HC Deb 20 January 2003 vol 398 cc34-46 4.10 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I should like to make a statement on further contingency preparations in relation to Iraq.

It may be helpful to remind the House of the preparations announced previously. On 25 November and 18 December, I described the measures that we were taking to ensure that our forces were prepared and had the training, equipment and support they might need, as well as the consideration that we were giving to the potential requirements for reservists and additional maritime deployments.

In a statement on 7 January, I announced the making of an order enabling the call-out of reservists, and the deployment of maritime forces including 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. I explained that it was likely that we would want to make further deployments in the coming weeks to be able to keep military options open, and that we were taking steps to ensure the readiness of units and equipment, and the availability of appropriate chartered shipping and air transport. In a written statement on 14 January, I described the details of continuing preparatory activity, involving the movement and deployment of enabling equipment, including tracked vehicles, exploratory visits and liaison with other military staffs in the region.

When I made a statement on 7 January, a number of hon. Members pressed me to say what other forces the Government intend to make available. In particular, I was invited to set out the nature of any land force that might be deployed. I explained at that time that I could not do so, for the simple reason that no decision had by then been taken.

I am now in a position to be able to tell the House that we have reached a view on the composition and deployment of a land force package to provide military capabilities for potential operations against Iraq. That force will include the headquarters of 1 UK Armoured Division with support from 7 Armoured Brigade, 16 Air Assault Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade. Its equipment will include 120 Challenger 2 main battle tanks, 150 Warrior armoured personnel carriers, 32 AS 90 self-propelled guns, 18 light guns, and a number of reconnaissance and other vehicles. The total number of personnel involved in this land force will be approximately 26,000. In addition, we are already deploying 3 Commando Brigade, with around 4,000 personnel including their supporting elements.

The House will not expect me to discuss the specific tasks that might be undertaken by our forces in the event of military operations. This is, however, a high-readiness, balanced and flexible force package, bringing together a wide range of capabilities. The chiefs of staff and I are confident that this is the right group of forces for the sort of tasks that may be necessary.

The House will recognise that a force package of this size cannot be deployed without notice. As the written statement on 14 January explained, to keep this option open, we have already started the movement and deployment of enabling assets, including logistics, engineering, signals and command vehicles and equipment. We will now begin to deploy the combat equipment and personnel of the formations comprising the land force package. That will involve significant movements from units in both the United Kingdom and Germany before their deployment by sea and air over the days and weeks ahead Headquarters and support staffs will also deploy to liaise with other military staffs in the region and to take forward planning and preparatory activity.

In the coming weeks, we will also need to call out additional reservists in support of these land forces. The details of our overall reservist requirement are continuing to evolve, and I expect to be able to provide further information on that in due course.

None of the steps that we are taking represents a commitment of British forces to specific military action. These are measures necessary to provide a range of military options that we may require. A decision to employ force has not been taken, nor is such a decision imminent or inevitable. I must also emphasise, however, as all Members will recognise, that the deployment of forces on this scale is no ordinary measure.

While we want 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. That is why I have announced these deployments, in support of the diplomatic process to which we remain fully committed. It is not too late for Saddam Hussein to recognise the will of the international community and respect United Nations resolutions. Let us all hope that he does so.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for making a copy of it available in advance.

This is an important moment. When a quarter of the British Army is deployed on a single operation in addition to the 4,000 already deployed in the amphibious taskforce, it is a huge commitment. The Opposition have consistently supported the broad thrust of the Government's policy of diplomacy backed by force against Iraq ever since the Prime Minister first made his position known in the summer. Therefore, the House need be in no doubt that we support this decision.

I spent a week last year with the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment in Germany. Almost a year ago, it was preparing its men and equipment for just such an eventuality. Let there be no doubt about the determination and professionalism of the whole of the British armed forces to carry out whatever tasks are asked of them.

Inevitably, this statement raises a huge number of questions, but I would like the Secretary of State to address just three broad issues concerning preparedness, military planning and the political backing that our troops deserve. First, can he assure the House that he believes that our troops are fully trained and fully equipped for whatever they may be asked to do? For example, how will they be protected from chemical and biological threats? What inoculations are being administered to British troops and what reassurances can we give them that there will be no recurrence of the problem known as Gulf war syndrome?

