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Volume 407: debated on Monday 23 June 2003

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If he will make a statement on the contribution which the armed services based in the south-west of England (a) made and (b) continue to make to coalition operations in Iraq. [120549]

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing the attention of the House to the good work that was and continues to be done in Iraq by armed forces personnel based in the south-west of England, and by all our servicemen and women.

From Plymouth, HMS Ocean, with supporting vessels from the amphibious task group, was instrumental in supporting the crucial early landing of 3 Commando Brigade on the al-Faw peninsula. In addition, Royal Marine commandos were involved in securing the port of Umm Qasr, through which all subsequent seaborne aid has been channelled. HMS Chatham remains in the Gulf. Other units based in the south-west of England also played an important role in Iraq, including Royal Marines from Taunton, and Royal Naval air squadrons from Culdrose and Yeovilton.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. He describes a number of roles of which the service personnel and their families can rightly be proud. In respect of those families, he might recollect that, during questions on the statement to the House on Iraq on 21 March, I raised a question about media intrusion at the time of the first casualties arising from the conflict.

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had time to note that the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport published its report last week on its investigation into privacy and media intrusion. The recommendation at paragraph 72 says:
"We recommend that the PCC, under its new Chairman, considers the case for taking a more consistent approach to foreseeable events that herald intense media activity and people in grief and shock; and for acting as soon as possible after unexpected disasters have occurred."
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he plays his part in ensuring that that recommendation is fully followed through?

I do indeed recollect my hon. Friend raising that particular matter. A number of servicemen connected to the south-west lost their lives or were injured while deployed on operations in Iraq. Our thoughts remain with them and their families. Sadly, there were too many examples of the press stepping over lines of common decency, or failing to respect the feelings of those who had just lost loved ones. I have read the recommendations in the Culture, Media and Sport Committee report published last Monday. That is an interesting comment. It is also interesting that Christopher Meyer, the new chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, has indicated that that is the type of case that he would be open to dealing with. If anything can be done to ensure that the press act responsibly at all times when they deal with victims and those who may lose their lives in conflict, I think we will all applaud it.

No mention of the disproportionate part played by the armed forces in the south-west would be complete without acknowledging yet again the professionalism and dedication of the staff at commando training camp Lympstone. Equally important is an acknowledgment of the very important part played by the Royal Marines Reserve, 150 of whom were deployed recently in Iraq. However, there seems to be some discrepancy among public sector employers in releasing royal marine reservists for their annual training, which is critical if they are to play their part fully as we call on them to do from time to time. As part of his review following recent events in Iraq, will the Minister look carefully at how we can convince public sector employers throughout the country to approach the release of Royal Marine Reservists in the same way, without discriminating against some of them, which unfortunately has been the case in the past?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. I was not aware of the specifics, but in the recent debate on personnel matters we dealt with the impact on individual reservists and those in the Territorial Army, and the relationship with their employers, and I stressed the importance of ensuring that employers are fully aware of the role that reservists play and engage with it. It is in their interests as well as in the national interest that those actions are taken. I will ensure that those sentiments are expressed to them. If there are any particular problems, I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman brought them to my attention and that of my hon. Friends. We will do what we can to ensure that that is fully complied with. I echo his sentiments about the crucial role played by training encampments and the Royal Marine Reserves.