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Volume 405: debated on Monday 12 May 2003

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The Secretary of State was asked

Service Personnel (Gulf)


When he expects all service personnel to be returned from the Gulf. [112215]

Our military campaign objectives contain a commitment to the withdrawal of British military forces from Iraq as soon as is practicable. It is as yet too early to predict when there can be a complete withdrawal of UK forces—that will obviously depend on the circumstances. We will maintain an appropriate military presence in Iraq as long as that is necessary to set the conditions in which the Iraqi people can get their country back on its feet politically and economically.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Although I welcome any withdrawal of British troops from Iraq because they obviously want to get back to their families as soon as possible, what contingency plans have been made for policing in Iraq and the delivery of aid, especially humanitarian aid, in which British troops currently play a major role?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the House's attention to the need for as many of our forces as possible who have been engaged in war-fighting operations to return to the United Kingdom at the earliest opportunity for some well earned leave. Hon. Members may have noticed that some 400 Royal Marines arrived home this morning.

With many of our forces returning, I am pleased to assure the House that others will be available to continue to bring security and stability to southern Iraq. That includes involvement in the reconstruction effort. British forces have already made a significant contribution to the stability and security of southern Iraq as well as to ensuring the availability of humanitarian assisiance. That effort will go on.

May I join the Secretary of State in hoping that our forces will be home as soon as possible? I also wish to ask him about the comments of the retiring Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Michael Boyce, whom the Secretary of State would doubtless like to join me in congratulating on his peerage. He said that the British Army would suffer "serious pain" if it had to make future deployments in the next few years. In Iraq, it appears that the Territorial Army is filling some of the gaps among our overstretched regulars. What proportion of UK forces in Iraq is from the Territorials? Does the right hon. Gentleman have plans to send more Territorials there? Since TA units do not have the same training opportunities and welfare packages as regular forces, does the Secretary of State intend to make any improvements to the TA's welfare package?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for commenting on the Chief of the Defence Staff's elevation. I was able to pass on my personal congratulations and I am sure that other hon. Members would like to echo that.

It is probably as well if I do not comment on that observation.

The reserves are making a substantial contribution in Iraq and will continue to do so. The important point in the strategic defence review about the way in which we reorganise reservist forces is making them useful and useable. They have made a tremendous contribution so far and I am confident that they will continue to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the mothers in support of troops movement, commonly known as MIST, in Portsmouth? It has organised two marches so far in support of our troops so that we do not forget their sacrifices and activities on our behalf.

My hon. Friend is right to draw to the House's attention the tremendous contribution of families in support of those who have served in the armed forces in Iraq and other places. I am delighted to endorse his comments.

The Secretary of State will be aware that there are threatened large-scale resignations from the reserve forces because of the perception that they have not been handled well in Iraq. Will he comment on that and let hon. Members know what he plans to do about it?

Many tributes have rightly been paid to British service personnel serving in the Gulf. Would not the best tribute be to ensure that the ongoing and enduring medical needs of service personnel returning to the UK are catered for and that all the medical lessons of the first Gulf war are learned?

That will remain a priority for the Ministry of Defence. Considerable effort has been made to ensure the availability of high-class medical facilities in theatre. That effort must continue, as my hon. Friend says, once our forces have returned to the United Kingdom.

May I add my voice and that of the Opposition to those of congratulation to Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who looks forward to taking his peerage? He stood shoulder to shoulder with the Secretary of State through many difficulties and appears to have earned an early peerage for plain speaking. I presume that such an invitation will not be extended to members of the right hon. Gentleman's party.

I congratulate all the armed forced on the crucial role that they continue to play in the effort to stabilise post-war Iraq. During the war, our armed forces distributed leaflets that assured the people of Iraq:
"This time we won't abandon you. Be patient together we will win … We will stay as long as it takes."
If the Secretary of State cannot say how long that will take, and what forces will be required, is this yet another open-ended and unfunded commitment for our overstretched armed forces?

It is neither open-ended nor unfunded. What is important, however, as the leaflet illustrated to the Iraqi people, is that British forces remain there as long as is necessary to ensure stability and security, and to play a part in the reconstruction of Iraq. Once those tasks are completed, I should want to see British forces return home as soon as is practicable.

So it is not open-ended, but the Secretary of State cannot say when it will end. Today, we still have reports of looting and of the continuing breakdown of law and order crippling efforts to rebuild Iraq, and it is our troops who have to wrestle with the consequences. Does he recall how the Conservatives warned the Government about the lack of preparation for post-war reconstruction? Now that the Secretary of State for International Development has resigned, is it not clear that the Government's planning for post-conflict Iraq was paralysed by splits at the heart of Government?

