HC Deb 31 January 1991 vol 184 cc1107-25 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom King)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Gulf conflict and various matters arising therefrom.

The allied campaign to liberate Kuwait was launched two weeks ago. The initial aim was to establish air supremacy and then sufficiently to reduce the military capability of the Iraqis' armed forces so that the liberation of Kuwait will be successfully achieved with the minimum of casualties to our forces.

During this first period more than 30,000 allied sorties have been flown against what were initially substantial air defences. From those 30,000 sorties, 19 aircraft have not returned—of which five were British. The House knows of those most regrettable losses in the first week, but will be pleased to note that no British aircraft have been lost in the past week. That pleasure is combined with the deepest admiration for the skill and courage of our aircrews and of all the allies at the way in which they have sustained the vital air campaign. The initial denial to the Iraqis of the use of their airfields, in which the Tornados played such a critical part, the progressive suppression of their ground air defences, in which the Jaguars have been very active, and the shooting down of their aircraft seeking combat have enabled air supremacy to be achieved, so that hardened aircraft shelters and other military and strategic targets can be progressively attacked. That supremacy has been underlined by the sudden departure of about 100 Iraqi aircraft to Iran.

The achievements of the air campaign so far include the destruction of all nuclear reactor capacity and of about half Iraq's biological and chemical production; substantial damage to military fuel and ammunition stores; the putting out of action of a number of airfields; major damage to command and control facilities; the loss of centralised control of air defences; the progressive reduction of Scud launch capability; and the hitting of 22 bridges to inhibit the resupply of Iraqi forces in Kuwait.

However, substantial as those achievements are, I must warn the House that so vast is the Iraqi military capacity that it is likely to be some time yet before it will be sufficiently reduced for the allies to proceed with the liberation of Kuwait.

In that connection, we have received a request from the United States Government for a limited number of B52s to be temporarily based at RAF Fairford to undertake missions with conventional munitions against Iraqi military or strategic targets that are supporting the continuing Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. RAF Fairford is an established forward-operating base for B52s, and the Government have readily agreed to the request.

At sea, while the allied navies have been much involved since August in enforcing the embargo, it is only in the last few days that there has been any significant action against the Iraqi navy. In those engagements, in which Royal Navy Lynx helicopters and RAF Jaguars played an important role, 10 Iraqi patrol boats and minesweepers were sunk, and up to a further 25 damaged. A number of those vessels had an Exocet capability. Those naval encounters frustrated what may have been an amphibious attack designed to coincide with the land attack at Khafji that occurred yesterday.

In respect of the 1st Armoured Division, the continuing delivery of supplies is further enhancing its battle-ready capability.

The House will be aware that we are now starting to hold a number of Iraqi prisoners of war. I reaffirm that they will be held in strict conformity with the requirements of the Geneva convention. That is our absolute commitment and we insist on those requirements being observed by the Government of Iraq as well. The parade of captured aircrew on television is in total breach of the convention—as would be any detention of them at strategic sites. I regret to inform the House that the International Committee of the Red Cross has still not even been informed of the names of any prisoners, let alone been granted the access to which it is entitled. That inhuman treatment of the prisoners is causing great distress and the thoughts of us all are with their families —as is our admiration for their courage and steadfastness at such a difficult time. I confirm that we are making the strongest representations to the Red Cross and the Iraqi authorities for our concerns to be met.

I refer next to our strengths in the Gulf. At the start of operations, we committed some 35,000 service men and women. We have since strengthened some units already deployed. Three additional battalions are being deployed to fulfil our obligations to any prisoners of war. With the extra Buccaneers that I announced on 25 January, total United Kingdom personnel now committed will rise to about 42,000.

The full operating costs in 1990–91 now total more than £1.25 billion, excluding the cost of any replacement of lost equipment and of munitions used, which so far totals nearly £200 million. The daily operating cost has risen to more than £4 million.

In connection with those costs, I very much welcome the announcement by the German Government of a contribution of a further 800 million deutschmarks to our costs. We are very hopeful of other contributions from our friends and allies in support of our efforts in support of the United Nations.

As to matters of particular interest to our forces and their families, there have been complaints over difficulties in the availability at post offices of the very popular air letter—the bluey—and steps have been taken that I hope have dealt with their problem.

Some hon. Members told me of service families being charged normal international airmail rates for sending parcels to the Gulf. I am pleased to announce that, from tomorrow, the Post Office is suspending the use of normal airmail rates for any parcels sent to BFPO addresses in the Gulf. All will be charged at the normal United Kingdom inland parcel rate. That clear instruction should end any confusion at post office counters.

The telephone service that we installed with the help of British Telecom and Mercury has been very popular, but it is obviously somewhat expensive. We therefore propose to subsidise calls for all service personnel from the Gulf, on a basis similar to that for forces in Northern Ireland. The value of that subsidy will be up to £10 a month—affecting, for example, five three-minute calls at half price. Many of our forces are not in early reach of a telephone kiosk at the moment, but their entitlement under that scheme will be accumulated for later use.

The House can be proud of the way in which the armed forces are contributing to the multinational effort. They have made an excellent start and, thankfully, losses have been few. However, there is some way to go yet, and there may be setbacks and at times unwelcome news. None the less, I have no doubt of the determination of the House and the country to give our forces the support that they need to bring their task to a successful conclusion.

