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Service Personnel (Gulf)

Volume 405: debated on Monday 12 May 2003

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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.