HC Deb 07 January 2003 vol 397 cc23-39 3.32 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Iraq.

In a written statement to the House earlier today, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Government's policy objectives for Iraq. Those objectives make clear our commitment to the disarmament of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and to the United Nations process. They set out our vision that Iraq should become a stable, united and law abiding state, within its present borders, co-operating with the international community, no longer posing a threat to its neighbours or to international security, abiding by all its international obligations and providing effective and representative government for its own people. I am confident that this is a vision which is shared by all Members of the House.

Furthermore, the statement puts our policy on Iraq in the context of the Government's wider agenda: our efforts to resolve related issues, including the middle east peace process; wider political engagement with Arab countries and the Islamic world; efforts to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and the elimination of terrorism as a force in international affairs.

Those objectives restate the Government's absolute commitment to act in conformity with international law, including the UN charter and international humanitarian law. I commend them to the House.

In publishing those objectives, the Government are restating their full and active support for UNMOVIC and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Together, those organisations have about 110 inspectors working in Iraq and have already completed more than 200 inspections. We are now looking to them to investigate urgently the gaps in Iraq's declaration of its weapons of mass destruction programmes, which, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear on 19 December, fails to give a satisfactory account of Iraq's activities in this area.

UNMOVIC and the IAEA will next report formally to the Security Council on 27 January. That is not necessarily a decision point on Iraqi compliance. In fact, under resolution 1441, UNMOVIC and the IAEA are required to report immediately to the Security Council any Iraqi interference or non-compliance. The council would then meet urgently to consider the situation. It follows that non-compliance could be declared at any time, either before or after 27 January, as a result of Iraqi failures.

While we want Iraq and Saddam Hussein to disarm voluntarily, it is evident that we will not achieve that unless we continue to present him with a clear and credible threat of force, so the policy objectives also make it clear that we must continue with military planning and preparations. Before the recess, I described to the House the contingency planning and preparatory activity that we had set in hand for that purpose. I now set out two further specific steps that we are taking.

The first step relates to reserves. On 25 November and 18 December, I explained the preparatory work that we were undertaking to identify the potential requirement for reserves. Reservists play key enabling roles in support of all three services. Reservists, however, cannot be brought into active service instantly. They require notice in order to be able to set their affairs in order and to go through a mobilisation process that includes medical checks, the issuing of equipment, and any necessary training and preparation for the tasks that may be required of them.

Against that background, and to keep open a range of military options, I have today made an order under section 54(1) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable the call-out of reservists for possible operations against Iraq. That does not mean that a decision has been taken to commit British forces to such operations, but it is an essential enabling measure to ensure that if such operations become necessary they will be properly supported with the skills and expertise that our reserve forces provide.

Following the making of the order, the armed forces will issue call-out notices as required in order to mobilise those individuals who may be needed. That process is likely to be incremental. The overall scale of mobilisation will depend on the continuing evolution of our contingency planning. It should also be borne in mind that experience shows that the number of call-out notices issued needs to be significantly larger than the number of individual reservists likely to be required. It would therefore be misleading, as well as undesirable for reasons of operational security, for me to give specific numbers or details at this stage. However, we envisage initially sending out sufficient call-out notices to secure about 1,500 reservists, and we will issue further notices as appropriate. The Government take seriously their duty to call out reservists only when it is absolutely necessary. We understand the impact of call-out both on reservists and on their employers. I pay tribute to the valuable contribution they make to the overall strength of our armed forces.

Secondly, in my statement on 18 December, I described the long-planned deployment of naval task group 2003 to the Gulf and Asia-Pacific regions, and said that we were also considering the deployment of additional maritime forces early in the new year. I have now authorised the deployment of a number of additional vessels and units later this month, which will represent a significant amphibious capability. The group will conduct training in the Mediterranean with a view to proceeding to the Gulf region if and as required.

The objective is to ensure the readiness of a broad range of military capabilities. Preparatory steps of this nature are necessary in order to keep military options open. It is likely that we will want to make further deployments in the coming weeks for the same purpose. We are taking steps to ensure the readiness of units and equipment, and the availability of appropriate chartered shipping and air transport in which to deploy them.

The planned deployments in the next few weeks will now include the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal; the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean; the destroyers HMS Liverpool, HMS Edinburgh and HMS York; the frigate HMS Marlborough; the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels Argus, Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie and Fort Austin; the landing ships logistic Sir Galahad, Sir Tristram and Sir Percivale; a mine countermeasures group initially comprising HMS Grimsby and HMS Ledbury; and a submarine, as originally planned for naval task group 2003. We plan to deploy amphibious forces in HMS Ark Royal, HMS Ocean and associated shipping, including headquarters 3 Commando Brigade, 40 Commando Royal Marines and 42 Commando Royal Marines with all supporting elements.

