Armed Forces Personnel

– in the House of Commons at 3:48 pm on 13th May 2004.

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Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute time limit on Back Bench speeches. I call Rachel Squire.

Photo of Rachel Squire Rachel Squire Labour, Dunfermline West 4:33 pm, 13th May 2004

I begin by presenting the apologies of the Chairman of the Defence Select Committee, who is unable to be here today.

People are the armed forces' most important asset. However much the technology of military operations may have advanced in recent years, it is on the professionalism, training and individual courage of service men and women that their effective conduct depends. I want to begin by paying tribute to the members of the armed services, and to their families.

For the Defence Committee, personnel issues have always been important. Whenever the Committee visits British forces in the UK or overseas, members make a point of trying to talk to forces personnel of all ranks. The Committee reports regularly and considers the impact of policies and operations on personnel, as is shown by our reports on the lessons of Iraq and on the strategic defence review new chapter.

We have also undertaken inquiries into specific personnel issues, such as pensions and compensation arrangements for the armed forces, and we are now beginning a major inquiry into the duty-of-care issues in the three services. If I have time, I shall make further reference to that inquiry later.

On numbers, we heard encouraging news about progress towards manning targets from General Sir Michael Jackson, who told the Defence Committee a few weeks ago:

"The army is not yet at its target figure but it has, for example, increased by nearly 2,000 over the last 12 months. So I am satisfied that army planning is in a healthy position and my forecast is that it will continue to increase".

Recent operations have demonstrated the potency of modern weapons systems. Some 85 per cent. of munitions dropped in Iraq were precision guided compared with 25 per cent. in Kosovo and 11 per cent. in the Gulf war of 1991. The speed of the American advance on Baghdad was an example of how the concept of overmatching power has replaced that of overwhelming force, but technological advances, however effective, cannot make up for insufficient numbers on the ground, and no one can be in two places at once.

Stabilisation operations and peace support operations require a large number of personnel, not high-tech weaponry. The Defence White Paper focuses on how the armed forces can best deliver an expeditionary capability. The Defence Committee is conducting an inquiry into that and will publish its report in due course. I am a little concerned, however, that we risk overlooking the importance of ensuring that we meet the simple requirement of having the large numbers of troops needed to supply the considerable number who endure low-intensity operations.

The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Boyce, said in his maiden speech in the other place:

"So we need to remember . . . the low intensity end, where we are for the vast majority of the time with our forces spread thinly around the world as they are today; that however clever the technology, it does not deliver the capability to be in two places at the same time, such as patrolling simultaneously in the Gulf and the south Atlantic. We have not yet cracked the fourth dimension. So, if there is to be a cut in frontline numbers, then no doubt we can also expect to see a cut in commitments. Anything else would be inexplicable to our already fully stretched servicemen and servicewomen."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 3 December 2003; Vol. 655, c. 343.]

We would all agree that we ask a lot of our armed forces and that they never fail to deliver, but we must recognise that what they can do is limited by how many of them there are. So how do we resolve the dilemma of too many commitments and too few people?

We should, of course, always look to reduce commitments where we can. I support the Government's continuing efforts to encourage our allies, particularly in Europe, to do more, but we must recognise that it is much easier to argue against taking on more commitments in the abstract than to argue against specific proposals when we see the need for them and know that we, and possibly we alone, have the armed forces that could meet that need.

So should we increase the size of our armed forces? To do so would, of course, require extra resources. Although the Chancellor's statement in the Budget was welcome, it is not realistic to expect the extra funding for defence that would be required to sustain a significant increase in armed forces personnel. Funding is not the only constraint, however. I was struck by what General Sir Michael Walker told us in the Defence Committee. He said:

"I do not think it is realistic to imagine that the demographic base in this country would necessarily support a significant increase in the number of people coming into our armed forces. It would be wrong of any of us, I think, to start lowering standards to increase numbers."

Even if we could afford it, it is the view of the Chief of the Defence Staff that it is unlikely that we could recruit significantly greater numbers to the armed forces without an unacceptable lowering of standards. My first conclusion is that we have to work with what we have got. We should of course continue to look for ways to improve our capabilities within those overall limitations, and we should be prepared to restructure our forces so that they are best able to respond to the sort of demands that we expect to make of them.

My next point is on key enablers, because if our forces are stretched overall, the specific demands that we make of them in some areas become unreasonable and unsustainable. As the Defence Medical Services has already been mentioned, I shall move on from that example in the hope that other Members have a chance to say a little more.

During Operation Telic there was much public criticism because crucial supplies were not getting through to our front-line forces. As the Committee's report, "Lessons of Iraq", spelt out, some of that criticism was justified, but not because the people with day-to-day responsibility for those matters were negligent or careless; rather it was the consequence of there being too few people in key specialties and too little investment in key systems.

Logistics may not be glamorous, but it is essential. The Defence White Paper recognises that logistics must be seen as a capability in its own right and that it needs reorganisation, not least so as to alleviate the demands on specialist personnel.

Another example is engineering. The initial deployment to Operation Telic put huge demands on engineering capability. When I and other members of the Committee were in Shaibah last July, in temperatures that were routinely above 50° C, we saw uninstalled air-conditioning units lying around because no engineers were available.

I want briefly to mention our reserve forces. They were involved in both the combat and peacekeeping phases of Operation Telic and the Defence Committee was impressed with their dedication and their invaluable contribution.

Operation Telic involved the largest compulsory call-out of reserve forces since the 1956 Suez crisis. Reservists play a critical role in UK military operations, as they provide, in many cases, skills that are not readily available in the regular forces. The medical side provides a specific example; 760 medical reservists were deployed in Operation Telic.

Being mobilised can put substantial pressure on individual reservists, their families and employers. The Defence Committee is especially concerned that reservists do not lose their jobs as a result of mobilisation. The Chief of the General Staff, Sir Michael Jackson, told the Committee recently that it would be

"a mistake to assume that we could use the reserves at the tempo at which we have been using them over the last year".

On mobilisation, he said:

"The Reserve Forces Act itself of course says once in every three years, and certainly that is the law, but I personally think that may be a bit too often anyway."

The Ministry of Defence must consider that point seriously.

We ask a lot of our armed forces. We put them into situations where they face great personal danger and come under extreme pressure. We also expect them to conduct themselves to high standards and on the overwhelming majority of occasions that is what they do. I have met and spoken to members of the British armed forces all over the world; they are often doing difficult jobs in unpleasant places. I have found them highly professional, committed to the task at hand and fully aware of their responsibilities towards the civilian population.

I do not intend to discuss the specific allegations against some personnel who have served in Iraq, especially as little time is available, but I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister, and the Defence Committee will consider some of those matters in its inquiry into continuing operations. The Committee is also in the early stages of an inquiry into the duty of care towards recruits in all three services. Unfortunately, I do not have time to elaborate on that.

I end my speech by once again paying tribute to our armed forces, and to the personal sacrifice—indeed the ultimate sacrifice—they are called on to make in the service of their country. It is Parliament's and the country's responsibility to return their commitment with fair treatment, value and respect and just reward.

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Defence 4:34 pm, 13th May 2004

This is indeed a very timely debate in the light of the past few days' events and, in particular, of course, the reports from the ICRC and Amnesty International.