What protection will our troops have from the missiles that we suspect Saddam still has given that the United Kingdom has no theatre missile defence capability of our own? Are our troops fully equipped to operate with the United States forces, and particularly with US strike aircraft? Electronic identification friend-or-foe equipment is already fitted to US tanks and armour to prevent so-called friendly-fire accidents. Will the Secretary of State consider buying the same off the shelf so that it can be bolted on to British fighting vehicles? Given the problems with the Clansman radio system, will our fighting vehicles have reliable communications?

On training, have any of the troops now being deployed had their front-line training interrupted by the fire dispute and have all units, such as 16 Air Assault Brigade, now been relieved of any firefighting duties so that they can concentrate on their front-line training? In passing, may I support the Secretary of State's view, as reported in the Sunday newspapers, that the additional burden of the fire dispute is simply becoming unacceptable?

Secondly, is there now a clear plan for possible military action? In that plan, who will be the overall British force commander for British land, sea and air forces? Will he be given the same discretion to operate under US command as was given to the British commander in the last Gulf war and to the British commander for combat operations in Afghanistan last year? If there are differences, can the Secretary of State say what they are?

Although the overall objective remains the disarmament of Saddam Hussein, can the Secretary of State clarify what that means in military terms? In particular, if Saddam's regime collapses or if he flees Iraq, what sort of Government does the Secretary of State envisage taking its place? What role will UK forces play in support of that Government? That raises the question of how long he envisages that the UK could maintain this very substantial commitment that he has now announced, particularly if military action is protracted or delayed. Is he satisfied that UK forces have sustainable logistical and medical support?

In formulating any plans, has the Secretary of State had full discussion with his counterpart at the Department for International Development about the eventuality of war, so that there are also plans in place for humanitarian relief and refugee support? When can we expect a statement from the Secretary of State for International Development?

Thirdly, will the Secretary of State agree that those of us who believe in the justness of this cause must continue to make the case for the disarmament of Saddam? War is by no means inevitable but, if we are to ask our troops possibly to risk their lives, they need to be certain that the nation is behind them. I am sure that the House will keep them and their families in our thoughts in the weeks ahead.

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his unqualified support. I shall try to deal with his specific questions in turn. If I fail to address one, I am sure that I can deal with it in subsequent correspondence, which I will place in the Library of the House.

As for preparations, I do not doubt that our forces are fully and thoroughly prepared to face this kind of operation. Indeed, the training exercise conducted in similar conditions in Oman just over a year ago was obvious preparation for this kind of deployment. A good number of lessons have been learned from that training exercise and are now to be implemented. Without getting into arguments about Gulf war syndrome, may I tell the House again that a key lesson learned about inoculations is that it is not sensible to inflict on our forces a large number of inoculations simultaneously? Preparation in that respect is much better than it was before the Gulf war, and many of the required injections have already been administered.

As for the missile threat, another question that I have dealt with before, we do not judge that there is an immediate threat to our deployed forces from Saddam Hussein's missiles, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that appropriate action will be taken to deal with the threat as it exists. As for US forces and friendly fire, again a question that I dealt with when I made my last statement, action is in hand to procure the necessary equipment to ensure that the equipment used by our forces is in every way compatible with the equipment that the United States is using. I make exactly the same observation in relation to communications.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second set of questions, I can assure the House that operational planning continues to evolve. It would not be appropriate to deal with his first two questions, but those matters will be dealt with in due course. As for the length of any commitment, I can assure the House that our forces are well prepared for a substantial commitment should that be required, but equally they can be replaced in position should that be necessary in due course, which is why sustainable logistical and medical support is available for them, bearing in mind the fact that it will be a multinational operation. Inevitably, forces deployed from different countries will provide a degree of mutual assistance in areas in which there are operational shortfalls. Certainly, consideration is being given to aftermath issues and the question of humanitarian relief. Obviously, we will design force packages to ensure that we have soldiers in place who can deal with those issues as and when they arise.

As for the third issue raised by the hon. Gentleman—political support from the House—our forces will already be aware of the overwhelming support that they have received from right hon. and hon. Members. The Government have indicated their determination that there should be a further debate and, indeed, ultimately a vote at the right time, but I do not intend to say any more about that than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already said.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

May I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who is currently in Kuwait visiting the British troops, and thank the Secretary of State for his usual courtesy in providing an advance copy of his statement?