None of that means that the use of force is inevitable. Despite the speculation that will arise as a result of these announcements today, it remains the case that no decision has been taken to commit those forces to action. But, as I said on 18 December, as long as Saddam's compliance with UN Security Council resolution 1441 is in doubt, as it continues to be at present, the threat of force must remain and it must be a real one.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to see his statement in advance. The House will acknowledge that such decisions as he has made today will have a dramatic effect on the lives of individuals and their families, and that those individuals might ultimately be asked to put their lives at risk. Servicemen and their families have had to endure a long period of uncertainty, fuelled by intense media speculation about the Government's policy. The whole House respects and admires our armed forces; the Government should be careful not to take them for granted.

The Opposition continue broadly to support the Government's policy towards Iraq, as set out by the Foreign Secretary. War is not inevitable, and everything should be done to try to avoid it. Even without further United Nations endorsement, British and US policy must continue to comply with international law. Moreover, if war becomes unavoidable, no effort should be spared to persuade our partners and allies in the UN Security Council to support the policy to which President Bush and the Prime Minister are so profoundly committed. Today, the Prime Minister has reiterated: Unless the world takes a stand on this issue of weapons of mass destruction, we will rue the consequences of our weakness. We wholly support this stated resolve and welcome the Secretary of State's statement today, so far as it goes.

On reservists, will the Secretary of State make it clear that he is referring only to members of the Territorial Army, and not to those on the civilian regular reserve list? Will he also tell us how long those who are called up may be required to serve? What discussions has he had with their employers to mitigate the effects of their call-up on their continued employment and their career prospects? What effect will the call up of medical staff have on the national health service? Will the Government support measures to ensure that the burden is fairly spread across the whole of the NHS and not concentrated on particular hospitals? On the subject of HMS Ark Royal and the naval task group, how many service men and women does this commitment involve? What is the new total of British service men and women now committed to operations or exercises associated with possible military operations against Iraq?

For the House to have confidence that the Government can demonstrate what the Secretary of State refers to as the clear and credible threat of force", the House is surely entitled to greater clarity from the Government on the preparations for possible military action against Iraq. Will the Secretary of State explain why the Government will not announce clearer decisions about all the forces that they intend to make available, to demonstrate how they will back the Prime Minister's words? Why, instead, do they appear to be delaying decisions about deployments and playing down our military commitment? The Secretary of State has just announced what I believe to be the largest call-out of reserves since 1991. He has announced the commitment of possibly 5,000 additional service men and women to operations. Why will he not say that? Why are these figures not included in his statement? Is it the policy of the Government to have British tanks and armoured vehicles available at the outset of possible military operations? If so, I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that the hour is already very late for such decisions.

To make a fuller announcement would not betray tactics, compromise security or set limitations on later commitments, as the Secretary of State tries to suggest. Why will the Government not explain that HMS Ark Royal and the amphibious task group are being deployed to put pressure on Saddam? That would assert the Government's resolve and commitment, and increase the pressure on Saddam to comply. In the interests of those in our armed forces who may be in the front line of military operations—some already are—will the Secretary of State assure the House that none of this present uncertainty is due to differences on the Government Benches? Are the Government truly united behind the Prime Minister's policy?

The publication in September of the Government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction demonstrated that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, clearly believe that Saddam Hussein is in breach of his UN obligations. It now seems unlikely that the UN inspectors will find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Saddam Hussein has had too much time to conceal them and to destroy the evidence. If the weapons inspectors find nothing and the United States decides to go ahead with military action in any case, what will be the Government's policy?

Mr. Hoon

I welcome what the hon. Gentleman described as his broad support for the Government's position. I will endeavour to answer his questions as best I can, given the obvious reasons why some of those points should not be addressed on the Floor of the House.

I have dealt with the question of reservists on a number of previous occasions, and l' am confident that the procedures that we have set out provide an appropriate balance between the needs of our national health service, which the hon. Gentleman rightly recognised, and the need to ensure proper medical assistance to our armed forces should that become necessary. I shall not give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he asked for about dividing responsibility between hospitals. Clearly we have to have those people who are available and who have the appropriate expertise. We are in continuing discussions with colleagues from the Department of Health with a view to ensuring that there is an appropriate division of the responsibility for meeting our needs.