In the statement on Monday, the Secretary of State for Defence reiterated the need for open and transparent dialogue between the Government and the House. The vast majority of British troops in Iraq are conducting their difficult and dangerous operations to the very highest standards of professionalism in the toughest of conditions. It is right that we have all paid proper tribute to them, both today and on many previous occasions.

Sadly, it is not unusual for improper behaviour to occur in time of war and conflict, and swift and appropriate action needs to be taken by the proper authorities and overseen by the Government and relevant Ministers. It is vital that Ministers are made aware of all important reports, both internal ones and those provided by external organisations, not only so that action is taken at the earliest opportunity but so that the Government can ensure that they keep the House fully informed of important developments. So I welcome the Secretary of State's statement to the House on Monday, but I remain disappointed by the inadequacy of his response to some of the crucial questions put to him by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The Prime Minister yesterday answered questions in a rather similar fashion and insisted that there was no evidence of systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops. I think that that is confirmed in the report. He also confirmed that he had not seen the ICRC report until Monday this week, but we know that the report was received by British officials in Baghdad on 26 February. Despite the dialogue between those on the two Front Benches this afternoon, I am still not entirely clear why there was a three-month delay in bringing those very serious allegations to the notice of senior Ministers.

The Prime Minister's response that the report was not passed to Ministers in February and that he did not know of the allegations of abuse before receiving it was very carefully worded. What was not made clear was whether the Prime Minister was aware of the serious allegations concerning US troops, particularly in respect of Iraqi detainees, and whether he made any representation to President Bush during his recent visit to Washington. As a coalition partner, we surely have every right to know what our partners are doing in the name of the coalition of which we are part and for which we are therefore jointly responsible. But the crucial question remains: why were those reports, which are of obvious political significance, not shown to Ministers and thus not reported to the House?

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Local Government & the Regions

In an earlier intervention, the Minister of State, who has left the Chamber for the moment, indicated that what the US does is nothing to do with him. I should have thought that anything to do with US or the coalition forces was to do with him and ought to be of concern to him. I understand that the Leader of the House stated that what the American forces had done was a stain on the coalition. Does my hon. Friend agree with the Minister of State, who says that that is nothing to do with him, or with the implication of what the Leader of the House said, which is that it is a stain on the coalition and is obviously a matter of concern to the Government?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Defence

All this is a good example of the way in which hairs are being split. Both views are correct in a way, but we have to recognise that, of course, any action by any coalition partner will have implications for all the others. That has been made perfectly clear in recent days.

If we find that any British troops have broken the Geneva convention or, indeed, any other human rights law, I accept the Minister's assurance that those incidents will be fully investigated and, if proven, those responsible will be appropriately punished.

The appearance of the black-and-white photographs in the Daily Mirrorthey now appear to be reconstructions or representations—have clearly focused attention on what may be disturbing behaviour by our troops that has been the substance of allegations by the Red Cross and Amnesty International for perhaps more than a year. We can only speculate about the motivation behind those images. There is the motivation of the Daily Mirror in using them—it says that it investigated them fully—and the motivation of the people who set the thing up. We were led to believe—and I accept—that they are soldiers, and were named as soldiers A, B and C.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Department for Transport

On that specific point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Daily Mirror should have told the soldiers who came to it with the story to do their duty, see their superior officer and give him full details of the events that they reported?

Photo of Colin Breed Colin Breed Shadow Minister, Defence

I agree entirely that it is right that such actions should be taken before anything of doubtful provenance is published. I want to believe that, although the outcome has been appalling, the motivation of some of the soldiers was honourable. Their action may have been born of frustration following inaction about widely known reports. The way in which the images appeared has been extremely damaging, but we should await the full results of the investigation not only into how those things came to be published but about why they were brought into the public domain.

The US photographs that have been released demonstrate utterly unacceptable behaviour, and have led to an escalation in violence and tension not only in Iraq but among the wider Muslim population of the region. Already, in the past few days, we have seen the appalling and barbaric decapitation of a US civilian, which has shocked people the world over and has shown that even allegations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners can lead to direct retaliatory violence. It is therefore vital that the allegations about British troops are precisely defined and kept separate from the US investigations. What is the status of the British investigations and when will the results be made public? No criminal proceedings have been initiated as yet, but what disciplinary action has been taken against troops in Iraq found to have acted improperly. The Red Cross report states that a commanding officer handed back the body of Baha Mousa to his family in a dreadful state and apologised, assuring them that those responsible would be brought to justice. Compensation was paid, perhaps as admittance that the Army might be liable in the judgment of Army lawyers. Why has it taken so long to reach a judgment? Speed is of the utmost importance to calm fears and restore reputations as quickly as possible. We should not let these things fester in communities. Why did the family of Baha Mousa feel the need to bring another case against the MOD in the UK courts?

The allegations have dealt a serious blow to the coalition's efforts to win over the Iraqi people. As part of the coalition, our troops are inevitably identified with those of the US. The ICRC report makes no distinction between coalition forces, and was given at the outset to the US command. Regrettably, we are tarred with the same brush when allegations of abuse are made. Shame falls equally on UK and US forces, regardless of the extent of abuses by either side. The MOD has said that the European convention on human rights does not apply in Iraq, so can the Minister tell us what human rights law does apply there? In particular, does the international covenant on civil and political rights, to which Iraq is a party, apply? Can the Minister assure the House that his Government are doing everything possible to ensure the observance of human rights in all coalition operations in Iraq and that there are clear channels of communication between coalition partners for any alleged breaches of human rights law to be raised, including direct reference to Ministers?

Can the Minister confirm the rumours of the possible deployment of more British troops to Iraq? In particular, can he confirm that the US has requested British troops to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of Spanish troops? Can he confirm that additional UK troops will be deployed only on the specific request of UK commanders, and that they will be used exclusively to reinforce our own troops on the ground in the southern sector, and will not be used to bolster US forces in areas such as Falluja or Najaf?

Whatever happens regarding the future deployment of more British troops, we must ensure the continued protection and support of our troops currently stationed out in Iraq. With 30 June only a few weeks away, the Government must surely have determined their political and military strategy for the post-30 June handover. If additional troops are to be deployed, will the Minister tell us on what basis and on what conditions such troops will be made available? It is also not too early for coalition partners to consider their exit strategy, as was mentioned earlier, and in particular what role the United Nations may play in assisting that process.

Events in the past few weeks have seriously undermined coalition efforts to achieve the original objectives. Of course, we all want Iraq to become a peaceful, stable and secure state within which reconstruction can take place safely and speedily, but that all seems a very long way off now. It is far from clear how the original objectives will be achieved in the short to medium term, and it is becoming increasingly obvious that our troops may have to remain for far longer than was anticipated, which will have a significant effect not only on the MOD's budget but on the overstretch of our forces, which has been highlighted again this afternoon. At the earliest opportunity the Government must present clear proposals to enable the House to debate fully an increasingly worrying situation.

Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang Labour, Edinburgh East and Musselburgh 4:47 pm, 13th May 2004

Like some hon. Members in the Chamber this afternoon, including Mr. Breed, I was opposed to the war in Iraq. I was one of the 219 Members of the House of Commons who last March concluded that the case for war against Iraq had not been established, especially given the absence of specific UN authorisation. However, that is not to say that I do not recognise the arguments of those who, like the Government and the official Opposition, supported the military action.