The hon. Gentleman makes two foolish points; given more time, he would probably have made more. So far as his apparent criticism of open-ended commitments is concerned, I invite him and other Members sitting behind him to think for a second about whether they would want to put a specific date on the conclusion of British military operations, given what has been achieved so far. He is simply making silly points—[Interruption]— and he repeats them now from the Front Bench. He really needs to give a little more thought to his observations before he gets up, even from his present position on the Front Bench, dependent as he appears to be on the Leader of the Opposition's grace and favour. In those circumstances, he ought to think about certain other observations as well. We have just seen an extremely successful military operation in Iraq, and a Government who were in any way divided could not have conducted it.

Service Personnel (Gulf)


What provision he will be making for the welfare of (a) service personnel and (b) ex-service personnel after the Gulf conflict. [112216]


What provision he will make for the welfare of ex-service personnel who have taken part in the 2003 Gulf conflict. [112222]

All personnel returning from Operation Telic, whether regulars or reservists, are being provided with appropriate support measures, acknowledging that each individual's experience of the conflict will be different. The procedures vary slightly between each service according to need, but are essentially similar and delivered in three stages: recovery, normalisation and after care. Support services include debriefings and post-operational tour leave. Reservists will receive all appropriate briefs, a medical screening and support with the potential for follow-up action as required, including specific guidance on returning to their previous employer. Post-deployment medical screening is not provided automatically to regulars, as they are subject to routine health surveillance, and all personnel are able to consult medical staff at any time, should they feel the need to do so.

Will the Minister tell me why our service personnel get such a raw deal when they are risking their lives on the front line, and why they lose out financially, particularly when compared with the American forces, alongside whom they are serving in the Gulf? Will the Minister now get the Armed Forces Pay Review Body to bring our soldiers' benefits to the level enjoyed by our American allies, and pay their council tax for them and give them income tax relief while they are deployed on active service? Is not it about time that the Government gave our forces a fair deal?

This seems to be one of the many myths that the Opposition perpetuate. The body responsible for armed forces pay and remuneration last year conducted an independent study into the package of benefits available to all serving men and women in a vast number of countries, including the United States of America, and concluded that our package, taken overall, was the equivalent of all of them. I do not think that we have anything to apologise for.

Marines of 40 Commando returning home from Iraq this weekend may consider that now is the time to leave the forces and settle down to civilian life in Somerset and Taunton. Some of them may be suffering from the mental scars of conflict, so I welcome the setting up of the medical assessment programme run by the MOD at St. Thomas's, but given that it will assess patients and only recommend treatment, what discussions are being held to ensure that local NHS hospitals such as that in Taunton have the knowledge and resources to treat ex-servicemen properly?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. The measures that we have introduced should go a long way towards allaying anxieties about the support that we intend to give people on their return from the Gulf. We must try to cover every possibility, but he makes a good point about the management of mental stress, especially post-traumatic stress disorder.

We have come a long way in the past 10 years, and we certainly have a much larger body of expert advice available in the NHS, which has experience of treating such people. The medical assessment programme can provide help and advice too, so, all in all, while we cannot guarantee that no one will suffer as a result of their service, we are well placed to pick up on those who have served and to give them whatever help is available.

On the welfare of service and ex-service personnel, what are the Government doing to clean up the toxic and radioactive contamination that has resulted from the use of depleted uranium in the recent invasion of Iraq?

Any environmental programme will have to be drawn up as Iraq develops under its peaceful administration, and we are well aware of our obligations to take part in that, but I make it clear to my hon. Friend that there is no evidence whatever from anything that I have seen in the records of our people that any of our soldiers have been damaged by contact with uranium, depleted or otherwise.

After the first Gulf conflict, the medical screening that was available for returning UK service personnel was incomplete, incoherent and utterly unsatisfactory. Further to the Secretary of State's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Bryant), will the Minister give a little more detail to show how we have learned from those serious mistakes of a decade or more ago in terms of the personnel returning from this conflict?

Our medical package has been carefully tailored to manage people appropriately within the situation in Iraq and on returning home. To that end, we keep better records and conduct more medical surveillance. We shall also take a great many steps as people return to debrief them adequately on their experiences and to provide medical help and assistance where necessary.

In addition, as the House is aware, I announced last week a programme of research, which will look in great detail prospectively—that is important—at the health of a large cohort of those returning from service in the Gulf. That will aid us in helping with individual problems and in establishing a proper database on which future research and work can be conducted.