I shall not set out numbers at this stage because it would simply not be appropriate. Nor would it be appropriate at this stage, as the hon. Gentleman will realise if he gives the matter a moment's thought, to indicate the kinds of capabilities that we would seek to deploy. I have previously given the House, in response to a number of questions, indications of preparations concerning main battle tanks, for example, but at this stage we have made no specific decisions as to the kinds of forces that will be deployed because none has been taken by any nation. It is important that the House realises that. It would simply not be sensible to make such decisions. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman thinks the issue through, he will appreciate why that is the case.

On the point about pressure on Saddam Hussein, that was an important part of my statement today and of my previous statements to the House. It is clearly necessary that we demonstrate to Saddam Hussein and his regime that we mean business. I should have thought that my statement clearly indicated that. At this stage, it is important that we approach these matters—I hope that this is consistent with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about our armed forces—with absolute regard to the men and women who serve in Her Majesty's armed forces. They are doing a vital job on behalf of this country, and they will continue to do so. No one takes that service for granted.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I also thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement and for keeping the House informed.

Our thoughts should go out to the men and women who are preparing themselves for the possibility of going into battle. That cannot be easy for them, or indeed for their families, in this new year. The news of British troops readying themselves for potential conflict sends a clear political message to Saddam Hussein, but does the Secretary of State agree that we need to tread a very careful line? Saddam Hussein must comply with the United Nations, and the threat of force is an important part of a diplomatic effort, but if Saddam Hussein thinks that war is inevitable, is it not the case that he will have no incentive to comply?

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with our other allies concerning their preparations? Will only Britain and the US send troops to the Gulf, and if so, why? While there is still time, I impress once more on the Secretary of State the importance placed by this party and, I believe, many outside the House on a substantive vote in the House of Commons before troops go into action.

On equipment, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Gulf war and Exercise Saif Sareea gave rise to a range of problems associated with desert preparations. The link between the vaccine and Gulf war illness has been an issue. Are the Government confident that vaccines issued to servicemen today will not make them ill in the future? The National Audit Office report on Saif Sareea said that the Clansman radio was unstable, so how will our soldiers communicate on the ground? Friendly fire continues to be a worry for our forces. What lessons have been learned from the past? If the Ark Royal is to be deployed, will her Sea Harriers be able to operate in the Gulf?

Finally, I stress that I am asking these questions because we believe that the Ministry of Defence must provide the best for our armed forces. Regardless of any political differences that we may have, our thoughts in the House should be with the men and women of our armed forces who are going into the unknown.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, particularly for his final observations, which I strongly support and endorse. He is certainly right—I set out in my statement the fact that Saddam Hussein's compliance is much more likely if he realises that we are prepared to use military force to support the United Nations Security Council's decisions. It is certainly important that that is communicated to him—he can be in no doubt about that, given the military preparations that we, the United States and, indeed, other countries have embarked on. The United States made a request to 50 countries for military assistance, and obviously each country is considering its position. My right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Leader of the House have made clear the Government's position on any substantive resolution of the House, and there has been no change in it.

As for vaccination, a key lesson learned from the Gulf conflict was the importance of ensuring that members of the armed forces should not undergo in a short time a series of different vaccinations. That was identified as a particular cause of difficulty, and the lesson has been learned and acted upon, so that there is now a process whereby individual members do not receive a number of vaccinations in a short time frame.

As for the question of friendly fire, we are engaged in a process of ensuring that combat identification is dealt with satisfactorily. There is no single technological solution to that difficult problem, but we will acquire new equipment that will be available in time for any potential conflict in the Gulf. Obviously, I cannot go into precise details, but, as for combat identification, I can assure the House that British troops will be able to work alongside American forces entirely safely and satisfactorily.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should we not bear in mind the fact that on all previous occasions the Iraqi regime has lied and lied again about weapons of mass destruction—for example, in 1995, when two of the dictator's sons-in-law defected, and the regime admitted that the information given about such weapons was actually accurate. As for military action, which we all, not just the critics, want to avoid, is it not Saddam Hussein's responsibility to do precisely what he promised to do after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991? If he gives up the weapons of mass destruction that he continues to deny having, there will be no need for any form of war whatsoever.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is quite right—the responsibility lies with Saddam Hussein and the present Iraqi regime, who have been given an opportunity under Security Council resolution 1441 to comply with the will of the international community. My hon. Friend is also right that their observance of UN resolutions has been less than satisfactory. Indeed, it is clear that a preliminary view of the declaration that they made before Christmas shows that it is seriously short on detail and lacks in particular any significant reference to a number of conclusions reached by UNSCOM as long ago as 1999.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South)

The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Iraqi declaration of weapons of mass destruction fails to give a satisfactory account of Iraq's activities in that area. On what basis is that assertion made?