I understand and respect the position of people who take a pacifist approach to international politics. I also understand and respect those who adopt an isolationist position, but I have never been a pacifist and I am not an isolationist. I agree with the Ministry of Defence White Paper published in July 1998 that Britain and our armed forces should aim to be a force for good in the world.

When the conclusions of the strategic defence review were published in that White Paper, it cannot have been possible to predict that the active deployments of our forces in subsequent years would have been so many and so diverse, including the operations in East Timor, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq, and the work that we asked them to do in Northern Ireland. The Government published a new chapter to the defence review following the atrocities of 11 September 2001.

If there was ever any question in my mind that our armed forces personnel were overstretched, that question was answered just two weeks ago. I had the opportunity to meet members of the Royal Scots Regiment who were on parade in my constituency, and I spoke with the soldiers who have been at the sharp end of operations, and with the NCOs and officers. They marched through Musselburgh with many people lining the pavements to watch them—a very impressive sight.

One of the advantages of such an event is that it gives not just members of the public, but councillors and Members of Parliament—I am the local Member of Parliament—the chance to talk directly to the men and get an insight into some of the difficulties and challenges they face. They were very positive about the supply of equipment and materials. They did not complain about the lack of supplies, as has been instanced in the past. They mentioned only that they would like more sets of night goggles. The thing that struck me was that some of the soldiers had missed four Christmases in a row. These young people, many with young families, were facing the possibility of a fifth Christmas away from home. The Royal Scots had been in Northern Ireland in 2000 and 2001, in Bosnia in 2002 and in Iraq in 2003. They were marching through Musselburgh, having just returned from Iraq. It is unacceptable and unreasonable to ask our people to join the services on the basis that they will have so little time, particularly at Christmas, with their families and loved ones.

The working arrangement in the MOD is, I understand, that after six months of operations there should be 24 months back home to recover, train and get back up to speed before another operation, usually overseas. The Royal Scots will be on call from November to go back to Iraq, but that announcement was before the recent speculation that we might be deploying additional troops to Iraq. What I am saying is not unique to the Royal Scots; it applies to other regiments as well. That is the demand that we are placing on our personnel.

The Minister of State and my hon. Friend Rachel Squire, who is a member of the Defence Committee, rightly drew attention to the fact that numbers in the armed services are rising, which has to be good news—but I would suggest that it is probably not good enough. If we are to continue to ask our service personnel to intervene on the scale envisaged by the Government, we must substantially increase the military budget and expand the size of the armed forces, particularly the British Army, if we are to become involved in the sort of international action in which we have been involved recently.

Other Members want to speak and time is running out so, in conclusion, I wish to return to the issue of Iraq. The House is aware that the occupation authorities are due to hand sovereignty to a caretaker Government in Iraq by the end of next month. No one would suggest that that interim Government would have day-to-day command over coalition forces. However, I note that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that it would be for that Government to decide whether foreign forces should remain on their soil. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday that the people of Iraq say, first, that they are delighted that Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and, secondly, that they want the coalition forces to leave Iraq as soon as possible.

As I have said in the past, it is my view that the British Government should adopt a policy of replacing the coalition forces occupying Iraq with a force authorised by the United Nations.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport 4:53 pm, 13th May 2004

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me a chance to follow Dr. Strang, who always speaks with careful thought and sincerity.

I count myself as fortunate, having served in the Air Force and in the Territorial Army, and then having served on the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Act 2001, the House of Commons Defence Committee and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, all of which gave me the opportunity to study the armed forces at first hand.

I believe that we have the best armed forces in the world—and I say that not simply because I represent a services constituency and know so many people in the armed forces. I know from people from other NATO countries that our British forces are held in high regard. Those forces will be the very first to demand the most rigorous inquiry into the allegations made of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners. They will have been as shocked as we are that these events appear to have happened and that they happened on the Government's watch, with no one seemingly knowing they were going on.

I will start at the top, which is always a good place to start. I think our leading commanders benefit enormously from the Royal College of Defence Studies, which takes people in at the level of captain, colonel or group captain, and takes a number of civilians and a large number of foreign students. At the highest level, it gives our senior commanders—before their appointment to the top levels—the opportunity to broaden themselves and means that our top officers are civilised and thoughtful. We are very well led at the top and our senior commanders are indeed of the very highest quality. Similarly, at the staff college at Shrivenham, more junior ranks at the level of major and equivalent learn about joint operations and about the realities of war. They learn, as all junior ranks do, how crucial it is that they should understand and endure fear before they reach the front line.

In saying that our forces are the best in the world, if I had to base my claim on one simple fact, it would be that our non-commissioned officers have a level of leadership and an ability to take the initiative that often do not exist in the armed forces of other services. If one goes on a small patrol in Northern Ireland or Bosnia and Herzegovina that is led by a lance corporal or a corporal, one realises the extent of the demands that are made of junior ranks at that level. Our junior ranks are fully capable of taking that responsibility, and I single out that aspect as the most important of all those that make our armed forces the best in the world.

On the recruitment and training of junior ranks, the Select Committee on Defence is currently studying recruitment and training under the title "Duty of care". I was impressed recently when I read a reappraisal of initial training produced by the director of operational capability. The document talked about creating a climate in which there was a more congenial and balanced training environment. Over 20 years ago, such words would not have been used. It was certainly the view then that the object of recruitment and training the junior ranks was to break a man's spirit and rebuild it in the spirit of the unit. Now, that does not work at all. People are trained on the basis of having been encouraged in their earlier education to think for themselves. Officers in the Army, Navy and Royal Air Force—we have recently had the opportunity to meet personnel from all three services to discuss this matter—all say that the quality and standard of recruits nowadays make things much more challenging, as they have been taught to think for themselves. It is no longer possible simply to order a man to do things; one needs to explain what is to be done.

The service ethos is also different. Discipline and order remain important, and people are now trained to achieve similar military standards to those that have always existed, but that is happening in a changing world in which standards in civilian life are not the same as those of the military. The process is therefore much more demanding for service personnel, who need to be trained to use force and violence and to understand that they will need to kill if that is required, yet, at the same time, the world in which they are operating is a changing and rather softer and quieter one. The demands on trainers are therefore greater than ever before.

I turn now to some individual personnel issues. Reference has been made to the Defence Medical Services, which are dangerously under strength. We have only about a third of the required strength in several of our key faculties—anaesthetics, general surgery, orthopaedic surgery and general medicine. We have been extremely fortunate in recent wars and warlike events, as casualties have not been as great as might have been feared. I believe that we are seriously overstretched, and when I challenged the Minister to explain the effect of cancelling the Royal College of Defence Medicine at Selly Oak hospital in Birmingham, he gave me a most unsatisfactory answer. The fact is that, having planned to focus defence training in Birmingham at a new site at Selly Oak hospital, there appears not to be a plan B to provide proper education and accommodation facilities for the personnel who will serve there.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

The hon. Gentleman has made that accusation twice this afternoon. I assure him and the House that plans do not exist to close the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine, as he alleges. We are committed to delivering a military medical centre of excellence at the RCDM in Birmingham, which is our aim and expectation.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

The accommodation centre, mess facilities, sporting facilities and offices that would have comprised the centre of the RCDM have been cancelled. Staff in Birmingham have been left in inadequate bed-and-breakfast accommodation, and that point is confirmed in a parliamentary answer from the Under-Secretary. Some staff live in accommodation that was originally intended for people without housing, and a large number of them stay in a Young Women's Christian Association hostel. I challenge the Minister to deny that there are no plans to change the situation.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I do not know the parliamentary answer to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I refer him to a parliamentary answer that I gave to Mr. Simpson:

"We are currently exploring, in consultation with industry, a number of options for the development of domestic accommodation and the move of all remaining medical training and other functions to Birmingham. Planned costs and potential savings remain subject to evaluation of, and final decisions on, the various options."—[Hansard, 22 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 660W.]