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Clackmannan)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and I think that the whole House would want to join in his tribute to the courage and skill which have been displayed by our airmen during the past two weeks, and to join him in noting that there have been no casualties and no losses to the air force during the past week. We also join him in deploring the Iraqi authorities' failure to intimate to the International Committee of the Red Cross the identity of prisoners and those people whom it is alleged have been detained at militarily sensitive locations.

We also note what the Secretary of State said about basing B52s at Fairford. Perhaps he could tell us why Britain was chosen and which, if any, other European countries have agreed to participate. We also note from his statement that the United States has not employed the normal "neither confirm nor deny" formula in respect of nuclear devices and that no nuclear air-launched cruise missiles will be carried by these aeroplanes. Will he also confirm that the aircraft will be based at Fairford only for the duration of the conflict?

We join the Secretary of State in expressing our appreciation for the German donation to the war effort. Which other countries have been approached for contributions?

We note the attempt to resolve the problem of telephone calls, but how does that facility compare with that afforded by AT and T to United States troops in the Gulf?

In his statement the Secretary of State mentioned the town of Khafji. Will he tell us more about the circumstances surrounding the liberation of that town, the casualties involved and what prisoners have been taken? Could he enlighten the House as to what military use the town of Khafji would have been to the Iraqis and whether he has any inkling of the idea behind the attack? Will he also give us some information about the latest developments regarding polluting of the Gulf by the Iraqis releasing oil? What is happening there?

Can the Secretary of State give any information to the House about reporters' access to troops, because journalists in Scotland have made a number of complaints about their inability to gain access to the Scottish regiments, which account for some 40 per cent. of the troops in the Gulf?

Mr. King

I thank the hon. Member for his general welcome and the support that he gave on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends.

I certainly confirm that the application in respect of the B52s is temporary, and that we have an absolute assurance that they will use only conventional munitions when operating from that base, which is important. Other countries will be assisting with the successful deployment of B52s in various ways and one other country will be involved in basing, but I think that it will shortly be making its own announcement and the hon. Member will forgive me if I do not anticipate it.

The contribution from Germany is certainly very much appreciated. I would rather not say which other countries we might be approaching. I am glad to say that some of our friends and allies are approaching us. There is widespread recognition of the world community wishing to make its contribution to the multinational effort in whichever way it feels appropriate.

The hon. Member mentioned telephones and several other hon. Members were shouting about that during my statement. It needs to be considered seriously. The Americans tried to introduce and had a trial of a free system. The problem was that people who were able to use it used it all the time and it broke down. There was much more criticism because people could not then have access to the limited lines and facilities that exist. It is my understanding that the Americans have now returned to a form of subsidised system.

We try to tackle the problems. An important point that we have to tackle is that many of the people whom we are trying to help are not trying to telephone this country from the Gulf; they are trying to telephone Germany. I am glad to say that, under an arrangement that we have made—I understand that it has not yet been possible for the Americans to match it—people will be able to telephone from the Gulf to Germany for the same subsidised low price as it would cost them to telephone this country. That is, I think, significantly better than what other countries have been able to do.

I can confirm that, according to my understanding, Prince Khalid has announced that Khafji is now clear of the intruders, and I am sure that we welcome the defeat of that incursion. Although there was a further oil discharge, and it was clear that the Iraqis were actively discharging and pumping oil into the Gulf, the latest information that I have received—uncorroborated, but believed to be true —suggests that it has now ceased.

Mr. Michael Mates (Hampshire, East)

The whole House will wish to join my right hon. Friend in expressing its utter disgust at the way in which prisoners of war have been treated by the Iraqi authorities. Will my right hon. Friend, however, press the International Committee of the Red Cross rather harder to speak out robustly about what it knows to be the correct conditions, so that the relatives of prisoners of war can be assured not only that we are doing all that we can—which, frankly, is very little—but that the ICRC is, too? Will my right hon. Friend also say a little more about the arrangements that he has made in the Ministry of Defence to keep relatives up to date with the current position?

Mr. King

In answer to the latter question, let me say that we are operating a round-the-clock contact service, and are trying to provide as much information as we can about these difficult matters. As my hon. Friend will know, we are maintaining very close contact with the services welfare organisations to ensure that that is done effectively.

We are bringing to bear all possible pressure and influence on the ICRC. An ICRC medical team is now going to Baghdad and we hope that it will be able to carry the work forward. The president of the ICRC is coming to see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister next week.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

May I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, associate myself with the Secretary of State's observations about the performance of our troops, especially that of the RAF pilots flying the ground attack version of the Tornado, whose bravery has been exemplary?

My hon. Friends and I accept that the deployment of B52s at RAF Fairford is justified if its purpose is to shorten the war and to reduce allied casualties. Does the right hon. Gentleman understand, however, that some people may be concerned about the deployment and will he take this opportunity of letting the people of the United Kingdom further into his confidence and explaining a little more clearly the current operational requirements for that deployment?

Mr. King

I am grateful for what the hon. and learned Gentleman said and especially grateful for his support of the RAF contribution to the campaign. The House will share his views.

I am also grateful for the hon. and learned Gentleman's clarification, on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends, of the position regarding the B52s. We want the conflict to end at the earliest possible time. Criticisms have been made of B52s in the past, but they have a precision bombing capability and they will be deployed against military and strategic targets to accelerate the end of the conflict and the liberation of Kuwait. That is clearly part of the purpose. B52s are already deployed in a number of airfields, but there is no further capacity there. It was necessary to increase the capacity and that is why the further requests have been made.

