Orders of the Day — UN Security Council Resolution 1441

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:21 pm on 25th November 2002.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 9:21 pm, 25th November 2002

I am afraid that I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman is changing the rules of the game half way through the game. If we had a system whereby it was mandatory for the Government to get express backing from the House before military action, I expect that the Government would long ago have come to the House of Commons, in the same way as the President has gone to the United States Congress, and got a blank cheque to take whatever military action was necessary.

That is not the constitutional position in this country. [Interruption.] I hear Mr. Keetch say that it ought to be. Let him change the law, rather than trying to rush through an instant change in the heat of the moment. I point out to him that passing a resolution of the House would not alter the Crown prerogative. If he wants to change the Crown prerogative he needs to bring a Bill before the House. I suggest that he does that, so that we can have a proper debate about the issue, which he clearly thinks is important.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I do not mistrust the Government—[Laughter.]—on the matter. I accept the Foreign Secretary's assurances that he will do his utmost to consult the House on any future military action, and that he would convene the House as soon as possible after any military action if it became necessary to take such military action before the House had been able to meet.

I move on to the military affairs that arise from the debate. Last week the Secretary of State for Defence—[Interruption.] I shall quote the Secretary of State, so he might listen to the point—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman says that he is busy. That is what he is here for—to be busy. He told a now-famous press conference last week:

XWe have had a request for forces from the United States, but no decision has been taken on that and it does seem to me appropriate that I should set out in more detail our thinking on Monday in the parliamentary debate".

Much of the debate has been about the right of the House to be consulted on the decision to initiate military action. The people of this country have a right to know what is being committed in their name, and in his comments last week the Secretary of State seemed to recognise that. So far in the debate the House has not had the slightest indication what kind of military commitment the Government may be contemplating, despite the fact that there have been numerous indications in the press and media that the Government have quite a clear idea.

Last week, the Washington Post reported:

XBritish officials have said they expect at least two British units, the 1st Armoured Division and a light helicopter-borne air assault regiment, to take part in any offensive in Iraq".

Can the Secretary of State make any formal comment on that announcement? The approaching deadlines contained in UN Security Council resolution 1441 make it all the more extraordinary that the Government have not just failed to make any announcement, but have failed to give any warning orders to the Army units that might be required. All that is in the context of the comments made last week by the Chief of the Defence Staff. Those remarks deserve to go on the official record. When asked about the effect of the fire strikes on the armed forces, he said that he was Xextremely concerned" for two reasons.

With the permission of the House, I shall quote further. The Chief of the Defence Staff said:

XFirst I am concerned on the military effectiveness of our armed forces and secondly I am concerned at the impact on our individuals who are helping out in the firefighting situation. Clearly we don't have a box of 19,000 people standing by to be called upon to do firefighting. They must be drawn from operational units . . . and they have now been standing by since September when we started training for the duties, they are not doing their tasks of training for whatever eventuality may come in the future."

He went on to say:

XThere is also the problem . . . of impact on individuals because a lot of people have come straight off deployment from, say, Bosnia or Afghanistan and gone straight on to these duties without the benefit of any home time. That leaves a morale problem to be addressed as well."

He pointed out that Navy ships are tied up in port, RAF stations are not operating at full efficiency and soldiers are being withdrawn from battalions training in Germany. He explained that

Xwe are trying to husband some operational capability, but clearly we can't perform at the fullest end of our operational capability."

That bears out the warning that he gave to the Select Committee on Defence on 6 November:

XIf there were a medium-sized operation, we would have great difficulty in coping with that."

That is a savage indictment of Labour's five years in office.

The strategic defence review, which everyone broadly supported—[Interruption.] Yes, that includes, broadly, the Opposition. The review envisaged that the UK would have the military capacity to sustain at any one time one major military operation, equivalent to the 1991 Gulf war, one minor operation, such as peacekeeping in the Balkans, and continued operations in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and so on. Is it not now abundantly clear that the armed forces do not begin to have the capacity to manage that level of commitment? Are we not now paying the price for a Government who have continued to spend less on defence in every year since the Conservatives left office? [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that that is rubbish. I would bandy figures from the Library with him, but I do not think that the House wants to waste time on that.

The Government have left Britain totally unprepared for the unexpected. Despite the indications given by the Secretary of State last week, given the state of our armed forces, I doubt whether he is in a position to say much tonight that will add anything to the sum total of our knowledge. What military commitment has the US asked for and what are we likely to agree? If he cannot tell the House now, when will he be able to tell us? How long will it take to get our military commitment deployed and ready for carrying out military operations against Iraqi forces? Given that it takes eight to 12 weeks to get from the issuing of a warning order to deployment to move an armoured brigade into position, do not the Government intend to take very little risk at the outset of military action, because the main British force simply will not be there, as my hon. Friend Patrick Mercer pointed out?

Given the cuts in stocks and spares in the Ministry of Defence, what measures is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that UK military action will be sustainable for anything more than a few weeks? When will reservists be called up, how many will he call up and what warning will they get? What protection will British forces have against chemical and biological weapons, and particularly the VX nerve agent, to which the Foreign Secretary referred in his opening remarks? What preparations are the Government taking to deal with the humanitarian crisis that would be likely to follow military action if it becomes necessary—a point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous)?

We are supporting the Government's motion, but that should not stifle our criticism of their defence policy. The nation is braced for the possibility of terrorist attack.