Mr. Hoon

The detailed assessment of the declaration has yet to be completed, but as I have just indicated, on a preliminary view it is clear that there are significant gaps, not least relating to the UNSCOM report of 1999, completed after the weapons inspectors were ordered out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein. It is clear that the present declaration does not deal with significant aspects of that report from 1999.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

The Lord Chancellor pointed out today that war could be averted if Saddam Hussein stood down or if the Iraqis voluntarily disarmed. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the sole ground for involving ourselves in military conflict with Iraq will be the material breach of United Nations resolution 1441, and that no other pretext will be used to commit British armed servicemen and women to a war that is designed to bring about regime change in Iraq through a pre-emptive strike?

Mr. Hoon

The Government's position is set out, not least in the statement that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made of the Government's objectives in relation to Iraq. They demonstrate that the key reason for continuing concern about Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime is their possession of weapons of mass destruction. It is crucial that they should be disarmed of those weapons. It has been made clear not only by the United States President, but by the British Prime Minister that a key aspect of that could be the removal of Saddam Hussein, and that if he left, the regime thereafter would be in a quite different position, and would be a different regime as far as the international community was concerned.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Although I welcome the readiness measures as far as they go, will the Secretary of State expand on his remarks about a wider engagement with the Arab and Islamic world? Can he say, in particular, what will happen to the Downing street initiative to extend the peace process, now that Israel has taken the decision not to allow any of the Palestinian delegates to come to this country?

Mr. Hoon

Obviously, that matter is still under discussion with Israel, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me and all other Members of the House in welcoming the Government's initiative as a determined effort to get the middle east peace process back on track.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

After his last statement, my right hon. Friend agreed with me that if Saddam formed the impression that war was probable or inevitable, that would be a strong disincentive to disarm. Does my right hon. Friend see any risk that we might be increasing that impression and thus the chances of conflict? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that if there is an unnecessary war, any alleged additional British influence on the Bush Administration would be poor compensation for lost lives?

Mr. Hoon

I can assure my hon. Friend that if it is necessary, ultimately, to resort to military action, that then will be necessary because every other avenue has been exhausted and the opportunities given to Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime have been spurned by the Government in Iraq. It is important that we demonstrate our absolute commitment to the enforcement of Security Council resolution 1441 through the kinds of military planning and preparation that I set out to the House today.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

The Secretary of State told us of the formidable naval deployment that is to take place, and he has mentioned in the House on a number of occasions the work that is being done to make the tanks suitable for desert or semi-desert warfare. Will he therefore tell the House what he has in mind to deploy at this stage by way of armour? If he is able to reveal the extent of the naval deployment, there will be nothing to stop him speaking of the Army deployment. We know the Air Force strength. Why cannot he now confirm that a divisional headquarters and two armoured brigades will be the sort of formation that will be sent as part of Britain's formidable contribution to a war that we all hope will never have to happen?

Mr. Hoon

I am not in a position to confirm that today because that decision has yet to be taken, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that once that decision is taken, I will inform the House at the earliest possible opportunity.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

If and when American and British armour reaches Baghdad, what thinking through has there been of what happens then?

Mr. Hoon

Clearly, there is consideration, as there always is in such a prospective military operation, of what might occur thereafter. Having so recently been engaged in military operations in Afghanistan and equally in the management of the aftermath, we have some very recent experience on which to draw. I invite my hon. Friend to look carefully at the efforts that have been made by the United Kingdom, as part of the international community, to stabilise Afghanistan and provide it with very significant support as it grapples with the difficulties of rebuilding itself, its economy and ultimately, we hope, a democracy.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

The Secretary of State was, at best, reticent in giving us details of the impact on the NHS of the call-out of reservists. Has not the decimation of the defence medical services during the past few years, with huge shortfalls in resources as many experienced clinicians have left for better careers, led to pressure on the NHS? What is he doing to address that absolutely dire situation in our defence medical services, which is putting pressure on the NHS while also leaving us having to contract out the provision of such services to support our armed forces?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, who has both personal and ministerial expertise in the area to which the hon. Gentleman refers, very recently completed the medical manning and retention review, which he announced to the House in November last year. The review was broadly welcomed by hon. Members as a significant contribution to dealing with the historic problems that the defence medical services undoubtedly face. It is an important step towards ensuring that both full-time and reservist medical staff are available to meet the needs of our armed forces. It has always been the case that, in major deployments, we would need to call upon the services of our reserves to ensure that proper medical assistance is available.

