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Armed Forces Deployment (Gull)

Volume 400: debated on Monday 3 March 2003

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What percentage of the Army is deployed to the Gulf region.[99849]

As of 25 February 2003, 11.5 per cent, of the trained strength of the Army was deployed to the Gulf region. That number is increasing on a weekly basis, as we continue to deploy those forces previously announced to Parliament. When all the previously announced forces are deployed, approximately 25 per cent, of the trained strength of the Army will be deployed to the Gulf region.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. I am also grateful to the ministerial team for assuring the House that the Army is properly equipped. What percentage of the Army so far deployed has been issued with nuclear, biological and chemical kits? Will he confirm that the required respirators and canisters have not passed their life expectancy? Will he also confirm that the MOD has not extended the relevant warranties on that kit?

We have a wide-ranging support mechanism for all our troops who are deployed on the basis of the perceived and possible real threat that may arise from NBC attack. As for the respirators and the other equipment that the hon. Gentleman mentions, on the basis of the advice that we, as Ministers, have been given, we are wholly satisfied that the equipment being deployed is satisfactory, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who recently visited the troops, will be able to give an equal assurance if he spoke to our people in theatre about it.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of issues that we are told may be debated by this House on many occasions, the fact is that the Prime Minister has so squandered his inheritance of trust that large numbers of people in the United Kingdom still do not believe that our troops should be in the Gulf. Many men and women with family members in the armed services are very concerned about the provision for their clothing, accommodation, and, most importantly, equipment. What practical steps is the Minister taking to reassure the families of those who may be required to sacrifice everything on our behalf?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is not just the welfare of the deployed forces and the dangers that they may face that we must consider but the families back home, who, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, have to listen to some of the silly comments made in the press. Clearly, certain shortfalls exist, but there is a very big logistics chain in which thousands of people are employed in moving a wide range of equipment into theatre. It is a huge logistical exercise. In practical terms, much of the communication is done by people in bases, at barracks and at stations, where our service personnel are clustered, as well as by Ministers. We must address any concerns as best we can. We should not minimise the scale of this logistical exercise. We must, however, give the assurance that the equipment and supplies being put into theatre meet the needs of the many thousands of troops who will be deployed, and that we respect the concerns of families in all those regards.

Does the Minister agree that the deployment of tens of thousands of our troops, particularly soldiers, to the Gulf—and the fact that they may be committed to combat shortly—means that their morale and that of their families is crucial? Both my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the Secretary of State have emphasised what an important job they are doing, with little practical acknowledgement of that from the media so far. In the last Gulf war, I remember how important it was for the MOD to have a coherent media strategy. One veteran reptile cynically said to me the other day that he believes that the MOD's media strategy is not to have one. Will the Minister tell the House how many journalists are now accredited to UK forces in theatre, and what arrangements have been made for them to accompany UK forces into combat?

I will not descend to the type of language that the hon. Gentleman used to describe the press. [HON. MEMBERS: "Go on."] No, I won't. I am always conscious of how the press report some of my comments, so I shall try to be nice, although I must be truthful, too. There are silly stories out there, but some of them are coming back from theatre, because open and transparent lines of communication exist between the front line and families back home. We must examine each and every comment that has substance to see whether we can address it meaningfully, arid, I hope, correct the problem. Alternatively, we must see whether such comments are based on misunderstandings and, subsequently, misreporting and falsehoods by the media.

We are dealing with a difficult media climate. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a figure on the precise number of journalists, because, if I gave him a figure today, it would probably increase by tomorrow, and it would probably increase in future. That is not the issue we must deal with. Perhaps the particular journalist whom he says is criticising our media strategy should write to tell me where his criticism lies and where the shortfalls are. If we can correct them, we will. We put a lot of effort into handling the media because of the point that he and the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) mentioned about the importance of making sure that the families back home are not being fed lies and distortions.