Mr. Terence L. Higgins (Worthing)

The German Government's contribution to the cost of the war is welcome, but should not account also be taken of the fact that the British taxpayer is at the same time making a substantial contribution to the cost of German unification? More important, does my right hon. Friend agree that the making of a series of ad hoc lump-sum payments to finance the war is not a satisfactory arrangement? The war may go on for a considerable time. What is needed is a general assessment relating to the international community, on a percentage or other basis, so that the burden can be fairly shared among all who will gain from the defeat of aggression.

Mr. King

I note my right hon. Friend's comments and understand the thoughts behind them. Costs have increased sharply due to the conflict, which has led to a loss of equipment and ammunition. Moreover, we have a large number of men and women out there. We are very grateful for the support that we have received, but it would be more satisfactory if it were on a slightly more regular basis. I shall certainly think about my right hon. Friend's suggestion.

Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)

I welcome the Secretary of State's commitment to the ICRC and the Geneva convention. It is absolutely essential that all those involved in the conflict should stay within the terms of the United Nations resolutions and the Geneva convention. The same criterion must be extended to our allies. Will the Secretary of State therefore discuss with his Israeli counterparts the treatment that they are handing out to the 1.7 million Palestinians on the west bank and Gaza? They are not observing the Geneva convention, particularly when it comes to the 24-hour curfew that they have imposed on the west bank and Gaza and the recent arrest of Sari Husseibh. May I ask him to raise these matters with his Israeli counterpart and to say whether the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office has been able to find out whether Her Majesty's Government have spare gas masks that could be given to the Israeli Government for use by the Palestinians?

Mr. King

I have not met my Israeli opposite number, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, but I shall certainly ensure that his comments are conveyed to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary because I understand the strength of feeling about these issues.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

As the Father of the House, may I put to my right hon. Friend a simple request: to convey to the pilots and aircrew in the Gulf our great admiration of their courage, steadfastness and professional skill?

Mr. King

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who occupies his position with such dignity. I shall certainly ensure that the message is conveyed.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Yesterday we saw Iraqi tanks apparently pretending to surrender in order to mount an attack. Oil has deliberately been pumped into the waters of the Gulf. We have seen missile attacks on Israeli cities and the misuse of allied prisoners of war. Does not all that demonstrate that Saddam Hussein has no intention of fighting this war under any sort of Marquess of Queensberry rules? Has that lesson now been learnt by the allied military commanders and will they plan accordingly?

Mr. King

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting in any way that we should walk away from the standards and codes of practice and behaviour that he would expect us to follow and we have no intention of doing so. The matters that he has rightly drawn to the attention of the House confirm what so many of us feel so strongly: that this cause, now embarked on, has to be seen through and that everything that has happened since shows what a very evil and monstrous military regime exists in Iraq.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that the part of the UN resolution that authorises the current action and calls for the restoration of peace and security in the region also authorises, if necessary, the invasion of Iraq in order to destroy Saddam Hussein and his war machine?

Mr. King

The issue of resolution 678 is one which, I am glad to say, is now being seriously addressed by a lot of people. I put it most simply: there is no point in seeking to achieve the liberation of Kuwait if Kuwait cannot stay liberated. The answering of that question deserves—not in slogans, nor by attempting to accuse some people of bellicosity or aggression—very serious consideration. That is precisely why, in its good sense, the United Nations put that point in the resolution. How it is going to be achieved —whether by economic sanctions or by military action —will depend on how the situation develops. But let there be no doubt that it would betray—as I have said on another occasion—all those who are prepared to risk their lives in this conflict if we settled for some halfway solution, only to have to return to the problem in a year's time.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Is not the reason for so many telephone calls to Germany from our forces in the Gulf the fact that many of their wives are in Germany? Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that they are under great strain and that they are bearing it very bravely? Will he assure the House and the country that everything possible is being done to sustain and support those ladies?

Mr. King

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said because that is precisely the point. May I also express my appreciation to her and other hon. Members, some of whom have been to visit the wives in Germany. We must be very conscious of the fact that it is one thing for the wife of a service man if her husband goes to the conflict in the Gulf, but if that wife is herself in a foreign country, albeit an ally, it is a double separation. I am grateful for the interest taken by hon. Members and for what my hon. Friend said.

Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

The whole House will support what the Secretary of State said about the treatment of our prisoners of war. I want to put to him a delicate point which I hope will not be misunderstood as a sign of weakness. Because my support for the troops is so strong, I hope that I will not be misunderstood. The prisoners of war are entitled to proper treatment under the Geneva convention as of right and the Secretary of State is right to stress that to the Red Cross. At the same time, I believe that we should consider sending humanitarian aid to Iraqi children and sick people. That is not irreconcilable with fighting a strong war and may help our prisoners of war.