The project has clearly not been cancelled, and it would be helpful for our people who work in Defence Medical Services if the hon. Gentleman were to cease making that allegation.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport

The project has been cancelled. When the rear-admiral responsible for it resigned, the vice-chief of the defence staff said, "I can understand why you have resigned from the Navy." The allegation is serious, and it has not been answered.

The digital clock is playing amazing games, and I need to rely on the old-fashioned steam clock, which states that I have two minutes rather than the five minutes 36 seconds stated by the new digital clock. I shall shape my remarks accordingly.

In some cases, accommodation for armed forces is below standard, and I was pleased to hear the Minister of State say that that problem is being addressed. I readily admit that the problem is long standing, but some unmarried personnel are accommodated in inadequate premises.

The constraint on time is heavy, so I shall simply say this in conclusion: the armed forces offer a range of careers with the training and experience to enable servicemen and women to fulfil their roles. As those skills are also transferable, they equip servicemen and women to face civilian life with confidence.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow PPS (Dr Kim Howells, Minister of State), Department for Transport 5:02 pm, 13th May 2004

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this afternoon's debate. I represent South Ribble in Lancashire and I live only a few hundred yards away from the headquarters of both the Queen's Lancashire Regiment at Fulwood barracks and Kimberley barracks, where the Territorial Army regiment is based.

I have a lot of contact and dealings with the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. From speaking to people in the regiment, and to the extended family of people who have served in the past and those whose family members serve in the regiment, I know how upset and annoyed they have been by the recent comments and photographs in the Daily Mirror.

The Queen's Lancashire Regiment has a long and distinguished reputation, which goes back to 1782. In 1970, three regiments—the East Lancashire Regiment, the South Lancashire Regiment and the Loyal Regiment—merged to form the Queen's Lancashire Regiment. Throughout its history, soldiers from the Queen's Lancashire Regiment have been awarded a total of 18 Victoria crosses.

I was in Basra in early June, a few weeks before the change of regiments, when the 1st Battalion the Queen's Lancashire Regiment went out to Basra—it arrived in the middle of June and stayed until the middle of November. About 600 servicemen and women were with the regiment, including 100 members of the Territorial Army. When I met members of the regiment on their return, they were proud of their hard work, the schools and police stations that had been reopened, the number of police officers who had been trained and the improved public services. There is very little hint of anything going wrong during that period.

I am experienced and grown-up enough to realise that, if 600 servicemen and women are put in a dangerous situation thousands of miles from home, not every one of them will behave perfectly and that there will be incidents that require investigation. However, what has upset the people of Lancashire so much is the use on the front page of the Daily Mirror of the fake photographs that have cast doubt on the integrity and honour of everyone who has served in that regiment. As politicians and people in public life, we realise that our media are players in that arena and will manipulate and cherry-pick the news to make a political point and we take it for granted because it is part of the rough and tumble of politics. But ordinary families who have been upset by newspapers cannot understand how they can fabricate stories that hurt and damage their integrity. It is an absolute disgrace that the Daily Mirror has been prepared to besmirch the name of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment to further its own political line and damage the Prime Minister.

People in Lancashire would like the Daily Mirror to answer several questions. What did the Daily Mirror say when allegations were first made to it about incidents in Iraq? Did it say to those servicemen, or so-called servicemen, "You ought to report these things to officers in the MOD or your regiment so they can be investigated"? When they first made their allegations, did they appear at the door of the Daily Mirror with photographs in hand, or did they, as is rumoured, appear without photographs, then return some days later having mysteriously discovered photographs to support their story? Did the Daily Mirror pay for those photographs? Has the Daily Mirror profited from the sale of those photographs to media outlets across the world? Has the Daily Mirror any idea of the danger in which it has put our troops around the world by the publication of those fabricated pictures?

I spoke to members of the QLR this morning. I could demand the resignation of the editor of the Daily Mirror, but the very minimum that people involved with the regiment want is for the Daily Mirror to apologise, on the whole of its front page, for fabricating a story that has so wilfully damaged and besmirched the name of the Queen's Lancashire Regiment.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State (The Regions) 5:07 pm, 13th May 2004

I am sure that all hon. Members will have great sympathy with the questions that Mr. Borrow wants to put to the Daily Mirror and I hope that the people concerned will read his words in Hansard and act upon them.

Every hon. Member who has spoken today has spoken highly of the armed forces. I regularly meet the men and women of 16 Air Assault Brigade, who are based in Colchester, around which my constituency sits, and whose circumstances, tasks and challenges are inseparable from the situation in Iraq and the general international situation that we face. It is inexcusable that our armed forces should find themselves in a situation whereby they are exposed in conflict apparently without any coherent plan, as in Iraq today. What is the plan? Is there a plan? Nobody can say.

The history of Conservative Members' support for the removal of Saddam Hussein is clearly on the record, but also on the record is our consistent, persistent and continuing questioning of Her Majesty's Government, both before and after the conflict, about the coherence and viability of post-conflict planning. After the conflict, on 4 July, I presented a paper to the shadow Cabinet in which I wrote:

"Post-conflict Iraq is clearly not progressing as well as expected, leaving the UK's overstretched armed forces in an increasingly invidious position."

I pointed out that we needed, "A coherent policy", which,

"would be to adopt a 'road map' based upon the successful implementation of peace and security", in such theatres as the Balkans. I continued:

"Our main charge against the government is", the Prime Minister's,

"failure to engage with US post-conflict planning before and since the conflict, leaving the UK armed forces in an increasingly invidious position."

I added:

"Currently, all the elements for protracted insurgency warfare exist, though there is every opportunity to prevent the situation deteriorating, if clear direction is provided to the", coalition provisional authority,

"now. Otherwise, it is just a matter of time before an anti-occupation organisation emerges, gains support from a discontented population and starts organising 'resistance' much more effectively."

Sadly, those words, which I wrote on 4 July, have turned out to be all too true. The key question that the Government must now address is this: do they now accept that the coalition is fighting a major counter-insurgency war in Iraq—it is not peacekeeping—which is part of a global counter-insurgency war?

The principles of counter-insurgency warfare are not new. They have been established, discovered and practised by the British armed forces throughout the world for many years. They are to secure one's home base, which is why we have talked so much about homeland security, and to deny the enemy a secure base, which is why we threw out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. They are also to plan and generate military activity based on the best human intelligence about the enemy that one can gather and to remove the underlying political grievances through reconstruction and the settlement of disputes. Another principle is to co-ordinate all one's actions to a coherent strategic plan with all one's partners, which underlines the importance of transatlantic co-operation for the future of Iraq, that we cannot let the Americans do it on their own and nor should our European partners seek to leave them to do it on their own. That also underlines the importance of NATO, and raises the question of why NATO is not taking a strategic role in co-ordinating a single, strategic plan. We must also remember that counter-insurgency warfare is a battle for hearts and minds and that the conflict is about the will to win, and the will to succeed, not about the use of physical force. That means that we must remember that actions and words, including the technical, have immeasurable political and strategic consequences. We need to avoid doing things that create propaganda opportunities for the enemy to feed grievances and enmity. That means that a counter-insurgency campaign must stay within the law and only use proportionate force as a last resort.