On behalf of the official Opposition, may I warmly welcome the statement made last week by the MOD on setting up the research programme on the physical and psychological health of those involved in the recent Gulf conflict? Everybody will appreciate that move.

May I raise unfinished business from the earlier Gulf conflict? On 4 February, the MOD launched a High Court challenge against the pensions appeal tribunal ruling last May in favour of Shaun Rusling, which officially recognised Gulf war syndrome. Is it still the case that the MOD does not recognise Gulf war syndrome as a medical condition? Given that the Department is not planning to appeal against the successful claim of Alex Izzet on 5 May at a pensions tribunal that the concoction of drugs that he was given before planned deployment in the previous Gulf war caused osteoporosis, does that not, in effect, recognise the fact that such a concoction of drugs did cause severe medical problems for many veterans? Is it not time for a definitive ministerial statement on the subject, which so many servicemen and others feel needs addressing?

May I take the second point first? We did not appeal the Izzet decision because there are no grounds in law for an appeal. The fact that almost all informed medical opinion—certainly among all those who have studied the work that has been done and the practices used during the Gulf war—disagrees with the tribunal does not alter the fact that it is entitled to come to its decision. We cannot challenge it in law, and we will not do so.

The position is different with regard to the definition—it is purely a definition—of Gulf war syndrome. I feel strongly that we should not use terms that have no basis in medical fact. To use the term "syndrome" to describe conditions that encompass almost every symptom known to man or woman is highly unhelpful. We have challenged that ruling, and our position remains unchanged. In our opinion, there is no such unitary illness or disease as Gulf syndrome. A great many people have become ill as result of their service, but that is quite different.

I stress again that no one gets a penny more pension from us because they are diagnosed as having Gulf war syndrome. Pensions are paid on the basis of disability. At present, more than 1,200 are paid to veterans of the Gulf war. It does not matter to their financial recompense whether their condition is described as Gulf war syndrome. In my opinion, it matters greatly, because medical opinion in this country, in the United States and anywhere else where the condition has been studied properly is entirely in agreement with our position.

Military Training Schools


If he will make a statement on the privatisation of military training schools. [112217]

The defence training review, published in March 2001, recommended that some types of military specialist training should be rationalised. It also recommended that industry should be engaged at an early stage in determining how that training can best be delivered. Accordingly, the Department is currently taking forward a programme to provide, in partnership with the private sector, modern, cost-effective training, better accommodation and facilities, and the more efficient use of the training estate.

Is the Minister aware of the serious concern in his Department and in the armed forces that specialised training—from complex logistics to intelligence training—could be handed over to private companies that do not have the experience or the expertise of MOD trainers, and do not have the knowledge of long-term military requirements? When they get that knowledge, they will have a long-term private monopoly over a service that is critical to national security.

I would be concerned if that were what we are doing, but it is not. The rationalisation programme is about modernisation of training, and ensuring that delivery continues to adapt to reflect operational need. The benefits that we will derive from a more efficient use of the training estate will help us to achieve those key aims. We are currently consulting prospective bidders to determine the scope of a future partnering arrangement. We expect to be ready to select short-list bidders and issue invitations to negotiate by the end of the year. Each prospective consortium has been carefully scrutinised to ensure that it has the full range of skills and experience required to meet the needs of our programme.

My hon. Friend will know that I am usually in favour of relationships between the public and private sectors, such as private finance initiatives. Does he agree that the training record of the British defence forces has been exemplary, and that most people recognise that our armed forces historically have the best trainers in the world? Whether he calls it rationalisation or anything else, he should be cautious before he destroys the critical mass of training in our armed services.

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That is precisely what we are trying to do. Our training has been the best in the world, and our intention is not only to keep it the best, but to make it even better. Everything we are doing in the review is aimed at producing that outcome.

Does the Minister recognise that it is important to keep all Members of the House who have constituency interests in defence training informed of plans? He will recall that there has been a history of difficulties with defence training establishments in my constituency, but I shall not labour that point because he is well aware of the problems. I have the defence medical training organisation in my constituency, and I am sure that he would agree that there is nothing more vital to the interests of our armed forces personnel than defence medical training. Will he undertake to keep me and all other MPs fully informed of any further developments or changes in defence training, especially in the medical field?

I should point out that this is not part of the training review, but I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I generally try to ensure that a Member is informed of any changes that are likely to affect the interests of his constituency. If I fail to do so, Members are not slow to remind me!

