a link there.
I should like the Defence Committee to look back at the closure of the clothing and textile research laboratory in Colchester, which will undergo its final death throes in Oxfordshire next week. The world's leading research establishment is being destroyed. I mention that because, when I visited Iraq, personnel raised with me two issues that are small in the grand scale of things but important for the day-to-day well-being of our troops: first, the fatigues with which they are issued are not necessarily the best for a desert climate; secondly, the mattresses with which they were issued have plastic covers. I am not an expert, but I know that, in a hot climate, plastic covers on mattresses are not the best option. Moreover, I have slept in youth hostels and scout huts that are better than some of the accommodation that our young men and women are expected to occupy. These are not temporary camps but have been there for three years.
Mr. Kevan Jones: On the rubber mattresses that the hon. Gentleman mentions, does he accept that the commanding officer knew nothing about that and put it right as soon as it was raised by members of the Committee?
Something must be done about the transportation of our young men and women back to the UK from Iraq. I cannot speak about Afghanistan because I have not been there, although I hope that the invitation is in the post. A memory that will always stay with me from when we boarded the plane is the sea of faces with people all wearing battle fatigues and looking forward to their return to the UK for one week, two weeks or whatever it was. This was on a chartered holiday flight. That might be all right for a two-hour flight from Gatwick down to Tenerife, but cramming that number of our young men and women into a plane where legroom is at a premium for an eight-hour flight is not the right way to treat them.
Bob Russell: I do not recognise that insult. I am trying to make a serious point. I ask the MOD to consider whether the air transport that it is supplying is appropriate for that number of people over that distance and time.
The entire Committee was immensely proud of our troops. The reason for our presence in Iraq is an issue for another day, but what we saw was impressive and I hope that all hon. Members, irrespective of their views on the Iraq war, will join me in thanking all those young men and women for the marvellous job that they are doing.
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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). He says that the reason for our presence in Iraq is an issue for another day. That did not stop him making an ill-starred intervention on my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), who was against the war.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said that linking 9/11 and operations in Iraq was a mistake. It was not a mistake but a deceit, and that is part of the problem. The leaders of the United States and the United Kingdom, who took us into the conflict, perpetrated several other deceits, but that first deceit, most of all, has caused the enormous problems for the liberal west in the whole region.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea made an important and properly learned contribution on Iraq. He reminded me of the view that I took in 2004 when I served on the Select Committee on Defence. On my visit to Iraq, I learned that British and American forces were, even then, as much part of the problem as the solution. If that was the case then, how much more is it the case now, two years on? Our challenge is reconciling an exit from Iraq and trying to sustain the stability of the Iraqi Government, their democratic institutions and the institutions that we are putting in place, with the Iraqi people's perception of us as the occupying powers.
I am not yet satisfied that the penny has dropped with United States forces, or that the rather alarming account of former SAS Trooper Griffin in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend does not continue to represent the mode of operations by United States forces in Iraq. Operating as an occupying force, as though killing Iraqis in Iraq was defending the front line of the United States, sadly appeared to be the rule, not the exception. Former SAS Trooper Griffin's view was that officers who took a different line on their relationship with the Iraqi population were the exception, although there were honourable exceptions.
That account of British forces on joint operations should give us all significant pause for thought. I look forward to the Minister's comments about whether the style of American operations has started to change, giving the Iraqi people the chance of perceiving Americans differently when they leave.
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