Paull Flynn (Newport, West)

There is very little support and a great deal of hostility among our constituents with regard to the possibility of sacrificing a single soldier's life in the present circumstances. Other countries in Europe are taking an independent line from that taken by the President of America. Can we have a vote in this House to express the views of those constituents and to give us a chance of escaping from our present link as a junior partner with the United States in this axis of delusion?

Mr. Hoon

May I deal specifically with my hon. Friend's observation about other European nations? To my knowledge—I have been a regular visitor in recent months to most of our partner nations in the European Union—only one country has specifically ruled out the use of military force, for well-known reasons. He needs to check a little more carefully the state of public opinion in the countries that he cites before announcing it to the House. On the question of a vote, I have set out the position and it remains as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary indicated.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

In seeking to uphold the authority of the United Nations by military force, quite rightly if necessary, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be a hollow victory, and that there would be no victory in the fight against terrorism world wide, if no progress was made on the conflict between Israel and Palestine? Will he therefore not be pushed around by the Government of Israel and remind them that there are one or two United Nations Security Council resolutions that we expect them to follow, too?

Mr. Hoon

I indicated earlier the Government's concern to ensure that progress is made on the middle east peace process. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), who has ministerial responsibility for the middle east, is present in the House and I am sure that he has heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks. The Government take the matter very seriously and continue to take action on it.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

My right hon. Friend referred in his statement to the preparation needed for the deployment of reservists. He knows that reservists have homes, jobs and families and cannot be deployed at the drop of a weapons inspector. Does he agree with my constituents who are reservists that the current situation, which we all hope will be resolved speedily and without bloodshed, should provoke a further look at the levels of support that need to be given to reservists in future so that they can fulfil their commitment to serve their country?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's concern about reservists, and this is precisely why, for several weeks now, we have taken a careful, considered and cautious approach to their position. I am grateful for her interest, and I assure her that her observations will be taken fully into account.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

May I say to the Secretary of State that the formula whereby a decision has yet to be taken is beginning to wear a little thin, particularly in respect of the deployment of a reinforced armoured brigade? Informed commentators have been assuming for months that such a deployment will be Britain's main contribution to these operations. If a decision has indeed not been taken, that is wholly irresponsible, given the length of time needed properly to train and to form up those troops and to transport them to the region. It would help if the Secretary of State were rather more candid with the House.

Mr. Hoon

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that I am being anything other than candid with the House—but if he is, I invite him to reconsider his observation. I have already answered the question that he raises and made the position clear, and I have nothing to add to what I said earlier.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

If the UN decides to take no military action against Iraq, will British troops join American troops in invading Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

The position of the United Nations has been set out by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The Government would clearly prefer that there should be a second Security Council resolution, and that has been our position. However, it equally follows that it is the responsibility of the Security Council to ensure that its previous resolutions are properly upheld and properly enforced.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

Gaps in the declaration made by Iraq before Christmas have not been satisfactorily explained away. Will that be sufficient cause for a declaration of war?

Mr. Hoon

Resolution 1441 sets out clearly not only that it is necessary that there should be a failure properly to declare Iraq's holdings of weapons of mass destruction, but that they should not co-operate effectively with the international inspection as authorised by the resolution. However, it is important that we take time to assess properly the declaration's contents and, as I have said, to compare it with our previous knowledge of the state of the WMD programme in Iraq.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West)

A constituent of mine is a full-time member of the Scottish Ambulance Service—an organisation with a slightly unfortunate acronym—and a part-time member of the Territorial Army infantry in Scotland. My constituent is unhappy, as am I, with the fact that the stated policy of the Scottish Ambulance Service is not to release personnel for service with the armed forces where no stated legal obligation exists. Indeed, it goes further by actively discouraging TA personnel from remaining in the TA. Will the Secretary of State support me in urging the Scottish Ambulance Service to consider changing its policy?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which he has raised from time to time on behalf of several private sector employers that give support to their TA employees. It is important that the public sector match that, and I shall certainly take up the issue, as he suggests.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

From time to time we are told that if Saddam were to step aside, that would resolve the situation. On what basis can we have confidence in such a view, bearing in mind that he heads a non-democratic regime with its own agenda?