European Rapid Reaction Force


If he will make a statement on his policy on the European rapid reaction force. [112218]


If he will make a statement on the UK's role in the European rapid reaction force. [112228]

Although we want European Union nations to strengthen their military capabilities, there is no standing European rapid reaction force or any EU agreement to create one. Existing national or multinational forces, declared under the Helsinki headline goal, will be made available to the EU on a voluntary, case-by-case basis when required for a crisis management operation. The United Kingdom has made a significant contribution, offering a wide range of capabilities and assets, but there are, overall, still significant capability shortfalls against the EU's headline goal. EU Defence Ministers will consider shortly how to take matters forward. The UK will look to member states to make firm commitments to improve European military capabilities, rather than duplicate existing capabilities.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that it was agreed in 1999 that the European rapid reaction force should be concerned with peacekeeping—that that should be its role—and that last year it was agreed that the NATO reaction force should cover high-intensity conflicts? What on earth was the point of last month's summit between France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg? Would not any other arrangement be duplication at best—as the right hon. Gentleman suggested—and divisive at worst?

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to agree with the Prime Minister's recent statement that the basis of any European defence policy should be entirely compatible with our membership of NATO?

I do not think I shall have any difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's question. Having been involved in negotiations on the need for improved military capabilities, whether through the European Union or through NATO, I know that that compatibility is crucial. That is precisely why we judged that the recent Brussels summit was neither timely nor appropriate.

The Secretary of State's very helpful answer seems to me to reaffirm three fundamental truths about the European rapid reaction force. First, if the intention is to provide a NATO rapid reaction force at the same time, we certainly have not enough forces for the purpose. Secondly, nothing emanating from Brussels could possibly be described as rapid in any circumstances. Thirdly, the mini-summit held a couple of weeks ago clearly demonstrated that the whole thing is not European.

Do I understand from the Secretary of State's response that he is straightforwardly and unashamedly condemning the notion of a European army? We do not need it at all.

Our criticism of the recent Brussels summit has been consistent, as has our criticism of all the attempts to create a so-called European army. What we want is for our European partners to make determined efforts to improve military capabilities, whether through the European Union or through NATO. We believe that those efforts should be concentrated specifically on the adding of new capabilities rather than the duplication of existing ones.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the future of the European rapid reaction force, given the deep differences of opinion on Iraq that we have observed over the past month or so?

The future of the force will be in the terms I have set out to the House—in the improvement of European military capabilities. It will not have a future if it fails in that task. That is why the United Kingdom consistently urges our partners to invest in extra and more capable military forces, so that Europe can make an effective contribution when it chooses to act on a case-by-case basis through the European Union, or more commonly when it acts as a member of NATO.

Bae Systems


If he will make a statement on the strategic defence review and its impact on his purchase plans for equipment from BAE Systems. [112220]

The 1998 strategic defence review and the new chapter published last year remain the foundation for the shape, size and capabilities of our armed forces. The defence White Paper to be published in the autumn will provide an updated statement of defence policy and explain our plans for the delivery of enhanced defence capability. This will provide the baseline against which the Department will work with companies such as BAE Systems to procure future battle-winning equipment.

I thank the Minister for that reply. The Royal Ordnance factory in Puriton in my constituency has turned out an enormous amount of ordnance over the past few months to support our troops in the Gulf. BAE Systems has said that it will continue production there, but I wonder for how long. Does the Minister agree not only that that battle-winning equipment, as he calls it, should be manufactured in this country but that one should ensure that it can be procured at a moment's notice for use in any battlefield around the world? Will he therefore commit himself to continuing production?

I will always pay tribute to the work force of Royal Ordnance factories throughout the country. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that the privatisation of that part of our supply was carried out under a Conservative Government. Indeed, the previous Member for Bridgwater may have been Secretary of State for Defence at the time, but I will check that.

It is clearly important that we have a guarantee on supplies. Of course, all that will be subject to the lessons learned from the current conflict. We will conduct a deep analysis of what happened. It will take some time to come to decisions but I am sure that the view expressed by the hon. Gentleman will be reflected in some of the conclusions reached.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that 470 jobs at BAE Systems in Brough are under threat because of perceived delays in resolving the Hawk contract? Will he do all he can to lobby other Ministers in his Department and other Departments so that the contract can be sorted out sooner rather than later and the 470 jobs no longer be under threat?