Mr. King

We have the greatest human sympathy for the suffering of many of the Iraqi people at this time. That is why so many of us strove so hard to find a peaceful solution. Saddam Hussein clearly does not care deeply about the suffering of his people and is quite prepared to embark on these adventures, as he showed in the Iran-Iraq war and now with his aggression against Kuwait. His aggression exposes his people, including children, to very real suffering. I hope that the Red Cross will be able to perform its wide role not just in respect of prisoners of war but perhaps in other ways.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

As one who represents many of the service men and women in the Gulf and their families, may I join in the tributes paid to their courage and resilience. Is my right hon. Friend aware that there has been some criticism that the royal yacht Britannia, which was originally built as a hospital ship, has not been sent to the Gulf? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that RFA Argus, which he and I grew to know well during our time in Northern Ireland when it was under construction and then in commission, is the most suitable medical support ship? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the choice made by the Government was entirely to give our forces the best possible support?

Mr. King

Yes, that is absolutely correct. RFA Argus was built by Harland and Wolff and has been converted to a hospital ship. It will play a useful and substantial role. It was the most convenient ship to use. I must make it clear that we were well aware that Her Majesty would wish any requirement for a hospital ship for the troops to take precedence over the royal yacht's use in any royal duties. However, it was on the other side of the Atlantic at the time and would have needed some conversion work such as helicopter decks and other things and it was quicker and more convenient to use RFA Argus.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, as Iraq has invaded a second neighbouring country, those who demonstrate for peace would do well to demonstrate outside Iraqi embassies? As a former joint chairman of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, has he received any information from those allies on help in pursuing the campaign? I understand that their Opposition leader would like to send a field hospital.

Mr. King

I have not received any such request or suggestion, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is in Dublin this afternoon. I am sure that he would be willing to receive any offers of support. The multinational support that we are getting is widely spread through many countries. As the evil of the Iraqi regime is now being exposed, many people wish to see how they can contribute. I pay tribute to the Republic of Ireland, which has contributed to other United Nations forces in the past.

Mr. Churchill (Davyhulme)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend, Mr. Dick Cheney, General Colin Powell, President Bush and our Prime Minister on their conception and implementation of this campaign so far. It has been specifically designed to minimise allied and Iraqi civilian casualties. Does not that contrast most starkly with Saddam Hussein's flagrant disregard for human life —particularly civilian human life—in using Scud missiles against the civilian populations of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and his flagrant violation of the Geneva convention in respect of our own and allied prisoners of war?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I can confirm, from the evidence available to me, that it seems that our requirements to minimise civilian casualties and to ensure that the campaign is conducted so as to minimise our casualties are being met in the way that we would wish. None the less, we could experience setbacks, as I warned the House. We would much rather never have had this conflict in the first place. If there had been no aggression, no conflict would have been necessary.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Does the Secretary of State recognise that many of us think that his announcement about telephone calls is unbelievably mean? Even if every man and woman in the services could use this facility, it would cost a maximum of £400,000 a month, whereas in the same period the war would have cost the country £130 million. As we hope to reclaim a substantial part of these costs from other countries, I urge the Minister to think again and to see whether he can achieve a better scheme to help men and women who have shown a readiness to put their lives on the line.

Mr. King

I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman listened to what I said. We built on the experience of the United States authorities, which tried a free trial and found that it led only to greater congestion and fewer people—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman may seek to advance this as a great cause, but I understand from all the reports that I have received that our forces regard it as a very fair arrangement. I believe—some of the soldiers in the Gulf would agree with this—that some of our forces in Northern Ireland are undertaking tasks, and have done so for many years, that are every bit as challenging and dangerous as some of the assignments in the Gulf. The right hon. Gentleman has not spoken up for them before. I am anxious to ensure, as far as possible, that we treat people fairly, and I think that this is a very fair scheme.

Dame Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

Will my right hon. Friend consider the feasibility of setting up a blood donor unit in the Palace of Westminster so that those of us who want to support the troops in a practical way will be able to do so?

Mr. King

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. In many ways, practical suggestions mean a great deal to our forces in the Gulf. The Lord President has heard my hon. Friend's comments and he is happy to look into them.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Did the Secretary of State see the report in yesterday's Evening Standard that Iraqi troops were shot while they were praying? How does that square with the allies' claim that they would be sensitive to religious issues? Does he condone the killing of Iraqi troops while they were praying and what is he going to do about it?

Mr. King

I have no knowledge of that allegation. Obviously, I do not know whether it is possible to check whether it is true. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that in this regrettable conflict there will undoubtedly be a lot of propaganda and many attempts to deceive and exploit such emotions. The hon. Gentleman should check whether the allegations are soundly based before he makes them.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

My right hon. Friend has let it be known in the past few days that he is extremely worried that Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis may attempt to use chemical weapons. Will he, through whatever channels remain open to him, ensure that the Iraqis are aware that, according to the conventions and articles of war, if they do such a thing, they will be dealt the most grievous retaliation?

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. It cannot be emphasised too strongly and I am grateful for the forceful way in which he put it.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to avoid the grim prospect of a land war in the Gulf would be for the undoubtedly brave and patriotic service men of the Iraqi armed forces to rid their country of a Government who have brought shame and destruction on their Arab nation? Will he assure the House that we and all members of the coalition respect the integrity of Iraq and that we want to help the Iraqis to reconstruct and to achieve a democratic future for their people?

Mr. King

We certainly have no quarrel with the people of Iraq and we have no ambition for their territory. We have the deepest sympathy for them as they suffer under the present regime.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Does my right hon. Friend recall that before D day the allies had overwhelming command of the air, yet it still took a year before the land campaign was won? In that context, will he confirm that there will be no question of a ceasefire to enable Saddam Hussein to launch an Ardennes-type offensive?