I also want to press the Secretary of State on the preparation of our troops. I appreciate that he gave a very good answer to Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), but in the light of the changes that we read about, is the Secretary of State persuaded that every solider is being properly prepared medically for the engagement?

Mr. Hoon

On the hon. Gentleman's last question, I am confident that every effort is being made and that lessons have been learned from previous conflicts, especially in respect of operations in the Gulf. We are determined to ensure that all our armed forces have the right preparation and equipment to enable them to conduct a military operation, if that becomes necessary.

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)

My right hon. Friend said that the US had asked more than 50 countries for military assistance and that virtually none had ruled out military action. Will he name one other country that is taking steps similar to those that he has announced today?

Mr. Hoon

Clearly, each country must make its own response to the US. I am not aware of the responses that the US has received, but I assure my hon. Friend that a number of countries are offering assistance in different ways to the US.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that although a strategy of maintaining a close relationship with the US is necessary and right, it is not a sufficient justification for UK participation in a war against Iraq? Does he not understand that many people do not believe that the threat posed by Iraq is sufficiently imminent or grave to constitute a moral basis for war?

Mr. Hoon

The issue is not simply whether there is a moral basis for war, but whether there is a legal basis for it. The Government have consistently made it clear that we will take decisions based on the appropriate international legal position. I am absolutely confident that, as the Government have made clear on a number of occasions previously, we will go through a proper process in the UN and internationally before we take any decisions about military action.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

I am intrigued by my right hon. Friend's view that there is a need only for a legal basis for action, not a moral basis. I hope that he will expand on that. In that context, does he agree that there must be a national consensus before we can be prepared to commit the men and women serving in our armed forces and put their lives at risk? Where is the evidence that that national consensus in favour of war exists? What evidence will he bring to the House to show that it exists before we go to war? Does my right hon. Friend accept that the prevailing mood in the country remains very sceptical and that a huge number of people believe that Britain is acting not in its own interests or in the interests of middle east peace, but solely in the interests of the relationship with the US?

Mr. Hoon

I do not think that my hon. Friend should get ahead of the position that I have set out. I have repeated consistently that the Government have taken no decision about military action. As I have explained, that will depend on the legal justification and—for the avoidance of doubt—also the moral basis. I was not suggesting in any way that the legal basis excluded the moral basis. However, in respect of my hon. Friend's remarks about consensus, the House voted overwhelmingly before the Christmas recess in support of the Government's position on UN Security Council resolution 1441. I have also pointed out that the Government have said that there would be a further vote in the House at an appropriate stage when military decisions have been taken and military action decided on.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

Last October, I visited 40 Commando Royal Marines—a unit based in Taunton—when it was on a desert training exercise in the US. I spoke to a number of Marines, who all voiced concern about the quality of their equipment. They were especially worried about the reliability of the Clansman radio. By the third week of that exercise, only 22 of the 70 radios that the unit had taken were working. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that if our troops go into a theatre of war in Iraq, they will be properly equipped?

Mr. Hoon

I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. As I told the House before the Christmas recess, a number of urgent operational requirements are currently being procured. That will certainly cover effective communications.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Although my right hon. Friend has said that war is not inevitable, may I press him still further on his medical contingency plans? Can he tell us what detailed plans exist for a medical plan, military hospitals and the requirements for convalescence that could be needed if this is pursued to its ultimate end?

Mr. Hoon

That point underlies the call-out of a number of our reservists. It is important that we have the right kind of medical support for our armed forces if military action is decided on, and I can assure my hon. Friend that her remarks will be taken fully into account before any resort is made to military action.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Is the Secretary of State seriously telling the House that he believes that there is a consensus of public opinion in this country and across Europe in favour of conflict with Iraq at present? He says that the measures that he has announced today are purely enabling, but does he appreciate the concern shared by many of us that those deployments and the vastly greater deployments by the United States carry their own momentum, making conflict almost inevitable? Does he appreciate the danger of being on a conveyor belt towards war?