The best advice and information I can give my hon. Friend is that BAE Systems's proposal is being evaluated, so it would be inappropriate to speculate on the outcome at this stage. It is incumbent on companies that depend heavily on the Ministry of Defence to be proactive internationally. Alongside what they do for the MOD, they should look for other commercial outlets for their work force. Again, we hope that a decision can be reached quickly on that matter. That may ease the minds of the work force there.

In the light of the retiring Chief of Defence Staff's remarks with reference to the Government's commitment to purchase 232 Eurofighters currently under production in my constituency, does the Minister understand that such remarks have caused much uncertainty and worry in the Wharton work force? The work force are also concerned that the Government have yet to make a clear decision about tranche 2 of that aircraft and the order for 80-odd aircraft, and uncertain about the Government's intentions in developing a ground attack capability for the Eurofighter Typhoon. May I ask him to put on record, if not now in the very near future, a clear statement of what the Government's precise intentions are about that weapons system to deal with the uncertainties that thousands of my constituents are experiencing?

That is a fair and reasonable point. There is no question but that the MOD consults very widely and comprehensively as decisions are taken both in moving forward and perhaps in terms of rationalisation or changes to decisions. That is what we seek to do.

We expect the four partner nations to place the order for the tranche 2 aircraft, of which the United Kingdom's share is 89, later this year. Under the undertaking given in the four-nation memoranda of understanding, the UK has undertaken to acquire 232 aircraft out of a total production of 620. We will, of course, keep the capabilities of the defence programme under constant review, but our commitment to the Typhoon programme remains unchanged.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, under the strategic defence review, record numbers of orders have been placed with United Kingdom manufacturers? That has given a tremendous boost to economies such as that of the north-east of England. Does he further agree that the strong base that those orders have created gives UK manufacturing a strong and determined base from which to pursue export orders?

I agree entirely. It is a point well made. As it stands, our capability and equipment programme is of record-breaking scope. We just need to consider the shipbuilding programme and the many other important procurement decisions that are coming on-stream. My hon. Friend made a good point in saying that the quality and capacity of British engineering companies enable them to win their share of the contracts, and he is right that that gives them a tremendous platform on which to build for the future not just in seeking and obtaining further MOD and international defence contracts but in gaining a significant share of the commercial market that is out there.

As my right hon. and hon. Friends have made clear, serious question marks hang over a number of critical defence projects involving not just BAE Systems but the many British companies in the supply chain. I was astonished at the answer that the Minister gave the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona Mclsaac). Does he accept that what he said must set alarms bells ringing in the ears of the work force at Brough? It would be inconceivable for the UK Government to order an advanced jet trainer other than the proven, highly successful, world-beating Hawk aircraft. Nobody in this country would be able to understand it if he ordered anything else. He should get on and order the aircraft by the end of June if wants to keep those employees in continued employment.

Will the Minister also confirm that the joint strike fighter programme is slipping, with consequences for our maritime air defence? Without the JSF, the new aircraft carriers that he is ordering will be rather pointless. What efforts is he making to get the Americans to sign up to giving Britain the technology access agreements that are required by BAE Systems?

Further to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), what about the Typhoon tranche 2 and its air-to-ground capability? The Minister must address that issue very quickly, or we will not have the right equipment for the Royal Air Force.

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman talk to the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and find out whether all the commitments that he is making—

You do not have the money, but they are in your programme.

I am trying to explain that we get a shopping list from the Opposition. On our programme, I gave a clear answer in relation to the Hawk. The final bid has been put in by BAE Systems, and it has to be evaluated. I do not know whether the Opposition spokesmen are saying that there should be a different strategy in Departments and that they should just say yes no matter what bid a company makes. That would not be good—quality government.

Let me explain about B,AE Systems. In the last financial year, the MOD made payments of about £250 million and the contracts awarded were worth in the region of £2.7 billion. That shows a significant measure of confidence in that company, and we could, of course, give similar figures for other major UK-based defence contractors. We are investing very substantially in British manufacturing through the defence sector. It would be nice for that to be recognised and applauded by the Opposition.

Force Deployments


How long the current level of ground forces will be deployed in Iraq. [112221]

British forces will not be deployed to the region any longer than is necessary, but will remain there while the operational situation requires it. I have already announced a number of withdrawals and replacements of our forces and I shall continue to keep the House informed.

As my right hon. Friend is aware, the reserve armed forces who have been operating in the Gulf have been admirably supported by the national headquarters in my constituency. There are those who intermittently criticise aspects of what is happening in Iraq, but may I express the hope that he will agree that our forces will be in safe hands when they return with the support of the mobilisation centre in Chilwell?