In Iraq, I fear that we are acting on very limited and poor intelligence. The actions that we have seen publicised on screens around the world recently are fuelling grievances. The disputes and splits in the coalition are disabling any coherence of a plan. There is a clash of military doctrines, a failure to win hearts and minds and too much resort to force—not on the part of our armed forces but certainly on that of others. There is a failure to understand the strategic impact of words and actions. That point relates directly to prisoners and their treatment.

Any mistreatment of prisoners in the hands of the coalition is a matter for the whole coalition. That is why it is inexplicable that the International Committee of the Red Cross report was not a matter of instant concern to Ministers as soon as it became available to the coalition. The pictures endanger the entire strategy. They are petrol on the flames of Islamic opinion. They are a propaganda gift to the terrorists. Al-Qaeda could not have planned it more effectively.

In Iraq and in the middle east, we now face the prospect of real strategic failure. For all the success, skill and commitment of our armed forces and other members of the coalition—and the Americans—for all their forbearance in the face of real danger and for all the progress made in political and physical reconstruction in Iraq, we are in danger of throwing it all away through the coalition's failure to understand the fundamental principles required of a counter-insurgency campaign.

This is the question that the Government must face: what is the coalition plan to defeat terrorism and insurgency in Iraq? Are the Government effectively engaged with US policy making? I fear that not only have they made a mess of UK post-war planning for Iraq, but there is a persistent and ongoing failure to engage with the US Administration on the strategic direction of the coalition, in areas in which we have so much more experience and so much more to offer than the Americans currently seem to appreciate.

In a Daily Telegraph interview earlier this week Sir Jeremy Greenstock, formerly the Prime Minister's ambassador to Iraq, mentioned that we have 5 per cent. of the say in what happens in the coalition—although we provided 20 per cent. of combat power on the ground during the conflict. For all the Prime Minister's personal popularity in Washington, it is horribly clear that either his influence there is negligible or that he has failed and continues to fail to understand the true nature of the challenge of what is required to win the peace and good government for the people of Iraq, what is required for our own peace and security in the years ahead and what is required for the safety of those who serve so gallantly in the towns and villages and the streets and fields, of Iraq.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford 5:16 pm, 13th May 2004

I worked closely with the British Army for 12 years, and know it to be the best-trained, most skilled and most disciplined military force in the world. That character and capability have been displayed in Northern Ireland, Sierra Leone and Kosovo, and twice in Iraq. It is a humane, confident and professionally effective force of which, with good reason, Britain can be proud.

That reputation should be in no way diminished by the media's treatment of reports from Amnesty International and the International Committee of the Red Cross, as though they were an indictment of military personnel serving in Iraq. Those reports have been cynically used to imply some association of the British armed services with the very serious evidence of abuse and humiliation of detainees in Abu Ghraib prison. Let us say on every possible occasion, loud and clear, that there is absolutely no evidence of any systematic or widespread mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by British forces.

The 33 known cases of Iraqi civilian deaths, injuries or ill-treatment have been investigated by the Royal Military Police—because the Army itself identified them as needing investigation, not because they were responding to either the Amnesty or the Red Cross report. Of those investigations, 12 are continuing and 21 have been completed, with 15 findings of "no case to answer". In the other six cases, the findings are still being considered.

The Amnesty report published this week involves 37 cases of Iraqis killed in accidents witnessed by or involving UK forces. The Ministry of Defence is now trawling through its records to identify what was involved in those incidents. Such investigations, using established military procedure, do not reflect an organisation indifferent to the welfare of the civilian population or tolerant of soldiers who are careless in the use of their weapons.

I have yet to see a newspaper article attempt to set any such case against the backcloth of events that soldiers are experiencing. Colleagues have been killed; they may themselves being fired on at the next street corner. A mob may be jeering, and it may be difficult to see what is going on. There are undoubtedly hostile forces at large attempting to create disorder, destruction and despair. In that climate of uncertainty and fear, people will make mistakes. They may do things in the heat of the moment that in calmer times they regret. That is the nature of military operations. Incidents like these must be judged against that background, not against abstract standards of model behaviour. Those are the considerations that the Royal Military Police are best able to bring to the investigation.

Both the Red Cross and Amnesty, in the role reflected in their reports, contribute to sustaining the high reputation of our armed forces. They are independent and strive to be objective in what they report. That is more than can be said for much of the media reporting and comment on them. Too much of that has been an attempt to establish the guilt of British forces by association with what went on in Abu Ghraib prison. The most culpable example of that, which we have already spoken of this afternoon, was in the Daily Mirror, which promoted its indictment with those fake photographs and interviews with anonymous soldiers, which were no more than the regurgitation of stories that had already been investigated, or were recycled from newspaper stories earlier in the year. What valiant and fearless journalism.

Do those responsible for that ever stop to wonder how the parents at home feel when their sons and daughters are risking their lives but are, by implication, defamed as brutalised and undisciplined? Those are the same men and women who have brought drinking water and electricity supplies to new standards in Iraq, who have helped to establish schools and hospitals and to train civilian police, and who have brought in elected local councillors. Not only has press reporting been an unfair indictment of men and women who do great credit to Britain; the climate of crisis that it has created encourages and emboldens the extremists to greater violence and hostility.

Generating a climate of crisis also serves many of those who opposed intervention in Iraq from the beginning, or who otherwise see some political advantage to be gained from the present situation. It is that which leads to the phoney "shock horror" at the fact that the Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Defence became aware of the Red Cross report only recently. The flood of issues of all kinds relating to Iraq and many other topics does not require the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State to deal with everything personally. They must ensure that there are clear lines of accountability and responsibility for action to be taken, and those arrangements exist. The Red Cross report cases had been investigated, and the Amnesty cases either had been investigated or were about to be. Those who allege that the reports should have been immediately sent to the top should tell us what they would have expected the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State to do that was not already being done.

There is no more motive behind that line of argument than an attempt to create a public impression that the Government are not in control.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Shadow Secretary of State (The Regions)

The question that I would have expected the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary immediately to ask the American Administration is, "How on earth are we going to handle this when it comes out?" That is the damage that has been done, and it is the fact that the American Administration seem to be coming from so far behind on this issue, as do we, that has sullied the reputation of the entire coalition administration and poisoned the Arab world against us even more.

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

So the actionable matter was an indictment of the United States—a power for which we have no responsibility whatever.

The whole episode, as that intervention suggests to a degree, is being exploited to gain political advantage. Let us just look at the troubled waters in which the cynical opportunists are fishing. We are within two months of sovereignty being passed to an Iraqi Government who, six months later, will hold elections for the whole of Iraq. The extremists do not want either of those things to happen. Iraqi sovereignty removes a grievance that they can exploit on the streets, and democracy forecloses any attempt to install an Islamic state. There are numerous sects and cults, including al-Qaeda, with an incentive to try to prevent that progress by creating disorder and fear. These are bound to be difficult days for our troops in Iraq and anxious times for all who want to see a decent, democratic state emerge after Saddam Hussein's 30 years of tyranny.