Mr. Hoon

I answered the question about consensus a few moments ago. I am confident that there is an overwhelming consensus in support of the Government's policy on Iraq. At each stage, the Government have sought to set out their policy clearly to the House and, indeed, to the country, and that has been strongly supported. I do not believe that there is any inevitability about conflict, not least involving the United States, because it is in no different position from that of the United Kingdom in that it agreed to a United Nations process and it wants that process to be properly implemented and enforced.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I welcome what Ministers have said today about the need to broaden the agenda beyond Iraq and I join other hon. Members in urging Ministers not to be deflected from pursuing a just peace for Israel and Palestine. However, on Iraq, may I tell the Secretary of State that many of us want the weapons inspectors to succeed? Although we accept the need to keep the pressure on Saddam, we are worried about others using that as a pretext and a cover to get to 27 January and then to call time on those weapons inspections in support of adopting pre-emptive strikes, to which this House has not signed up. What reassurance can he give me on that?

Mr. Hoon

I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that he will find in the speech made by the President of the United States at the United Nations General Assembly on 12 September, when he committed his country to a UN process, negotiated a Security Council resolution, and sought at every stage to ensure that it is properly enforced. That continues to be the policy of the United States and, indeed, of the United Kingdom.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Notwithstanding other hon. Members' comments about public opinion from the perspective of those who oppose war, does the Secretary of State understand the concern among many of us who broadly support the Government's policy that the British public do not really understand what this is all about and that, if it does lead to war, the Government have a huge task ahead to convince the British people that they are doing the right thing? I suspect that there has not been an occasion of British deployment for many decades that has had less support from the public.

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that, but I recognise, as I have sought to explain to the House, that this is a step-by-step process and that it is not possible to secure overwhelming public support for military action before the explanation for that military action has been given and, therefore, before the justification for that military action has been identified. We have not yet reached that point in the process, and unless and until we do I accept that we cannot explain the justification for military action.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend concede that it would help the moral basis for war if one of the Government's stated objectives was to form a democratic Government in Iraq? The Government's stated objective is to have a unified Iraq, but not to have an Iraq whose Government reflect the will of the people. Given that former British Governments have helped to hinder and frustrate the development of democracy in Iraq, would not it be right for the Government today to say that their objective is to form a democratic Government in Iraq? Of course, we remember the promises that were hinted at about democracy in Kuwait.

Mr. Hoon

I refer my hon. Friend to the written statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary earlier today, to which I referred in my statement, in which we have set out our objectives in relation to Iraq, which include, among others, providing effective and representative Government for the people of Iraq.

Sue Doughty (Guildford)

I share with other Members a deep concern for our servicemen and women who do not know what the future holds for them—and for innocent men and women in Iraq, too, who do not know what the future holds. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that as our Government and that of the United States work with other countries to provide a peaceful solution—or, if they see it as necessary, a military solution—other benefits of war, such as Iraq's reserves, will form no part of those negotiations?

Mr. Hoon

That is the Government's position, and I make it clear to the House, as I have done already, that the basis for our concern about Saddam Hussein's regime involves his possession of weapons of mass destruction. Our objective is to remove those weapons of mass destruction from his control.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

As, I presume, it will take a defined time to prepare reservists for possible military action, was today's announcement triggered by evidence from the UN inspectors of a possible material breach, or by the United States Administration's clear belief that a successful attack against Iraq must begin in February?

Mr. Hoon

It was triggered by the need to ensure that if there is to be military action to enforce the decisions of the UN Security Council, the United Kingdom is ready and able to play its part.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

As our service personnel shape up to their duties with courage and determination, will the Secretary of State undertake to bear that in mind when pay and conditions are next considered? Many feel that the special factors in service life are not fully reflected in pay and conditions, and that it is not reasonable, for instance, that some personnel should be paid several thousands pounds a year less than firefighters.

Mr. Hoon

That is a matter for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, to which I gave evidence before the Christmas recess. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's observations and I am sure that they will be taken fully into account by the body before it produces its report.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

It is a long time since I was last in Iraq—it was during the Suez crisis of 1956. Is my right hon. Friend aware that, at that time, a whole host of reservists refused to be called up? Does he feel that, in the absence of a consensus, he might face that problem again? If so, what are his contingency plans?

Mr. Hoon

Certainly, we have sought to take into account, in the careful way in which we have approached the question of reservists, their particular and individual circumstances. I certainly take my hon. Friend's observations into account, although, at the time, I was not in a position to match his service.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford)

The Secretary of State omitted to mention in his statement the F/A2 Sea Harrier and its deployment. Was that omission intentional? Alternatively, does it mean that the Secretary of State is now sending our Royal Navy taskforce to sea and possibly to conflict without a single jet engine designed to provide air defence?