When men and women of our armed forces are deployed overseas, we have a duty to support them, and we send them our best wishes for their swift and safe return. As the Secretary of State said, substantial planning is needed to keep a force of this size properly supplied and in position for quite some time. I welcome his assurance that that will be the case. To ensure that the inspectors have all the time necessary to do their work, that force should be in place and, if necessary, replaced. However, can the Secretary of State provide assurance about the command structure for British troops? Could we realistically opt out in the event that the Government chose not to support a US-led invasion? Are our troops significant and operationally necessary for any operation that takes place on a US-led basis? If the Government decided to opt out, would that cause significant problems for any military invasion?

Lastly, as we have heard plans concerning the Navy and the Army, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what plans there are in respect of RAF squadrons already in the area? What plans exist to retask the RAF for any offensive operations?

Mr. Hoon

Clearly, it is always a matter for a British Prime Minister, the British Cabinet and ultimately, as I have indicated already, Britain's House of Commons to determine when and if British forces are sent into battle. That is not affected by any announcement that I have made today or any arrangement into which the Government may enter from time to time with any ally or any other multinational force. It is always a matter for a British Prime Minister to decide when a British force engages an enemy. Nevertheless, Britain's contribution to any operations is operationally necessary and I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the significant contribution that British forces made in and around Afghanistan in the course of operations there. That was a substantial contribution and one which, if military action is necessary, will be repeated in relation to Iraq.

With regard to the Royal Air Force, I have not yet dealt in any detail with its tasking. Those matters are still subject to further discussion, and I will certainly inform the House when and if those decisions have been taken.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I am deeply concerned that even more of our troops are being deployed. Whenever the Government say that no decision has been taken to join Bush in his war against Iraq, many of us remain deeply sceptical. Given the demonstrations all over the world this weekend, I think that the people of this country do, also. Does the Secretary of State accept that the UN charter as it is currently constituted does not allow for a pre-emptive or offensive strike against another United Nations country that is not threatening anybody? No matter how many resolutions the US bullies and intimidates other countries into supporting, that remains the case. Will the Secretary of State accept that his Government have not made the case for a war against Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept my hon. Friend's assertion in conclusion. I assure her that no decision has been taken here, in the United States or anywhere else to use military force against Iraq, but as I indicated, it has been our experience that the credible threat of the use of military force is necessary to coerce Saddam Hussein into accepting the will of the international community.

Since the United Kingdom and other nations have accepted the need for a United Nations process, that process continues. The issue that my hon. Friend raises in relation to the United Nations charter does not arise at this stage, although I remind her that the UN charter does allow for self-defence, and pre-emptive action is no more than modern jargon to deal with the ancient right of self-defence. There are other circumstances recognised in international law—for example, the humanitarian action that was taken in Kosovo—that are justified in international law. I do not accept what my hon. Friend said, but I emphasise to right hon. and hon. Members that the Government are determined that there should be a process that rests on international law and carries with it the great support of the British people.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he should be careful not to invest the Security Council with undue moral authority? The Security Council is but a political institution, and resolutions of the Security Council are but political statements by a political institution. While it is perfectly true that such resolutions are a necessary precondition to war, they cannot make just or moral a war which otherwise is not.

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept that the Security Council would take a decision in relation to the use of military force that was neither just nor moral. As I have indicated to the right hon. and learned Gentleman before, nor do I accept that it would take a decision that was contrary to international law. I believe that it is important that we give the current process the opportunity of reaching its conclusion. I hope that that would be a peaceful conclusion, but it is necessary that we support that process with a credible use of the threat of force.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

This is a formidable force package. If it is to be used in a war, it will be an allied war. Is my right hon. Friend aware whether similar force packages have been announced or are about to be announced by other allied countries?

Mr. Hoon

As I told the House the week before last, the United States has made a request to some 50 countries for a military contribution. I know that a number of countries have already responded positively. Clearly, the United States has already deployed a very considerable force to the Gulf region, and I anticipate that other countries will follow suit in due course.

Patrick Mercer (Newark)

The Secretary of State has already indicated that about a quarter of the Army's strength will be in the Gulf and that, for very understandable reasons, its commitment there will be open-ended. He has also commented on the fact that, if necessary, those personnel will be replaced in order to sustain that presence. In that case, will he be kind enough to comment on the wisdom of a suspension of a large part of the Army's recruitment effort this year?