Does he consider the 100 Iraqi aeroplanes that have gone to Iran to be effectively neutralised, or do they still constitute a threat?

Mr. King

On the last point, Iran is, of course, a member of the United Nations and therefore bound by the resolutions. It must—and has made it clear that it —will give full support to the United Nations resolutions, so I sincerely trust that the aeroplanes will play no further part in the conflict.

On the first point about carrying through the campaign, it would be wrong to our forces who are now embarked if there were to be a stop-start situation—a hesitation then a start again—which would allow the enemy to regroup. We have given Saddam Hussein every opportunity. We went not only a further mile, but a further mile again. He failed to take that opportunity. We must ensure the liberation of Kuwait and the achievement of the United Nations resolutions.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Will the Secretary of State now address the substantial complaint in the Scottish press about its access to Scottish front-line troops in the Gulf? The Scottish regiments comprise up to 40 per cent. of the front-line forces. What is his Department doing to dispel the suspicion that, when looking for people to get shot at in the desert, the Ministry of Defence looks to Scotland first, but that when looking for people to comment or write on it, it looks to Scotland last?

Mr. King

I apologise, because the hon. Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) raised the matter with me and has already written to me. I can confirm that we looked into the matter. We have teams in the Gulf, but they cannot rely absolutely on unlimited access to the front-line area. A vacancy has now come up and a Scottish reporter will join one of the front-line teams.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon West)

In Germany yesterday, the wives expressed their particular concern about matters to do with bereavement. Will my right hon. Friend assure those wives and the House that Christian counselling will be provided for men and women who are wounded and that, in cases of bereavement, there will be Christian burial and, wherever possible, burial back in the United Kingdom if the next-of-kin so wish it?

Mr. King

On the first point about Christian counselling, I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. She made a further point regarding burial. The usual practice is for forces to be buried close to the battlefield where they fall. The arrangement that we are making in this case—following our experience of the Falklands campaign—is that, although there will be temporary local burial, families will subsequently have the choice of a Christian burial for their relatives in the Gulf area or the repatriation of the body for burial in this country.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

May I make a plea to the Secretary of State on behalf of an admittedly small number of service men's families? I refer to those members of the American forces in the Persian Gulf who are Scots-born, whose parents in Scotland are given no facilities to write to them. Will the right hon. Gentleman ask his officials to discuss the matter with their American counterparts? A laddie in my constituency has a son fighting with the American marines and receives no concessions whatever. Admittedly, I am talking about a small number of service men, but their interests need to be taken care of none the less.

Mr. King

I had not heard that, but I shall certainly look into the matter because I am sure that the Americans would wish people in that position to have any facilities that it was possible to give them.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the fact that the allies have control of the skies, with all that that means in military terms, is substantially due to what happened in the first days of the action and to the tremendous job of destroying airfield capability by the Royal Air Force Tornado crews? Is my right hon. Friend aware that the RAF presentation team will come to the House on 19 February and that hon. Members will have the opportunity to put to it any questions that they wish?

As for Scotland, Scots have always been proud to serve this country, whether in Scottish regiments, in the Royal Air Force or in the Royal Navy.

Mr. King

I certainly recognise the truth of my hon. Friend's latter sentence. I am pleased that the RAF presentation team is to come to the House. That will give hon. Members a chance to learn more about the training and background activities of the Royal Air Force which have contributed to its outstanding contribution to the multinational effort.

Mr. Thomas Graham (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Is the Secretary of State aware re that some of the young Scottish soldiers are writing home to their mums and families asking for supplies such as talcum powder, boiled sweets, boots, gloves and toothpaste? [Laughter.] This is no light matter. Did the Secretary of State see on television the other night the appalling sight of young American soldiers shivering? I only hope that none of the British troops is sitting over there shivering while we bask in this heat and that they have the comforts that are due to them.

Mr. King

We have certainly sought to provide as well as we can for our forces, and hon. Members who have been out to the Gulf have concluded that our efforts have generally been successful. We have also sought to do something about the parcel service, in so far as it is possible to get parcels through, which it will be in the next days. I have not yet told the House of the very constructive offer made by United Carriers, which has depots round the country. If any of the mums to whom the hon. Gentleman referred takes her parcel to a United Carriers depot, the company will deliver it free of charge to the defence postal and courier headquarters in London, from where it will go free of charge to the Gulf.

Mr. William Powell (Corby)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm and reaffirm that allied war aims have not altered at all since 15 January and are contained entirely in the United Nations resolutions, especially resolution 678, and that every single action that has been taken by allied troops has been in pursuit of—and only in pursuit of— those United Nations resolutions and that that will remain the case until the end of the fighting?

Mr. King

I can certainly give that assurance. I believe that some people may not have studied those resolutions in the past. Those are absolutely the war aims on which we are agreed and which I think commentators, in analysing them, realise must be the objectives that we should pursue.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Is the Secretary of State aware that constituents of mine whose husbands are working as civilians on the Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia are very concerned because their husbands, although they have been supplied with gas masks, have been given no extra clothing, training, instruction or assistance of any kind, as I understand it? Will he institute a thorough investigation so that British civilians working in the Gulf area may be fully protected from possible chemical warfare attacks?

Mr. King

I am not clear whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to civilians working for the Ministry of Defence or the Government or civilians working for contractors in the Gulf. It is initially the responsibility of their employers to ensure that they are properly provided for, and if employers approached us we would always see what assistance we could give. In the case of gas masks, we have sought to do that.