Those who are dealing with that situation deserve our support, not the distraction of the fabricated indignation and opportunist hoo-hah that we have witnessed from the press and from Opposition parties in this House, including frequently this afternoon.

It is not just that our troops deserve better than that; so do the people of Iraq. They want a settled future in a democratic state, with an economy generating jobs and opportunities. To those such as the Liberal party, who have gone on pretending that there is no exit strategy for our troops, I would reply that that aspiration alone defines the exit strategy. It is to create the conditions whereby that kind of society can grow in Iraq.

Both the British and the American forces have made huge strides to establish those foundations, through the civil works programmes, the establishment of local democracy, and the training of police and local officials. The vast majority of people in Britain have barely heard any of that positive news. They have been given a diet of death, disaster and scandal, with scarcely a word about the progress on reconstruction.

Now, that negative picture is being elaborated to create an impression that all is chaos, that things are moving backwards, that all efforts were foolish and in vain and that the best thing we could do would be to withdraw British and American forces. Even sensible reports from the Red Cross and Amnesty are being prayed in aid of that false "I told you so" assessment.

This is not a time when our troops in Iraq should be distracted by a partisan propaganda war at home. They need all their skills and personal qualities to deal with the difficult period ahead, up to and after the end of June. The Iraqi people want them to succeed for the sake of their future too. We want them to succeed. No one can gain if Britain or America appears to lose its nerve at home at this crucial time.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Economy and Taxation; Education & Skills; Miner's Compensation; Regeneration; Trade & Industry) 5:26 pm, 13th May 2004

I shall concentrate on what the Secretary of State, in his characteristically opaque manner, has referred to as some of the "process issues" associated with the subject that we are discussing. The process has been deficient; certainly it has been an arduous task trying to extract information on this subject from the Government through parliamentary questions. If the Government had acted with greater candour and a greater sense of urgency, the collateral damage that we are suffering now because of the allegations against America would have been minimised with regard to the British forces. It is a great shame that they did not.

I have at present 10 parliamentary questions to which I have not had a reply, some of which date back to February. Indeed, to one question I had a holding reply on 28 November, and received the letter that was promised at the end of March, after constantly bombarding the Minister of State's office with telephone inquiries asking where it was. That is no way for us as parliamentarians to have to try to hold the Government to account on any issue, let alone one as important as this.

Even more worrying is the fact that some of the replies that we have received have not been complete, and some of them have not proved to be correct. I asked whether the Government were aware of any complaints made by the Iraqi interim governing council about alleged human rights violations by coalition forces, and the answer was that they were not. Yet the Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Abdel Basset Turki, made a public statement in November saying that he was very concerned about that very subject, and he had several meetings with Paul Bremer.

The reply to another of my questions was more worrying still. I asked about the number of fatalities that were under investigation, and on 19 January I was given a list of names. Yet we read in the Amnesty International report about the death of Ghanem Kadhem Kati, who was shot in the back outside his home on 1 January. Why was that name not included in the parliamentary reply? The Government say now that the investigation was ongoing at that time, and there was an interview with the Royal Military Police.

I asked a further question following a press report about the alleged shooting of a demonstrator by British forces in Basra on 4 October.

The Minister said:

"On 4 October, on the periphery of a demonstration, British soldiers killed an Iraqi gunman in self-defence. His automatic weapon and ammunition were recovered."—[Hansard, 6 January 2004; Vol. 416, c. 235W.]

We read in the Amnesty International report of the death of Hilal Finjan Salman on 4 October. [Interruption.] The Minister of State is smiling while I am recounting the death of an innocent man who was actually protecting a girls' school. He had been employed for 35 years as a guard for al-Maqal girls junior high school, and was licensed to carry a weapon to protect the school. He was required to wear a luminous orange jacket, but neither the British Army nor the Iraqi authorities had issued him with such a jacket. He was the "gunman" whom the Minister of State told me was shot, thereby dismissing the death of that innocent man. Hilal Finjan Salman's son has applied for compensation, but according to the Amnesty International report he has heard nothing from the British authorities.

There has been a lot of talk about apologies. Will the Minister of State apologise to the family of that man, who was wrongfully killed while doing his job protecting a girls' school in Basra? The Minister of State has dismissed what happened in an incorrect parliamentary answer to me.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes Labour, North East Derbyshire

Is it not important to establish the standing of Amnesty International? The Labour party made considerable use of such reports in connection with developments in South Africa, for instance, and sought to proceed along the lines of those reports. I was very disappointed, in that the Minister of State seemed to place little significance on the Amnesty International reports; indeed, he almost seemed to put them on a par with those in the Daily Mirror. All of us would criticise that newspaper's approach.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Spokesperson (Economy and Taxation; Education & Skills; Miner's Compensation; Regeneration; Trade & Industry)

The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, and I shall give him an example of what happened under a previous Labour Government. Following an Amnesty International report by Dr. Rastgeldi on alleged torture at the Fort Morbat interrogation centre in Aden in the summer of 1966, the then Labour Government set up their own independent inquiry into those allegations, which led to the Bowen report. When allegations were made about alleged mistreatment in internment when the subsequent Conservative Government were in office, they commissioned two independent reports: the Compton report of November 1971, and the 1972 Parker report. So the Government are departing from established precedent. When widespread allegations are made of mistreatment and human rights violations by British forces, the Government should institute a general independent inquiry in order to establish the facts.

Police investigations into individual incidents are taking place, in order to get at the facts and to assess the innocence or guilt of those accused. But we also need a general inquiry, so that policy lessons can be learned in respect of the very process issues to which reference has been made. For example, we were told that the practice of hooding was outlawed by legal directives on military interrogation, given in August 1972 and in the following year. Yet that practice was ongoing between April and September of last year. Why was the illegal practice of hooding, which may have contributed to the death of Baha Mousa, allowed to continue? [Interruption.] The Minister of State says that it was not allowed to continue, but British Red Cross officials said that they had a meeting a year ago with British Army commanding officers in Basra, at which those officers admitted that hooding had been going on. They promised a review, but why did that review of an illegal practice take until September to be implemented? If the Government are not prepared to answer those questions, we need an independent inquiry to get at the truth. The Minister knows that the UN Committee against Torture and the European Court of Human Rights have declared hooding to be a degrading and inhuman treatment. That is in addition to the practice being illegal in British law. The Minister must explain why that practice was allowed to continue for six months.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 5:35 pm, 13th May 2004

First, I associate myself with all hon. Members who have paid tribute to the armed forces this afternoon. For the last three years, I have been privileged to be a member of the Defence Committee, which brought me into regular contact with the men and women in our armed forces. Last year, I also took part in the armed forces parliamentary scheme with the Royal Marines. I never cease to be amazed by the professionalism and dedication of some very young people whom we ask to perform a range of tasks to protect our society and make it a safer place.

I also associate myself with those who have condemned acts of torture and the degrading treatment of prisoners in Iraq. However, I believe that we should distinguish clearly between what the Americans have done and the treatment of prisoners in British-controlled hands. Many people and media make the mistake of not making that distinction. I would be the first to criticise the Government if action had not been taken against the perpetrators or if the accusations had not been properly investigated, but I am reassured by what I have heard.

