§ 7. Mr. Nellist
To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the timetable for withdrawal of British troops from the Gulf.
§ Mr. Tom King
British forces are now being progressively withdrawn from the Gulf. In the next two weeks, further ships, 7th Armoured Brigade Group and the bulk of the RAF combat aircraft will return. The precise timing of the return of other units will depend on progress on the ceasefire and other factors.
§ Mr. Nellist
In an earlier answer, the Secretary of State told us that troops were returning at a rate of about 1,000 per day, so their return should be complete by about the end of April. What is the Government's view of the insurrection now taking place in Iraq, especially in the north and the south-west? Is it the same as the view of the United States Government which, according to a report in The Guardian last week, seems to boil down to "Better the devil you know than a weak coalition or a new strong man", or do the Government welcome the fact that the people of Iraq are dealing with their own problems and trying to fight for democracy?
§ Mr. Bellingham
As some of the forces are already returning from Iraq, will my right hon. Friend find time today to pay a further tribute to the three squadrons from RAF Marham in west Norfolk who played a superb role in the conflict? Will he also reflect on the fact that if the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) had had his way there would have been no British forces in the Gulf to withdraw?
§ Mr. King
I note that the hon. Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Nellist) has changed the thrust of his questions. My hon. Friend is right—the liberation of Kuwait would not have been achieved without the determination of the Government and the coalition to ensure that in the final analysis, if peaceful means and diplomacy could not prevail, we were prepared to use force. I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute not only to RAF Marham, whose forces and units made an outstanding contribution, but to all our forces and to the coalition forces for the part that they played in using the force that was necessary.
§ Dr. Reid
Last Saturday in Devon the Secretary of State said that the priority was to get the troops home and give them the welcome and thanks that they deserved. Does he accept that many of the young men and women returning home face an uncertain and insecure future because of possible cuts in armed services numbers as a result of "Options for Change"? Does he agree that the thanks and welcome that they deserve is a Government guarantee that adequate retraining will be provided for those who may face re-entry into civilian life? Does the Secretary of State accept that the existing 28 days pre-release training is woefully inadequate and is it not time that he gave the armed services a real vote of confidence by announcing plans to augment the already meagre measures for retraining?
§ Mr. King
I understand entirely the hon. Gentleman's point about the need to give reassurance and confidence to our armed forces after the part that they have played. I am interested that the hon. Gentleman chooses to ask that question from the Opposition Front Bench. Whatever changes we may think modest and possible within the 152 changed security environment are as nothing compared with the changes that the Opposition would impose if their defence cuts were ever implemented.
§ Mr. Brazier
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is a high priority to bring as many of our service men as possible home as quickly as we can from the Gulf, where they have done such a splendid job, the situation in the Gulf is likely to remain unstable for a very long time, even if the shooting stops, because of the many different, powerful and, in many cases, unpleasant groups there, so the Government will have to consider maintaining a presence in the Gulf for a very long time?
§ Mr. King
Whatever the longer-term future may hold, the immediate present is very uncertain. We are monitoring the situation and making it clear that the completion of our withdrawal will depend on a satisfactory agreement being reached on a formal ceasefire. We have not yet achieved all our objectives, but in the longer term we shall keep the issue to which my hon. Friend referred under review. We do not envisage having ground forces in the area, but I have already said that we shall have a naval presence there and that we shall wish to keep in very close defence contact with our friends and allies in the area.