HC Deb 04 December 1990 vol 182 cc166-9
10. Mr. Hind

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the deployment of British troops in the Gulf states.

11. Mr. James Lamond

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his latest estimate of casualties in the event of war in the Gulf; and what medical treatment arrangements have been made.

15. Mr. Nellist

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many British service personnel are now in the Gulf; and if he will make a statement.

16. Mr. Squire

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will give the total number of troops deployed by the United Kingdom in the middle east to date.

Mr. Tom King

The Government hope that economic pressure and the diplomatic moves now under way will secure Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait. However, by the adoption of Security Council resolution 678, the international community has shown that it is also prepared to use all necessary means, including military force. To help ensure that Saddam Hussein will face a credible military option, more than 30,000 United Kingdom forces, including medical and other support services, are now being committed to the Gulf. Around 17,000 of those are already there. If Saddam Hussein continues to defy the United Nations resolutions and force has to be used, the stronger the allied force, the better the chances of keeping casualties low.

Mr. Hind

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, if the worst comes to the worst and war breaks out over Kuwait, the Tornados built at Salmesbury in Preston, Lancashire, will probably save thousands of lives of troops on the ground by destroying enemy aircraft. Will he therefore examine the need for spares and for further aircraft, with a possible view to saving many of the thousands of jobs in Preston and at the factory that British Aerospace plans to close?

Mr. King

I can certainly confirm that the Tornado, with its strike attack capability and night-flying capability, and the Tornado F3 air defence variant, are key elements in our capability. I can say nothing more about further orders at this stage, but I certainly pay tribute to the quality of the aircraft.

Mr. James Lamond

Given the tremendous response by the people of this country to the telethon in aid of the Save the Children Fund and the Government's claim to be acting in the name of these same people in seriously contemplating launching an attack which must result in the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent children in the Gulf, does the Minister detect an irony in that?

Mr. King

The Government do not want to see conflict, and we do not want to launch any attack. We want to see freedom and justice for the people of Kuwait. The Government and the whole world, with the exception of Iraq, have made that clear and so has the leader of the hon. Gentleman's party and his Front-Bench spokesmen. There has been overwhelming support in the House for the need to back the strong stance of the United Nations. No sane person seeks conflict, but if one is not prepared to use the threat of the military option, the alternative is the continuing enslavement of Kuwait, the continuing subjugation of its people and the continuing imprisonment of the hostages.

Mr. Nellist

Does the Secretary of State for Defence recognise that I have repeatedly tried to get comments from the former Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and himself on the estimates that have been made the likely level of casualties if war were to break out? What has the right hon. Gentleman to say to Brigadier Patrick Cordingley, commander of the Desert Rats, who believes that if a war breaks out there will be a bloodbath on both sides, and that the British Government should tell the British people officially that the British casualty rate will be about 15 per cent. or, on the figures that given today, that 4,500 troops will die? Does the Secretary of State not realise that an increasing number of people in this country do not believe that that sacrifice is warranted and that, frankly, blood and oil do not mix?

Mr. King

The first thing that the hon. Gentleman had better learn is that when people quote casualty figures they include minor and serious casualties and not just fatalities. It is quite wrong for the hon. Gentleman to offer that to the House because it is a total error. I will not bandy figures with the hon. Gentleman. I have answered his question. At the end of my answer I gave the precise reason for Britain's sending more forces and I also said why the United States, Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had increased recruitment. It is precisely to ensure that if the military option had to be used—and nobody wants to see that—the operation would be short, sharp and quick so that casualties on the allied side could be kept to a minimum. That is the reality of what we want to see.

Mr. Nellist

The right hon. Gentleman should not have sold them the arms in the first place.

Mr. King

If the hon. Gentleman cares about life and the avoidance of casualties, he should turn one eighth of that volume in the direction of Baghdad and tell Saddam Hussein to obey the United Nations. Then we would see a solution.

Mr. Squire

In direct contradiction to the last two questions, is my right hon. Friend aware that the British public are very well aware of the efforts being made by the free world to free a part of the world that is now subjugated, and if those efforts fail they fully expect our forces to play a part in freeing Kuwait in defence of basic human rights?

Mr. King

I think that the whole House, and all those who have considered these matters, will admit that the nations of the free world have stood together in a way that one would not have thought possible as recently as a month or two ago. The unanimity and agreement of the five permanent members of the Security Council have been important factors. In a very real sense, the authority of the United Nations is now at stake.

Mr. O'Neill

I thank the Secretary of State for the arrangements that he made for some of my hon. Friends and me to visit the Gulf. We are conscious of the high morale of our troops, their measured approach, their professionalism and the respect that they enjoy from their allies. Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that our troops have the spares and supplies that they require to sustain the armoured divisions and especially the tanks?

Secondly, on a more domestic note, can the right hon. Gentleman assure us that every effort is being made to improve the dreadful telephone facilities which are the main means of contact between our troops and their loved ones and that British Telecom and Mercury are being given the kick in the backside that they deserve because of their failure over the past few months to provide an adequate and cheap means of communication between our troops and their loved ones in the United Kingdom?

Mr. King

I am grateful for the hon. Member's thanks, and I am glad that the Select Committee, Opposition spokesmen and others found it a valuable visit. I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not pick up those reports of shortages while in Saudi Arabia. I have seen newspaper reports here, but in Saudi Arabia our forces feel that they are getting the support for which they are looking. We are determined to see that they do and I shall not rest until we succeed. Tomorrow, I am on my way to NATO and I shall have with me a short list of suggestions of some of the matters on which our allies can help us so as to ensure that we have the resources.

We are working hard on the telephone connections. I am grateful to British Telecom and Mercury for what they are doing. However, the House must understand that there will be problems when 20,000 people try to ring home around Christmas day. On top of that, the United States forces will also wish to make telephone calls. We shall do the best that we can.

Mr. Brazier

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, in deciding whether to exercise the military option, the Government and their allies will have to take into account not only the ghastly things that are happening in Kuwait, but the even more terrible consequences that could stem from Saddam Hussein being seen to get away with the aggression that he has committed and with developing nuclear weapons?

Mr. King

I agree with my hon. Friend. One or two of the interventions from Opposition Members could have come only from people ignorant of what has been happening in Kuwait. No decent person could turn his fire on the United States and the United Kingdom and excuse Saddam Hussein's Government and the Iraqi forces their unspeakable behaviour in Kuwait and their treatment of people there.