Mr. Hoon

As I explained to the House, the task group that will be deployed will essentially be a helicopter-carrying task group, and HMS Ark Royal will be deployed in that role.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, yesterday, Saddam Hussein referred to the UN inspectors as spies. Will he assure me that as the inspectors carry out their work over the next three weeks and, if necessary, beyond 27 January, they will be given full protection and support and whatever assistance they need to find what is being hidden in Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I do not believe that the House should take notice of typical bluster by Saddam Hussein. A very determined effort has been made in the design and operation of the work being carried out by UNMOVIC to avoid some of the mistakes made in the past in relation to UNSCOM and previous inspections. I can give him the assurance that this country and other countries will fully support the efforts of the weapons inspectors.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport)

Given the degree of scepticism world wide and in the House, who in the view of the Government is now the ultimate judge of whether Saddam Hussein has complied with resolution 1441? Is it or is it not the United Nations?

Mr. Hoon

It is clear from Security Council resolution 1441 that there will have to be a further discussion in the Security Council before any such determination is reached.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

May I probe further on the comments that the Lord Chancellor made on the "Today" programme this morning? Was he correct in saying that war could be averted by either Iraq disarming or, separately, Saddam Hussein standing down? In the latter instance, why would weapons of mass destruction not be a factor that warrants war? Why and when did regime change become a purpose of the Government's war preparations?

Mr. Hoon

The objective is the disarming of Saddam Hussein and his regime. If he were to stand down—we believe that that would enormously improve the situation in Iraq and advance regional security and stability—that would clearly produce a very different regime in Iraq. We would want to see that any succeeding regime was not a threat and did not rely on weapons of mass destruction, so the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the control of the regime remains a prerequisite. However, as the US President has made clear, Iraq without Saddam Hussein would be a very different country indeed.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk)

I noted the Secretary of State's response to my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) on the question of energy supplies. The Guardian this morning reports that the Foreign Secretary admitted yesterday in a speech to ambassadors that security of energy sources is a key element of British foreign policy and yet there is no reference at all to that in either the Secretary of State's statement or in the earlier written statement from the Foreign Secretary. Is it credible to suggest that that issue is a key priority of British foreign policy and yet plays no part in the Government's thinking on the country that has the second largest oil reserves of any country in the world?

Mr. Hoon

May I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he reads the entirety of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary's speech? I am sure that it is available on the Foreign Office website and the hon. Gentleman can look at the whole speech rather than relying on the rather tendentious account of it in The Guardian this morning.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

Will my right hon. Friend explain to the House what is meant by the phrase "full and active support" for the United Nations weapons inspectors, unless it means that, without a positive report from the inspectors of breaches by Iraq, British forces will not he committed into conflict?

Mr. Hoon

We have made clear the importance of all members of the international community supporting the work of the weapons inspectors. In practical terms, for example, that has meant that the United Kingdom has made available certain equipment to the inspectors pending their ability to procure equipment for themselves. "Full and active support" means not only supporting their work in principle, as is consistent with Security Council resolution 1441, but providing the practical assistance that will allow their work to be completed successfully.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham)

Will the Secretary of State confirm the recent estimate of the Royal United Services Institute that a reasonable estimate for the cost of full British participation in a military operation in the Gulf will be about £5 million, rather than the £1 billion that the Government have set aside so far?

Mr. Hoon

I have not seen that detailed estimate. We have set aside the spending that is necessary to ensure that we have the required equipment. All military operations require some short-term urgent spending, and that has certainly been necessary for preparations for any possible operations in Iraq. However, I am not yet in a position to give the hon. Gentleman any fuller picture of the overall cost because, as yet, those costs have not arisen.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the new year exercise that you have given me this afternoon. [Interruption.] Bobbing up and down to ask a question, I mean. I see that the Secretary of State has cottoned on.

Before Christmas, I asked how many reservists were employed in the national health service as doctors and nurses. The Minister gave me a guesstimate and promised to write to me, which he did. He said: I am afraid that the figures I gave you at the time were inaccurate. We hold no record of the number of Volunteer Reserve Forces or former Service personnel with a recall liability who are working within the NHS. The Secretary of State implied today, however, that he knows the figures. Does he think that it is important for the NHS and MPs, with our local hospitals to consider, to know how many people working in the NHS have had call-out notices, and what effect that will have on the treatment of our constituents?

Mr. Hoon

I indicated that the number of reservists that we are aiming to have available—in the short-term, at any rate—is 1,500. I also indicated that we are aware that that will have an impact on our hospital services, and the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence have discussed it for some weeks. It is not necessary for me to deal with the matter in more detail than is set out by my right hon. Friend in the correspondence.