I am delighted to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the contribution of the reserves in Iraq and, indeed, to the work of the reserves training and mobilisation centre in Chilwell in my hon. Friend's constituency. I have had the privilege of visiting the centre on a number of occasions.

Although we will need to send further reservists to Iraq to help our forces to meet their continuing obligations there, we are also seeking to bring home as soon as is practicable those reservists whose tasks have been completed.

My hon. Friend might like to know that Chilwell is playing its part in the reconstruction of Iraq. Secondees from British Government Departments to the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance are receiving their pre-deployment briefing and training at the centre.

Will the Secretary of State turn his attention to the terms and conditions of members of the reserves and, especially, the situation faced by one of my constituents, who is a police inspector and a member of the volunteer reserves? If he is called to serve in Iraq, he will face a pay cut of £20,000 a year, which is a source of grave concern for his family. Will the Secretary of State consider what might be done to revisit the banding of salary levels to take that into account?

The bands are kept under constant review, and I shall certainly examine any specific case that the hon. Gentleman cares to bring to my attention. Arrangements for the payment of reserves are long standing, tried and tested and generally work very satisfactorily.

Bearing it in mind that conflicts such as that in Iraq put pressure on our armed forces and front-line troops, will the Secretary of State reassure us that even if the political situation improves in Northern Ireland, the British Government will look on the home service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment as a rich reservoir of skilled and professional soldiers, at low cost, who should be maintained in their existing numbers and not given up as a political pawn in some settlement?

I agree with my hon. Friend's tribute to the Royal Irish Regiment. I have had the privilege of seeing it in action in Northern Ireland and elsewhere on a number of occasions, and it does a tremendous job.

Weapons Of Mass Destruction


If he will make a statement on the searches which have taken place for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. [112223]


If he will make a statement on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. [112224]

There is no doubt that Saddam's regime continued to develop weapons of mass destruction in breach of United Nations resolutions, and that we will continue to find evidence of these programmes. Coalition forces are actively investigating sites, documentation and specific individuals connected with Iraq's WMD programmes. Both the United States and the United Kingdom have deployed specialist personnel and will send more in the near future.

These investigations will take time. The Iraqi regime had every opportunity to hide these programmes, given their considerable experience in concealment. Gathering and collating evidence of WMD programmes from the various sources will be a long and complex task.

I can confirm that UK experts have conducted preliminary assessments of the suspect mobile vehicle referred to by members of the US Administration last week. It is clear that this vehicle is military, and is a transportable system designed for producing microorganisms. As such it should have been declared by Iraq under United Nations Security Council resolution 1441, but it was not. It appears to match the information on Iraqi mobile biological agent production facilities described in our dossier of last September and by the US Secretary of State to the Security Council in February.

Given that Amir al-Saadi, the chief chemical weapons scientist, and Dr. Salih Ammash, the senior biological scientist, have been held in custody for some time, why does the Secretary of State think that the Americans have withdrawn their weapons inspectors and replaced them with the smaller Iraq survey group?

The purpose of the Iraq survey group is to provide a core of experts drawn from several different countries, including the United Kingdom, to pursue the necessary scientific inquiries that such investigations require. There is no diminution at all of the coalition's efforts to identify weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, to publicise them when appropriate.

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to observe what was published in yesterday'sWashington Post?It said that the 75th Exploitation Task Force, which is charged with finding weapons of mass destruction, has found places that have been "looted and burned". Is there evidence that potential terrorists have looted any of those weapons, or that they could be used against the west?

I am aware of those reports and they are being investigated. There are reports of looting, although I cannot confirm them. It is obviously a matter of concern, which is why it is so important that we have detailed investigations on the ground carried out by experts.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the importance of reestablishing UN inspection teams, first, to reassert the UN's authority, which is also vital for the administration of Iraq, and, secondly, to provide credibility because there are growing suspicions that the immediacy and extent of the threat from Iraqi WMD—the reason given for the rush to war—was massively hyped on the basis of the selective use of unreliable or even specious intelligence information?

As the Prime Minister and the President agreed at Hillsborough, the UN has a vital role to play in the continuing efforts to rebuild Iraq. We have made it clear that it would be useful to have an independent source of verification for findings of weapons of mass destruction, and that might well include a role for the UN. As far as my hon. Friend's final observation is concerned, I have just drawn the House's attention to the discovery of a facility that was set out in the dossier on the basis of intelligence available to us last September which was also referred to by the US Secretary of State. I hope that my hon. Friend might reconsider his observations.