We could debate the issue of condemning the Daily Mirror. If what the Minister said today is true and the pictures are false, I do not see how anyone could support what the newspaper did. Irrespective of that, however, the damage done to the coalition brand—a term used by Mr. Simpson—in the Arab world is immeasurable. Those people on the Arab street in the middle east who wish to perpetuate radical forms of Islamic terrorism are using the pictures as a recruiting tool. That will be a long-lasting problem, which the people responsible for printing them should take into account in the future.

I had the privilege last year of visiting both Iraq and Afghanistan. I know that some of my hon. Friends disagreed with the war in Iraq and I respect their right to hold that position. I voted in favour of military action in Iraq. It was a very difficult decision to take—perhaps one of the most difficult in my life—because it meant people were going to die. It may not be popular to say it now, but I still think that it was the right decision.

During my visits to Iraq and Afghanistan last year I met some dedicated men and women who were working hard to bring about a better future for those countries. I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Beard that much of the good work that they do—in infrastructural work, rebuilding hospitals and so forth—is being wholly unreported. I met some people in Kabul who were doing that work in their own time, because they were dedicated to bringing about a better life for the people who live there. We should recognise the work of such people, which would help to bring about more balance in the debate.

I hope that over the next few weeks the media will report some of the good news stories about those people who are working, I have to say, sometimes in very difficult and dangerous circumstances. That applies to military personnel, people in the Department for International Development and in the Foreign Office. If we do only one thing today, we should say a big thank you to those people whom we politicians ask to do things on our behalf. Sometimes we cynically sit back and think that it is easy for them.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford 5:39 pm, 13th May 2004

They also serve who provide the logistics support to our front-line forces. Members of the logistics services also risk their lives: for instance, members of the logistics wing at Stafford have provided the lorry convoys from the port of Umm Qasr to Basra.

I have also seen the huge logistics effort going on in this country. Staff at MOD Donnington and RAF Stafford, which make up the north centre of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, have made a fantastic effort to keep the supply chain going, both during the ramp-up to the beginning of Operation Telic and in the year since.

The units at Donnington and Stafford have been required to work together and are a model of tri-service working. They perform 2.5 million transactions a year, and keep safe assets worth as much as £6 billion at any one time. It is a tremendous operation, achieving 40 per cent. efficiency savings as it goes on and employing about 1,000 people overall.

There is talk in the logistics service about the possible privatisation of our supply chain, but the people to whom I am referring deserve credit for the work that they do. They also deserve security in their work. I point out that when contracts break down in the commercial world, there is a right to sue in the courts. In contrast, when a contract breaks down in the industry that provides our military forces, it is people's lives that are at risk.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:41 pm, 13th May 2004

After an unpromising start by the Minister of State, the debate has been of high quality. Rachel Squire gave us a lot to think about in connection with manpower overstretch, and she emphasised the need to recognise the central importance of logistics to any military operation.

My hon. Friend Mr. Viggers stressed the quality of our junior commanders in the British armed forces. Mr. Borrow placed on record some remarks about the Queen's Lancashire Regiment, and its disgusting treatment by the Daily Mirror. I think that the whole House will have agreed with him. Finally, my hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin gave us some very wise thoughts on the failures in post-conflict planning. I agreed in particular with the sober warning with which Mr. Jones ended his speech.

Let me be clear, so that there is no misunderstanding—we in the official Opposition unreservedly support our troops in Iraq in the difficult and dangerous job that they are doing. Whatever doubts there may have been at the time of the invasion, all responsible commentators accept that we owe it to the Iraqis and to those who have given their lives in the conflict to see the matter through. However, supporting our valiant troops in this time of crisis does not imply any suspension of the task of holding the Government to account.

My father was a professional soldier and always maintained that, before undertaking any military operation, Britain's armed forces could do little wrong if their first strike was against the British Ministry of Defence. In my naivety, I used to think that he was joking. As Harold Macmillan observed, events are a politician's greatest enemy. In this case, however, events have largely resulted from actions taken by our Government and the Government of our principal ally, America.

The official Opposition supported the Iraq invasion in the belief that the Government had a clear plan for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. It is now clear that there was not very much of plan. We were assured that cheering crowds would throw flowers, and—yes!—there were cheering crowds, as we all saw on television. However, there was no follow-up in terms of development. As it has become clear that security had not been planned properly, the cheering crowds have steadily been replaced by baying hordes throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at our soldiers.

It is evident that the job is going to be much harder and take much longer than was envisaged. Are the forces in Iraq large enough? The 1945–48 campaign in Palestine took place in a country quite a lot smaller than Scotland, with a population of less than 1 million. Our forces there peaked at 120,000, yet today the coalition has about 160,000 troops to deal with 25 million people in a country twice the area of Great Britain.

Obviously there are differences, but one cannot help wondering whether, once again, our armed forces are being asked to do more and more, with less and less. A stable, democratic Iraq in the heart of that troubled region would be a wonderful legacy to the Iraqi people and the whole region, but the increasingly long-term commitment involved is making the problems of overstretch in our armed forces worse and worse.

The Government's published establishment manpower requirement across the three services has been cut by 3,000 since April 2000, yet on 1 January this year we were still 4,000 short of even that reduced target. At least a quarter of our infantry battalions have not been allowed the required time between tours of duty because of manpower shortages. The armed forces review board report of 2003 found that last year more than half of the personnel had to change leave arrangements for service reasons, often losing the holiday packages we take for granted, without receiving compensation. According to the figures, average working hours across the three services has reached the point at which pay for private soldiers, calculated on the number of hours they are on duty in a typical week, is approaching the minimum wage introduced by the Government.

Let us think of service personnel families, too. Between 1997 and 2001, the divorce rate in the armed forces, which already is much higher than that in the civilian community, increased by nearly half. Imagine how dispiriting it must be to win the war merely to lose it on the home front. Dr. Strang made some salient remarks on that subject.

Canterbury is proud of the locally based Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and, from the regular troops, the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, which are in Iraq. We are also proud of the Territorial Army platoon from the 3rd Battalion—the TA battalion—of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, which is based in my constituency and will be going to Iraq shortly. The truth is, however, that our reserve forces are just as overstretched as our regular forces. The TA has been cut by a third since 1997, with a disproportionate amount of the cuts falling on the infantry and the sappers, the very people we most need in Iraq. The Government have subsequently given the TA infantry the task of heading up the rapid reaction forces for our homeland defence.

A survey of TA personnel sent to the Gulf found that four fifths did not expect their employer to support any further deployments in peacetime. Some 63 per cent. of medical and technical staff in the TA said that they were thinking of resigning when they got back. In Westminster Hall I put a series of detailed questions, put to me by TA officers, to the Under-Secretary, who is normally a courteous man, and he promised that he would let me have a written answer. They were on the weaknesses in the new TA infantry battalion structure, the fact that the intelligence officers have no staff, and problems with the training regime. I would be grateful if he told me when he is likely to answer those questions.

In front of the Defence Committee on Wednesday 24 March, General Sir Mike Jackson said:

"This time last year the army was very heavily committed indeed, 50 per cent. plus. That is not sustainable . . . We can take that surge. What we cannot do is sustain it over any length of time."

That surely is the point. Our forces are being deployed on more and more operations and, in the case of Iraq, it is increasingly clear that we do not know how long they will be there. My hon. Friend Mr. Simpson, in his powerful speech, made it clear that if any organisation is stretched hard enough, standards will in the end start to decline, even those in our armed forces.

