HC Deb 22 January 1991 vol 184 cc147-51
1. Dr. Kim Howells

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence how many merchant ships the Government have requisitioned for the purposes of transportation during the present Gulf crisis.

5. Mr. Hardy

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is the total strength of United Kingdom service men currently stationed in the middle east; and what forces have been sent by the Community member states.

6. Mrs. Currie

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about developments in the Gulf.

9. Mr. Hind

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

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

We have now deployed to the Gulf the 1st Armoured Division, Royal Air Force Tornado, Jaguar and other aircraft, four destroyers and frigates, mine counter-measures ships and Royal Fleet Auxiliary support vessels. That totals some 35,000 service personnel. Deployment of those forces has involved the chartering of more than 100 vessels but not the requisitioning of any merchant shipping.

In addition to the substantial United States forces and those of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, many European countries are involved. France has committed naval, land and air forces. Italy has committed naval and air forces. Belgium, Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain have sent navel vessels and Portugal is providing naval transport for the United Kingdom.

Since the conflict commenced, the Royal Air Force has carried out more than 400 operational sorties as part of the allied campaign to liberate Kuwait. I regret to inform the House that a further Tornado aircraft based in Saudi Arabia was reported missing this morning, and the families of the crew have been notified. Four Tornado aircraft have been lost in enemy action since the campaign began. The air campaign is continuing today. As a further illustration of the level of co-operation between the allies, I am pleased to announce that a party of New Zealand defence force medical personnel will be attached to British forces in the Gulf. That contribution is to be greatly welcomed.

Dr. Howells

I am sure that the whole House will echo my regret that the crew of a Tornado have been reported missing. I am sure that hon. Members hope that they will be safe. Why is such a tiny proportion of chartered transport shipping registered under the British flag? If those men, wherever they be from, are brave enough to sail into a war zone in the Gulf, they should be able to enjoy the conditions of work offered by registration under the British flag. It is a disgrace that they are not. If they are prepared to die for this country, they should enjoy the albeit too few benefits that go with the job.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman may know that the president of the General Council of British Shipping has made that point. British shipping is not unwilling to be involved but is simply busily engaged on other contracts. It has been possible to requisition ships to meet our needs without asking British companies to break their other contracts. This has been a successful deployment, in which a significant number of ships have been involved. We arc grateful for the co-operation of all those involved.

Mr. Hardy

As many in Europe oppose the Hussein regime in Iraq, deplore the aggression in Kuwait and voted for the removal of the aggressor from Kuwait, and given the disproportionate and significant contribution made by British service men in the Gulf, does not the Minister believe that it would now be appropriate for him and his colleagues to suggest to our European partners that they must reconsider their position, perhaps in response to their votes at the United Nations and the contribution that their nationals, as well as ours, made in building up the military capacity of Saddam Hussein?

Mr. King

I confirm that we have encouraged the maximum contribution from our European allies. I have attended two meetings of the Western European Union at which we emphasised that it was important in the present position that Europe be seen to make an effective contribution and to support not merely with its votes but in a real way the efforts that have been made by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and, pre-eminently, the United States. Europe should be present, too. In addition to the contributions of forces that I have described, we have been grateful for a significant number of contributions of hardware, vehicles and ammunition from some of our NATO allies.

Mrs. Currie

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the appalling and inhumane treatment of our prisoners of war in Iraq demonstrates yet again exactly what sort of cruel and brutal dictator we are up against? Should not the message that goes from here to Saddam Hussein today be that his actions will make us not less but more determined to see him off? Can my right hon. Friend report any progress in making contact with our prisoners of war by the Red Cross or the Red Crescent or one of the other voluntary humanitarian organisations?

Mr. King

I very much agree with the comments of my hon. Friend. As I advised the House last night, representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross were here yesterday. As they requested, they were given access to the Iraqis in detention. They then intended to return to Geneva and seek to make immediate contact with Baghdad. I have not yet had a report today on what success they have had. I advise the House—it endorses what my hon. Friend said—that I was speaking this morning to General Sir Peter de la Billiére, our commander in the middle east, who this afternoon was to receive the first visitors from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They are the advance party for the medical facilities that we are preparing in order to honour our obligations under the Geneva convention to make sure that any Iraqi prisoners of war receive proper medical treatment if they need it. I confirm that the representatives of the ICRC have visited Saudi Arabia and inspected the arrangements that we propose to make for any prisoners of war we take. The committee said that it was very satisfied and impressed with the arrangements that we are making. That further underlines the fact that we are absolutely entitled to expect that treatment for our prisoners of war too.