Mr. Hoon

The "suspension", as the hon. Gentleman describes it, is a short-term postponement of a number of young men and women's opportunities to start training. The reason for that is an excellent one, as I am sure he is well aware: recruitment this year has been so successful that it has filled up all the available places, so those who applied rather later in the day will have to wait a short time before their training can begin. That is excellent news for the Army, as the numbers are increasing.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore)

May I welcome the continued and steady build-up of troops, which sends what we recognise to be the only message that Saddam Hussein understands? On the basis that alternative end games that can avoid war may be played out, how feasible is it to hold those troops in position in readiness and to redeploy them outside the area, should an alternative solution beyond war be found?

Mr. Hoon

I described the package as balanced and flexible; it will be sufficiently so to allow for perfectly reasonable scenarios that might not, as we would hope, involve the use of military force in the way in which all of us fear may be necessary. We are certainly alive to the results that might occur other than the use of force.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

The Secretary of State has now announced the deployment of 29,000 soldiers and commandos, plus the naval element and whatever the Air Force element is. In addition to ongoing operational deployments in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia, it cannot possibly be in the public interest that 20,000 further servicemen be kept on stand-by to cover for potentially striking firemen. Has he informed the Attorney-General—and if not, will he do so—that it is not in the public interest that that should remain the case?

Mr. Hoon

I can think of nothing that is more in the public interest than that about 19,000 members of the armed forces should be available to fight fires in the event of a strike.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In reply to the Opposition spokesman, the Defence Secretary used the phrase "the right time" for a parliamentary debate. Is the right time before or after a commitment of forces? As one who wore the epaulettes of 7 Armoured Brigade for two years, may I ask how he replies to General Cordingley, who is now very critical of what the Government are doing and who commanded in the Gulf last time, and the many others who have asked what the military objective of the operation is?

Finally, given that the American imperative is to keep down the number of bodybags, which means massive bombing before any ground operations, what is the British Government's attitude to massive bombing that will lead to collateral damage, by which we mean thousands of innocent deaths?

Mr. Hoon

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary dealt with the question about the right time for a parliamentary debate. He said that it was obviously before the commitment of any forces, if possible. However, he also said that it was crucial not to signal in advance the timing of any military operation. He therefore accepted the need for some caution on timing. That remains the Government's position.

The military objective is also clear: to uphold the will of the international community, as expressed in a series of United Nations Security Council resolutions. I emphasise the point in my statement about the need to support the political and diplomatic process with a credible threat of the use of force. That remains the Government's position.

I emphasise to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) that no decisions have been made about any sort of military force. However, any bombing campaign would remain firmly within the bounds of international law.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

May I add my support for the deployment? I am sure that all hon. Members hope that war will be avoided, but it is surely sensible to apply the maximum strategic coercion in support of the United Nations resolution. Can the Secretary of State confirm today to which country or countries the force will deploy? What assessment has been made of the terrorist threat during the deployment phase?

Mr. Hoon

It would not be sensible for me to be as specific as the hon. Gentleman might like on the destination of any part of the force package. However, I assure him that proper steps will be taken to assess the terrorist threat and the appropriate action to deal with it.

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

Could my right hon. Friend hazard a guess about the number of weapons of mass destruction that would have to be found before a clear and credible threat of force becomes a force to kill?

Mr. Hoon

If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I believe that she has the issue the wrong way around. It is a not question of identifying the number of weapons of mass destruction that would have to be found, but of upholding the clear terms of United Nations Security Council resolution 1441. That gave Saddam Hussein and his regime in Iraq the final opportunity to comply with the international community's wishes. I know that my hon. Friend strongly supports that.

The resolution also gave Saddam Hussein an opportunity to declare existing holdings of weapons of mass destruction. He purported to do that in some 11,000 pages of documentation, which were issued shortly before Christmas. It is unfortunate for the international community that the document did not disclose several significant items, some of which are now being revealed.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

May I advise the Secretary of State that I have detected no enthusiasm among Colchester's civilian population for the Government's proposed action in Iraq? There is hardly dancing in the streets. However, if 16 Air Assault Brigade is called upon to go to war, I have every confidence that the population will give its total support.

Have 16 Air Assault Brigade's preparations been diluted and interrupted by participation in firefighting measures?