Furthermore, the allegations against our troops, and, much more potently, the revolting pictures of certain US soldiers committing those vile acts of human rights abuses, have further endangered the lives of our soldiers. The Minister did not answer most of my hon. Friend's questions. I have just two on that subject for the Under-Secretary. When were the British military authorities first informed of the accusations against American service personnel, and when did they first tell Ministers?

Photo of Mr Nigel Beard Mr Nigel Beard Labour, Bexleyheath and Crayford

What responsibility did they have for the Americans?

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. We cannot have sedentary interventions or responses to them.

Photo of Julian Brazier Julian Brazier Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The truth is that our troops are imperilled by our allies' actions, as several hon. Members said.

I end with two more questions. The Minister gave a robust answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport. Is it really true that the plans for the centre for military medical excellence based in Selly Oak will go ahead despite the huge shortfalls in medical services; that there is no change of plan and the resignation made no difference?

My second question is about the largest procurement project in the history of the British Army—the Apache. The Conservative Government ordered it and every machine was delivered, but when will the first squadron be trained and up and running as an operational squadron?

The Secretary of State has placed great emphasis on the fact that technology will make up for cuts in manpower. The Minister made the same point today. However, since the dawn of time kings and Governments have tended to put more faith in technology than in those who wield it. The lessons are never learned. The Government offer our troops cuts in defence spending. Under a measure that has just left this place, they are making a mean attack on war disabilities claimants, and they are obfuscating over the issue of the Americans and prisoner abuse.

The Government owe the brave, honourable, professional members of our armed forces better than that.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence 5:51 pm, 13th May 2004

We have had a good and interesting debate on personnel and I can assure the House that we take very seriously all the issues that have been raised.

I thank those who contributed to the debate. It is always good to see Mr. Breed in our debates on defence. There were contributions from the hon. Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price). Numbers were lacking on the Conservative Back Benches, so I am especially pleased that my hon. Friend Rachel Squire, my right hon. Friend Dr. Strang and my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard), for North Durham (Mr. Jones) and for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) were able to make excellent contributions.

The best contribution today came from my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. In more than 50 minutes, he took more than 15 interventions and answered questions from Members on both sides of the House on all the issues of the day. It was a thoroughly open and transparent contribution, which was certainly welcomed by my hon. Friends and will be welcomed outside the House.

In this brief winding-up speech, I want to bring the House up to date on two important major legislative matters for our armed forces. The first is the tri-service Bill on which we have been working for some time and which we plan to introduce in 2005–06, subject to the availability of parliamentary time. It is especially pertinent to the personnel and discipline issues that we have been discussing today. It is a big undertaking, involving detailed discussions with and between the three services, and we are determined to get it right, as I said in a recent continuation order debate.

Nevertheless, I stress that we are taking an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, approach to reform of service law. The five-yearly armed forces Bills—I believe that the hon. Member for Gosport has served on their Standing Committees in the past—are normally remitted to a Select Committee after Second Reading, but I am keen to share our proposals with the House and to have a constructive debate on the key principles underlying them, as well as on the main proposals, in advance of the Bill's publication.

I have been considering how that might best be done, and can announce that I plan to submit a written memorandum to the Defence Select Committee outlining the progress we have made to date. Shortly, I will write to my right hon. Friend Mr. George, the Chairman of the Committee, laying out a timetable for the provision of that evidence. That approach will enable the Committee to consider the Bill's main proposals, take evidence as required and report to the House early next year.

I look forward to the Committee's scrutiny of the work that has been undertaken so far and I am sure that it will benefit from such an open and transparent process. Clearly, such a report from the Select Committee would be available for all Members to see and comment on in due course.

Photo of Mr Ivor Caplin Mr Ivor Caplin Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Defence

I am afraid that time is against me, but if I can give way later I shall do so.

The second sphere of legislation is one that concerns many Members—Mr. Brazier has just referred to it: our announcement in the White Paper about the review of reservists' financial assistance. Work is being undertaken as a priority to produce new regulations governing the award of both the reservist standard and hardship awards. At the same time, we also intend to revise the regulations for employer financial assistance and consider the matter that many hon. Members have raised today and during our debate on pensions and compensation last Thursday: the self-employed.

The Reserve Forces Act 1996 requires consultation with interested parties. To that end, I plan to publish a consultation document before the commencement of the summer recess to seek the views of interested parties. I hope that the House will accept that it is not appropriate for me to state what our proposals might be in advance of that consultation. I can assure Members, however, that the concerns that have been raised—for instance, by the Defence Committee, reservists and employers—are being given great weight in devising the new scheme. Our aim is to introduce the replacement regulations in the autumn of this year.

During the opening speech, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State raised the issue of training and education, and I want to emphasise that issue in the few moments that are left to me today. Training and education are very important to the performance of our people, as was highlighted in the defence White Paper and further expanded upon in the recently published policy paper, "Training and Education in the Armed Forces." May I say how grateful I am to the many Members of both Houses who attended the seminar at the document's launch on 4 May?

The fact that the Ministry of Defence is one of the largest single providers of training and education in the UK is significant. The policy paper highlights the variety and complexity of the task, the skills agenda against which the Department operates, the realities of the operational environment and the demands that they place on the training system. Most importantly, the paper shows that the MOD is at the forefront of developing skills for the 21st century, while never forgetting the fundamental requirements for servicemen and women to deliver operational capability.

There has been some debate about Defence Medical Services this afternoon. I intervened on the hon. Member for Gosport to put an end, I hope, to the allegations he has been making. We are actively recruiting in the Defence Medical Services. About 500 more medical and dental officers are currently in the training pipeline. They range from specialist registrars—about 40 consultants will qualify in the next four years—to cadets who have just begun their training, two of whom I met when I visited St. Dunstan's recently, where they were on secondment. More than 400 nurses will also complete their training in the same period. Of those currently in training, 267 are at the Defence School of Health Care Studies in Birmingham, where we are progressively moving all our nurse training, and a further 129 are completing their training at the university of Portsmouth.

I am sorry that I cannot allow my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West to intervene, but I welcome the Defence Committee's continued work on very many issues, including the duty of care inquiry that it has just commenced. I look forward to more discussions with her and her colleagues about medical services.

With regard to the balance of our armed forces' tours of duty, on 5 April 2004, 21 per cent. of the British Army was deployed on operations, compared with 54 per cent. in late April 2003. I hope that that will start to make a difference.

I do not have time to go into all the issues that were raised during the debate. In particular, I wanted to have time to discuss in more detail defence housing strategy—an important element raised in both the debate and the White Paper—but I fear that I do not have the time to do so today. I want to raise an issue with Mr. Simpson about his meeting with the Army Families Federation. I wonder whether he apologised during that meeting for the Conservative defence policies in the 1990s—for example, cuts in defence housing, cuts in recruitment and cuts in medical services. My hon. Friends will know the type of cuts that the armed forces can expect if a Conservative Government were ever returned to power, which is very unlikely.

In conclusion, we owe a considerable debt to our people. Their courage, determination and abilities are making the difference across the world. We are working hard to provide them and their families with the right package of policies and the right support to sustain their efforts. Given their efforts on our behalf, they deserve our very best endeavours at all times. This is a time for the House to show that it always values the work done by our troops. Whether they are regulars, reservists or civilians, all that they seek is our support for their efforts, and I can assure them all that they will have this Government's full support for many years to come.

It being Six o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.