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is now a large number of local support groups for the families of the troops, and not just in the traditional garrison towns? I cite, for example, Gulf Troops and Family Support set up in my constituency by Mr. and Mrs. Brister, who have a son in the Gulf. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that such groups receive full encouragement and assistance and that there is no effort to squeeze them out because they are not traditional, long-established groups? Will he, in particular, talk to British Telecom and get it to be more helpful?

Mr. King

We would give them any help and encouragement that we could. I am very grateful to them for the role that they are playing. I am grateful, also, to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members because I believe that one of the most valuable forms of help and support for those groups is the interest of their local Members of Parliament.

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Is it not a sad, serious and chilling reminder of dangers ahead that the House has been told that only half Saddam Hussein's capacity to produce chemical and biological weapons has been destroyed? Recognising that he not only threatens to use these weapons but has used them in the past against Kurds and others and that this is a danger to our troops, to civilians in Saudi Arabia and to civilians in Israel, whether Arab or Jewish, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to assure the House that every effort is being made to destroy not only the remaining 50 per cent. of production capacity but existing stocks, which he has not mentioned?

Mr. King

I can confirm that some storage has been destroyed, although we also believe that there has been some dispersal, mainly in the form of artillery ammunition, of some of the chemical stocks, for example. These matters underline what I said about the monstrous scale of that military machine. I believe that the House has been impressed by the scale of the air campaign and by the volume of munitions used. It is a measure of the scale of that machine that I have to report to the House that there is still some way to go before the land campaign can be safely embarked upon.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that throughout the country there is the profoundest admiration for and gratitude to all who have taken part in this campaign so far, from the Prime Minister and himself down? Does he also accept that an essential prerequisite for the superb performance of our RAF Tornado pilots in this campaign was the low-flying training that they received in peace time? Does he therefore share my hope that when the conflict is over we shall hear a little less from the whingers and whiners who have tried to reduce those training programmes?

Mr. King

Nothing could have shown more clearly the importance of that low-flying training. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because I know that in his constituency he will have had representations in the past and I appreciate his robust and important position on this.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Should not the right hon. Gentleman express his appreciation of the resolute support given to him in the latest resolution of the national executive committee of the Labour party? Does he understand that a large portion of the parliamentary Labour party does not support the leadership on this issue?

Mr. King

I would love to respond to that question, but I do not think that it is for me.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

What my right hon. Friend said about the importance that the Government attach to proper postal and telephone arrangements will come as a great reassurance to the parents of a 21-year-old lance-corporal serving in the 39th Field Regiment who contacted me today to tell me of the problems that they have had. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any special problems in people receiving mail from Germany—for example, soldiers receiving letters from their wives? If there is a backlog, will he undertake to have it examined?

Mr. King

A number of difficult complications have arisen because of the basis on which some units have come to serve in the Gulf, but we are trying to deal with them. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend says. We are anxious. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces is very keen to hear any other points, and we shall certainly try to sort them out.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Most hon. Members appreciate the regular and lengthy reporting by the Secretary of State to the House. I do not expect the Secretary of State to respond to every rumour, but is he in a position to confirm or deny that some of the aircraft that left Iraq for Iran have been shuttling back and forth from that country? What does that say about the Iraqi aims? Is the right hon. Gentleman able to confirm the story, again emanating from the United States, that Iraqi missiles are being smuggled into Jordan, stuffed inside oil trucks?

Mr. King

I have no information on the latter point. On the hon. Gentleman's first point, there may have been some redisposition of some Iraqi planes within Iran, but I do not know whether the Iranian authorities chose to position them on alternative airfields for their own convenience. I am not sure whether the question implied that they were going back into Iraq. I have no evidence of their doing that.

Mr. Michael Grylls (Surrey, North-West)

May I ask my right hon. Friend about television coverage? Although nobody in this House would wish to restrict political comment, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is room for some self-restraint, particularly by recently retired senior service officers who appear on television and discuss detailed tactics, just at the moment when the ground forces are about to be engaged with the enemy? Does my right hon. Friend agree that some self-restraint might be a good idea?

Mr. King

I do agree. It is a challenge in a free society such as ours, when freedom of speech and comment is so readily available, when we are confronting a very dangerous enemy and when it may be possible for that enemy to glean important insights into our approaches and military practices from comments that are made. I hope and believe that those senior retired military officers are aware of that risk.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Does not the battle over Khafji confirm what many of us feared and predicted from the outset—that once the ground fighting starts in earnest there will be many casualties on both sides? How many more people must die in this senseless conflict before a ceasefire is eventually called and more diplomatic effort is put into trying to build on attempts to find a peaceful solution, such as that which was tried yesterday by Secretary of State Baker and his Soviet counterpart?

Mr. King

A ceasefire now would be very welcome to Saddam Hussein. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who took an initial view on this, does not seem to have noticed during the pursuit of this campaign just how evil and dangerous is his monstrous military might. The hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) pointed out just how obscene are some of the practices that he follows. It would certainly be to the advantage of Saddam Hussein if we had a ceasefire, but I do not think that it would ensure future good order or benefit the world if we had one at this time.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his decisions, first, to reduce telephone rates for troops—he will recall that I raised that very point before the war started—and, secondly, to introduce the domestic parcel rate, which will no doubt boost morale? Will he give an assurance that he is constantly looking at ways of boosting morale? Will he consider specifically the possibility of photographs being taken of troops in situ which will not compromise any secret positions, which could be sent home to families? That would be a significant morale booster.