Mr. Trotter

I refer my right hon. Friend to the case of Flight Lieutenant Adrian Nichol, whose parents come from my constituency. Our thoughts are with the families of all those who are prisoners at this time. The bravery shown by Adrian and his colleagues is matched by the bravery shown by his parents. Their relief that he survived being shot down has been replaced by their anxiety about his treatment as a prisoner. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that there can be no qualification whatever of the obligation to apply the Geneva convention? Is he aware that the Iraqi ambassador said to me this morning that there was a way of not applying the convention? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that is not true and that Iraq must apply the convention?

Mr. King

That is absolutely right. I know that my hon. Friend has taken the closest interest in the case on behalf of his constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Nichol, and that he has seen the Iraqi ambassador. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. He is absolutely right to say that Iraq is a party to the Geneva convention and it cannot pick and choose which bits of the convention it applies. We demand without qualification that, just as we shall extend to any Iraqi prisoners of war the rights to which they are entitled under the convention, because we are a party to it, those rights must be extended to our prisoners of war. I hope that the message has got through to Baghdad that, far from being helpful in the remotest way to the Iraqi cause or undermining the allied resolve, showing the films has only added to the determination of the population of Italy, the United States and Britain to back up our forces at this dangerous time.

Mr. O'Neill

I echo the Secretary of State's sentiments on that point. The House is united in our detestation of the manner in which our prisoners have been treated. I also put on record our respect for the bravery of all the men, including those who got back, and our appreciation of the work of those who have enabled them to get into the air and to make sorties at the fantastic rate that they have achieved.

Will the Secretary of State give the House an assessment of what the cost of deploying our troops has been? We have had a number of figures—some gross, some net. What success has he had in securing support from other countries, in particular Germany, which by treaty is incapable of participating in the exercise, and from Japan, which, by dint of its wealth and its interest in oil, has more than a right to make contributions, not only to the United States but to the support of our forces?

Mr. King

The hon. Member knows these subjects very well and is right to emphasise the difference between the gross and net costs. We are certainly seeking the maximum contributions from those who, for one reason or another, have not felt able to make military contributions to the allied effort, to ensure that they at least make the maximum financial contribution. We have already received in different ways such contributions from Japan and Germany and we shall see how we can maximise those. We have had host nation support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. As for the overall figure, we have already had authority in the House for a further £450 million. I have told the House that we think that there is a daily cost of £3.6 million. I am examining those figures. I shall write in greater detail to the hon. Member and place that letter in the Library of the House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about standing together on such matters. There is a need for us, as a country, to stand together. I regretted having to inform the House about the loss of a further Tornado. I told the House that the families had been advised that the air crew are missing. Where we can, we propose to adopt a policy of releasing the names of the air crew as soon as possible, but only with the family's consent. In the latest case, we have not yet had the agreement of the families involved; although I know that the media will be most concerned to have access to the names, it is precisely because of the families' fear of harassment from the media that they are nervous about allowing the names to go forward. Therefore, I stress, as I did last night, that we should stand together as a country at a dangerous time. I am sure that the media will understand the point that I am making.

2. Mr. Burns

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what proportion of members of the armed forces in the Gulf are women; and what duties they undertake.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

More than 800 service women are serving with their units in the Gulf. They perform a range of duties.

Mr. Burns

In paying tribute both to the men and to the women of our armed forces in the Gulf, may I ask my hon. Friend whether, if a land war developed, there would be any conceivable circumstances in which women serving officers in the armed forces would be fighting in the front line?

Mr. Hamilton

There are no women employed in combat units in the ground forces, but there might well be women employed further back from the front line; they would have weapons for their own self defence and expect to use them.

Mr. Corbett

Is the Minister aware of complaints by women as well as men serving in the Gulf about the great delays in receiving post from the United Kingdom? One of my constituents tells me that post offices accept parcels for delivery only at first-class rates. Will the Minister undertake to look at that problem?

Mr. Hamilton

We have already considered the question of parcels and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that if parcels are sent by the inland rate they will reach the Gulf in about 10 days. There are a number of post offices where staff still do not seem to understand the position and thus talk in terms of charging people an air mail rate, which can be high if there are many goods in the parcel. We are concentrating hard on the letter post and doing all that we can to maintain a swift service.

Dame Peggy Fenner

Following complaints by the Kent Gulf Forces Support Group, we have been in touch with the Post Office, whose representatives have assured us that they are issuing instructions to all counter staff today so that they give the right help to the wives of our service men. Will the Department ensure that, whether it is a departmental or Post Office matter, the "blueys"—the special forms that can be sent forces mail—are available because, unfortunately, supplies ran out a day or so ago? I know that my right hon. Friend will accept that the families have enough anxiety without little things like this to niggle them.

Mr. Hamilton

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her advice in relation to the instruction given by the Post Office. Several hon. Members have remarked to me that post offices have run out of blueys and the matter is being investigated. I suspect that the difficulty arises from maldistribution, as about 6 million were issued to the Post Office. We suspect that there may be quite large quantities at some offices, but none at others.

Back to