My right hon. Friend will recall that one argument for the invasion of Iraq was the discovery of weapons of mass destruction and the need to destroy them, especially as there was a danger that they would pass into the hands of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. Does he think that there is any possibility that weapons of mass destruction may have been transmitted to terrorist organisations in the present period?

I have no specific evidence of that at this stage, but it is obviously a concern while we are unable to identify precisely elements of the weapons of mass destruction that we referred to previously. As I told the House, the effort goes on and is proving to be successful.

Given the great importance of uncovering Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and, indeed, his links with terrorist organisations, will the Secretary of State explain how it was possible that British journalists were able to obtain key documents from Ministries several days after the fighting had ceased when such documents should previously have been secured by British and American intelligence officers?

The hon. Gentleman knows full well that for a short period there was serious disorder and looting in parts of Baghdad in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime. That was specifically aimed at elements of the regime, in particular the governing part. Not surprisingly, journalists on the spot were able to get access to documents that were not secured by the coalition. That should not come as a great surprise to the hon. Gentleman.

European Defence Capabilities


What discussions he has had with European counterparts on the future coordination of European defence capabilities. [112225]

I take every opportunity to discuss with my European colleagues the need for improved coordination of military capabilities, particularly in the context of European security and defence policy, NATO's Prague capabilities commitment initiative and the United Kingdom's bilateral defence relationships. I will be meeting EU colleagues on 19 May and NATO colleagues in mid-June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response, but does he agree that, with the one laudable exception of the UK, our European partners to date have failed to perform in terms of military procurement and commitment of troops, whether for peacekeeping purposes or conflict resolution? Is he surprised to hear voices in the Opposition criticise our support for enhancing European capabilities? Would he describe the position of Opposition Members as (a) ludicrous, (b) untenable, (c) illogical or (d) all of the above?

Nevertheless, I am grateful for my hon. Friend's observations. It is important that the UK set an example both in spending more money on defence and in spending that money more effectively—something that I should hope Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen would support. What is interesting about their criticisms is the extent to which they fail to recognise the need for European nations to work effectively together to improve the military capabilities available to all through either the European Union or NATO.

The French have a substantial military contribution to make, should they decide that it is politically appropriate to do so.

Has the Secretary of State had the opportunity to examine the composition of EUFOR—the European Union force in Macedonia? Is he aware that it is made up of a number of very small contingents from a large number of countries, rather than units of command from single countries under their own commanders, as I would have expected? Does he believe that that is an effective way of deploying a European force?

Obviously, that is a matter for military judgment as to the capabilities of the particular force and from where it should be drawn. I am satisfied that the military advice that has been given is the right advice and that the force in Macedonia is doing a good job.



If he will make a statement on operations in Iraq. [112226]

Decisive combat operations in Iraq have been completed. Saddam Hussein's regime, which had for years brutalised Iraq and threatened the wider region, has collapsed.

In most areas of Iraq, coalition forces are now focusing upon stabilisation operations, setting the conditions for the restoration of the country's political and administrative structures. We will continue the humanitarian efforts already under way.

British forces have played a major part in the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime. They have once again demonstrated their professionalism and expertise, combining combat operations with support for the civilian population. They are now helping the Iraqi people to take the first significant steps along the road to greater political and economic freedom and security.

The Americans apparently plan to publish their report on the friendly fire incidents on the internet this week. Given the sensitivity of the subject, not least for those units and regiments, such as my own, which lost soldiers in tragic incidents of that sort, will the Secretary of State tell the House precisely how many British personnel are involved in the investigations, when they intend to publish their findings, and what consultations they have had with our US allies on the subject?

There have been extensive consultations. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the investigations are conducted in parallel form through the national chain of command. We are represented in the American process, as they are represented in ours. However, as he says, it is important that there be full transparency of both the conclusions and any action that is then required to be taken.

Am I the only one to be utterly astonished that, after interviewing goodness knows how many Iraqi scientists who were allegedly involved in developing weapons of mass destruction, the only thing that we have found to date is the transporter to which my right hon. Friend referred earlier? How many Iraqi scientists have been interviewed, and what has transpired as a result?

My hon. Friend had better prepare himself for further astonishment, because I have to tell him that sometimes when they are interviewed, people do not tell us the truth. It is therefore necessary for us to continue investigations into where weapons of mass destruction have been hidden. As I said earlier, the Iraqi regime had many months in which to hide weapons of mass destruction; we have to have a similar period in which to locate them.

Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) about friendly fire, will the Secretary of State say more about what work has been done since the end of the conflict? Will he give the House a commitment that any progress made by the Americans will be matched by us? In particular, has he done any research into BCIS—battlefield combat identification system—developed by Northrop Grumman, an American company, which puts transponders into American tanks so that they have technical facility to deal with friendly fire? It is important that our kit for our soldiers is as good as the Americans'.

I think that the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members will accept that the most important work that needs to be done in the light of the conflict is to investigate thoroughly the friendly fire incidents in question, so that we can properly understand what went wrong—clearly, things did go wrong—before we take decisions on potential solutions. The Ministry of Defence and I are willing to consider any solution that guarantees the safety of our services personnel.

My right hon. Friend will know that 2,000 extended range bomblets and shells were used in the British battle for Basra. Will he ensure that the impact points of those munitions will be made available to the United Nations mine action service and to non-government organisations? Will he warn civilians of the consequences of unexploded bomblets? Does he agree that it would be more appropriate for the funding of such clean-up operations to be provided by the MOD rather than by the Department for International Development?

My hon. Friend is right. Determined efforts are made to identify the location of unexploded bomblets. Records are kept, and members of Britain's forces are routinely engaged in making safe any unexploded ordnance. That work is under way in Iraq as I speak, and it will continue. There is no difficulty about the funding of that work: it is carried out by the British Government.

Service Personnel (Gulf)


What measures he is taking in support of widows and partners of service personnel who died in the Gulf conflict. [112227]


What measures he is taking in support of widows and partners of service personnel who died in the Gulf conflict. [112233]

I pay tribute to all those who gave their lives serving in the recent conflict in the Gulf and to their families. The country owes them a deep debt which we are determined to meet.

Long-term financial support is provided to widows and dependants under the armed forces pension scheme and the war pension scheme. Where a service person died as a result of the conflict, and left a partner with whom there was a substantial relationship of interdependence, ex-gratia payments equivalent to benefits paid to a surviving spouse will be awarded to unmarried partners under the armed forces pension scheme.

In addition to the financial support, my Department is providing emotional and administrative support and assistance to the families. That support will be maintained for as long as the families require it.

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware that, on top of the measures to which he has referred, for a modest monthly sum, generous pay-outs can be received from PAX, the private insurance scheme. The difficulty is that that is a private insurance scheme, so it costs servicemen to buy it. Secondly, not every serviceman is enrolled in the scheme. Is it not now time for the Government to take on that burden to provide proper insurance for our servicemen so that their widows have a generous settlement?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a review of pensions and compensation is being undertaken. I hope to return to the House in the near future to discuss some of the changes that we shall be making. However, the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head. For a modest payment, additional insurance can be provided. We always recommend to our people that they should take that out. Whatever we provide for them, it will always be essential for people to take additional cover for themselves to provide for their families. It would be prudent for them to do that, and something that we would encourage them to do.

The Minister will know how important holidays are to our service personnel and their families, who necessarily endure long periods of separation. Family holidays not only bring quality time but also, when booked significantly ahead in the year, give something for servicemen and their families positively to look forward to and to focus on. Does he have any plans to compensate the many hundreds of servicemen who have lost out significantly in financial terms because of the Iraqi war or the firemen's strike? If he has any such plans, has he compensated any servicemen to date?

Order. That supplementary question has nothing to do with the main question.



What discussions he has had with EU partners on allied support for the reconstruction of Iraq.—[112231]

Now that decisive combat operations have been completed in Iraq, United Kingdom forces are concentrating on stabilisation and humanitarian tasks. In taking forward the wider political and economic reconstruction of Iraq, the coalition and, in due course, a new Iraqi Government, will need to draw on the expertise of the international community. Recent discussions with a number of countries, including European Union partners, have covered the possible contribution of numerous capabilities, including, but not limited to, infantry, medical personnel, engineers and logistic support.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Can he assure the House that his Department will draw on the experience of our EU partners, particularly in the Balkans and Afghanistan, to ensure that vital services are restored in Iraq as quickly as possible?

I can assure my hon. Friend, as I said a moment ago, that we want to draw on the experience of a number of EU partners and, indeed, future EU partners. They have indicated their willingness to make military capabilities available, and we want to use them.

Surely, one of the lessons that we have learned from previous conflicts concerns our rather tardy approach to clearing up civilian areas post-conflict. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give the House that thousands of unexploded bomhlets will be cleared from civilian areas first, rather than from those areas that our troops our entering?

I indicated the priority that was given to the clean-up a few moments ago. Those efforts continue, and they do not discriminate between civilian and other areas. A determined effort is made to ensure the safety and security of both military and civilian personnel.