Mr. King

Much of that is happening already, but I shall certainly look into the point. We are anxious to pursue any ideas which hon. Members may have. We have been able to do a certain amount. Other ideas will be obstructed for operational reasons and difficulties, but we shall do anything that we can.

Ms. Hilary Armstrong (Durham, North-West)

Has the Secretary of State had time to consider the special problems faced by schools attended by the children of armed service personnel? Last week representatives from the National Union of Teachers visited some of those schools to discuss with teachers the problems that they are experiencing. Will the Secretary of State give additional support to those schools so that they can work effectively with the children, who are suffering enormous fear and trauma as a result of what is happening to their families? Most of the schools are based in Germany, so they do not have the normal environment and support and that is an additional problem. Will the Secretary of State try to do something about that?

Mr. King

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Her point is a serious one. Tremendous efforts are being made. She will know that staff in the schools are receiving counselling and we are trying to deal with the problem. The problem for children during this television war is worrying. Every night they go home and see more pictures of what may be happening and of bombs, bullets and shells. We take the point seriously.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I have to have regard to the business before the House.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

It is our pensions.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Cryer

I was elected to speak here, not to keep quiet.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, but other hon. Members were also elected to speak.

I shall allow questions on the statement to run for a further 15 minutes. I hope that we shall then have a short period of business questions because we should reach the main business by 5 o'clock.

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

Returning to the subject of support from our European colleagues for the war effort, will my right hon. Friend comment on the fact that, while Conservative MEPs wholeheartedly support the Government's position and are doing all that they can to persuade their European colleagues to do likewise, the Labour MEPs en bloc do not even support the official Labour party policy and are actively discouraging their European colleagues from supporting the war effort?

Mr. King

I am sorry to hear that. I did not respond to the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds). At a time when our forces are in the Gulf engaged in a dangerous conflict, I respect the position adopted by the Opposition on the matter. I am sorry that Labour Members of the European Parliament are not able to adopt the same position. Perhaps they are a little far away from the United Kingdom. They are very much out of step with the overwhelming opinion of the British people.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that diplomatic efforts will be redoubled, possibly through Tehran but also through whichever channels offer themselves, before we initiate a major commitment of our land forces to a land war from which shattered bodies would start to come home in horrendous and unacceptable numbers?

Mr. King

Our whole aim was, first, to avoid any conflict. Now that, regrettably, we find ourselves in this position, unless we are prepared to accept the aggression against Kuwait and what would clearly be the continuing expansion of Iraq and its particularly evil regime, we must face up to the reality of conflict, as the hon. Gentleman understands. That being the case, we are anxious to find ways of minimising casualties. We hope that it will be possible to do that. That is why the air campaign has been structured as it has. It is the first stage of what we hope will be the speedy liberation of Kuwait with the minimum casualties, not just among our forces—which is important —but among the people in Kuwait.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), on the firm way in which he condemned to the former Iraqi ambassador the treatment apparently meted out to allied prisoners of war? Will he confirm from the Dispatch Box that those who place prisoners of war in a place of danger, as well as those who ordered them to be placed there, will be brought before an international war crimes tribunal regardless of the outcome of the conflict?

Mr. King

We are taking a careful look at the conduct of any people involved in the conflict who may be in breach of conventions or international law. In the early days, when we had the outrageous treatment of hostages before the conflict started, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary reminded people that under international law every individual is responsible for his actions.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the war aims of Britain and the United States do not include either the invasion and destruction of Iraq as a country or the use of nuclear weapons in the prosecution of the conflict?

Mr. King

I have already made it clear that our aims are the aims which are set out in the United Nations resolutions. They have not changed. They remain our objectives. We have no quarrel with the people of Iraq. We seek no acquisition of their territory. We make those points clear. We have to seek the earliest possible implementation of the United Nations resolutions. That is what we are doing.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Will my right hon. Friend convey the thanks of the House to the Soldiers', Sailors' and Airmen's Families Association and to district headquarters, including the western district office which is based in my constituency, for the assistance that they are giving to Gulf support groups? Many wives of service men are giving up a great deal of their time, at considerable expense in telephone calls, to pull the families together so that they may share their concerns and news of their loved ones. It is an important morale booster to the troops to know that this is going on at home and that so many people in his Department are assisting them.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning SSAFA, not just because of what it is doing now. It will be an abiding encouragement to our forces to know not just that SSAFA is there during the present crisis but that its work will go on day in, day out in the years ahead. Certainly its work is beyond praise.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

Is the Secretary of State aware that during the past month I have been told constantly that I speak only for myself? I accept that. Is he also aware that I suspect that I speak for all my Scottish colleagues when I dissociate us from the remarks of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond)? I doubt seriously that the Iraqis will ask whether men are Scottish, English, Irish or Welsh before they shoot them.

Is the Secretary of State really using the comparison of our troops in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, with our troops in the Gulf for his pathetic approach to free telephone calls? Is he aware that when the open golf championship is played at St. Andrews, British Telecom can put in, overnight, 200 extra lines? When we walk along the Embankment, we can hardly get through because of all the British Telecom lines into the Secretary of State's own Department. Yet he is telling British troops that they cannot make free telephone calls home. Is not the position the same as with the poll tax—"It is only delayed; you will pay it when you get back. Lay down your lives and the Tories will have your money"?

Mr. King

I am disappointed in the hon. Member, who is an old pal. That is a disgraceful way to behave. We have addressed the matter seriously. It is easy to shout for free everything. The Americans tried it. The system broke down and the congestion was appalling. The Americans found that it was fairer for people to make a contribution, which helped to ensure that the maximum number of people could make calls. This is not Glasgow. It is not a matter of linking up to the golf course in St. Andrews. This is out in the desert, in forward positions. There is huge congestion. [Interruption.] I do not regard this as a laughing matter.

We are trying to do the best we can for our forces. Hon. Members should understand that the telephone system, with its limited range, has to cover 500,000 American troops, all wishing to ring home, more than 40,000 British troops and more than 10,000 French troops. The extra congestion poses major problems. There may be cheap publicity in appearing to stand up for our boys, but we are genuinely trying to do the best we can. The messages coming back are that the boys think that the present arrangement is fair.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

Although it came rather later than might have been desirable, will my right hon. Friend warmly welcome the German Chancellor's clear statement that Germany would regard an attack on Turkey as an attack on NATO and, therefore, a genuine matter for German contribution? If that is allied with the German Defence Minister's statement that NATO is required because of the uncertainty in the Soviet Union, it is clear that the united Germany understands the role of NATO and is willing to play its part in NATO activities against possible out-of-area conflicts such as that in the Gulf.

Mr. King

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The House will have appreciated the positive statements made by Chancellor Kohl. I have also talked to my counterpart, the reconfirmed Defence Minister, Gerhard Stoltenberg, and I am grateful for the support that the Germans are giving us, not merely the funds to which I referred today, but the significant assistance in kind as well.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the main lessons of the past two days of land fighting is that whatever else the war may be it will not be short, sharp and quick? Does the right hon. Gentleman now understand that not only must allied commanders resist being panicked into an early land war, but allied politicians must do everything in their power to avoid the necessity for a land war at all? Therefore, will he tell the House what he and other Ministers have done to open up diplomatic channels with Baghdad to secure the negotiated withdrawal of Iraqi troops from Kuwait so that they do not have to resort further to the carnage and killing to which he did not refer but which we all know has been taking place in the Gulf area for the past two weeks?

Mr. King

I do not think that I can add to what I have already said. I have made it clear that we sought every way at the United Nations—[Interruption.] I assume that the hon. Gentleman supports the United Nations. He knows perfectly well that the United Nations made every effort that it could to avoid conflict in the Gulf. It failed and it took the action to which it believed there was no alternative. We all regret it, but I still hope that, provided we stick to the campaign, we will achieve a reasonably early solution without the sort of casualties to which he refers. That is certainly our determination. The conflict can be ended now if Saddam Hussein immediately removes from Kuwait, ends the aggression and gives the clear assurance that he has no future aggressive intentions.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of the British people believe that there will be peace in the middle east only when Saddam Hussein has been overthrown and, to that end, it will be necessary to do more than just evict the Iraqis from Kuwait?

Mr. King

I have made it clear that there is no point—well, not no point, but that it will be of limited benefit to liberate Kuwait, with the pain and difficulty involved, if it does not stay liberated. These are serious issues and the House, the country, the United Nations and the world are starting seriously to debate what would be the best approach to the eventualities that we may face at that time.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Partly since the effects of Chernobyl did not respect human frontiers, will the Secretary of State give us the facts on the damage to nuclear installations? Is there a radiation, Chernobyl-like problem? Does that go into, for instance, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Iran? What do we know about the effects of the dispersal of biological weapons? Those who bomb biological agent factories had better be clear about what the dispersal effects may be.

Mr. King

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that before any of those attacks could be contemplated, it was necessary to conduct the most thorough research into the methods of attack to minimise the risk of contamination outside the sites or even outside the buildings. The information available to me is that that has been achieved. General Schwarzkopf was asked this question and he gave a similar answer. Detailed research was conducted into the weather conditions that should apply, the time of day and the temperature at which attacks should be conducted and the method of attack that should be used against the building concerned.

This highlights the contrast between the way in which our air campaign has been conducted and the Iraqis' indiscriminate attacks with missiles. I trust that the hon. Gentleman will approve of that contrast. I know that he disapproves of Iraq's having nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and stores and that, therefore, he understands the importance of ensuring that those weapons be eliminated and that the elimination be carried out in the most painstaking way to minimise the risk of contamination.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

My right hon. Friend has quite rightly stressed the importance, in moral terms, of the postal services to our forces in the Gulf. The matter has been raised in the House on many occasions. May I say how pleased people are at what the Post Office has now decided to do and how delighted I personally am that he paid tribute to United Carriers. But why is the Post Office always the tail-end Charlie? Why cannot the Post Office be up front? Why cannot it be the first organisation to provide a parcel post service to our forces at a very low rate?

Mr. King

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said. I shall ensure that his remarks are conveyed to the chairman of the Post Office, who, from my personal knowledge of him, will deeply resent the "tail-end Charlie" accusation but will, instead, be first-past-the-post Nick.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sure that those hon. Members who have not been called to put questions on this statement will have some priority next time.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Please, no points of order.