Mr. Hoon

No one, least of all anyone in the Ministry of Defence, is enthusiastic about the need for military action. I assure all hon. Members that it is a last resort, which must be used only when all other political and diplomatic routes are exhausted. In contrast to the hon. Gentleman, I find strong support for the Government's position. The population of the United Kingdom backs the need to uphold the international community's decisions as expressed in United Nations Security Council resolutions. They recognise that we must deal with the threat that Iraq poses. On the preparatory measures, I am not aware that they have been in any way affected by the need to deploy on Operation Fresco to fight fires. Indeed, we took a decision to allow 16 Air Assault Brigade to withdraw from that operation in stages so that it would have the time fully to prepare for any contingencies in relation to military operations in Iraq.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

As no material breach of resolution 1441 has been presented to the United Nations by the weapons inspectors, does not my right hon. Friend's statement today that the movement of British troops is a contingency and not a commitment ring very hollow indeed? Is not the movement of troops taking place because ground troops will not be able to engage in military action after the end of February or the beginning of March because the weather will become too inclement? Has not a decision to engage in military action indeed been taken?

Mr. Hoon

As the resolution itself makes clear, the question of what is or is not a material breach is a matter for the weapons inspectors, following their report to the Security Council and the discussion in the Security Council that will be required thereafter. That is all set out clearly in resolution 1441. I can therefore assure my hon. Friend, as I assure the House, that no specific decision has been taken about the use of this force, but, unless that force is prepared and made available, we would not be in a position to take military action, should it subsequently be required. As I have said to the House before, the weather is not a factor in this regard.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

I would have liked to thank the right hon. Gentleman for providing an advance copy of his statement, but, unfortunately, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party were not allowed to have an advance copy. I wonder whether that is an extension of the Prime Minister's pique from last Wednesday. In any event, the Secretary of State has gone out of his way to say that war is not inevitable. Committing 30,000 ground troops, however, smacks of inevitability. Has he taken into account the fact that the International Atomic Energy Agency has said that the inspections might take up to a year? If so, has he made any contingency plans for the replacement of troops, home leave, and so on?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is quite right about the possible length of the inspections. However, he also needs to note the provision in resolution 1441 that states that the inspectors can return to the Security Council at any stage in the process. In those circumstances, it is obviously necessary for us to have available the military force that could be required to enforce the terms of the resolution. If we did not take the decisions that I have announced today, we would not be in that position. We cannot, therefore, wait for the year that the hon. Gentleman's question implies might be necessary, if the inspectors return to the Security Council at an earlier stage to indicate their concerns.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

How much extra pay will our armed forces get in a conflict such as this? After all, they are putting their lives on the line.

Mr. Hoon

Significant allowances are available to our armed forces when they are deployed. It would not be appropriate for me to go into detail about them at this stage, simply because they depend on the length of any deployment and the time spent away from home. Equally, as right hon. and hon. Members will be aware, we are likely in the short term to receive a report from the armed forces pay review body, stating its recommendations on pay increases for the forthcoming financial year.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

In his statement, the Secretary of State made it clear that there would be a requirement for the call-up of reservists to support the deployment, but he could not say how many or when. Is that because the Reserve Forces Act 1996 is deficient in ensuring that reservists' jobs are maintained while they are called up? Secondly, on air deployment, will the Ministry of Defence need to have recourse to civil air assets—in particular, high-volume aeroplanes such as the Antonov—to augment the C-5 Galaxies?

Mr. Hoon

I am not aware of any specific deficiency in the Act, and that certainly was not the reason for my caution in setting out numbers. On the last occasion that I addressed the House, I said that, at that stage, we were looking to issue sufficient notices to involve about 1,500 members of the reserve forces. Obviously, that figure is likely to increase, but it is not likely to increase to the level speculated in the newspapers. I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I assure other Members of the House, that when a more specific figure is available I shall ensure that those details are made known to the House. We have already used certain civilian aircraft for transport purposes, and I anticipate that that will continue when and if it is necessary to deploy those forces to the region.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

As my right hon. Friend knows, other options can be pursued alongside the threat of military force. One of those, for which I have pressed repeatedly in the House over a number of years, is indicting the Iraqi regime for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary say that they want to do that, and more than 200 MPs from both sides of the House of Commons have said that they want to see it done.

Today, I received a letter from the Attorney-General, who, two and a half years later, is still exploring what can be done. He says that his office, along with the police and counsel, are exploring how they can indict members of the regime. As my right hon. Friend knows, they have the evidence—it was given to them two and a half years ago. If we were using that evidence and if we had arrest warrants, people such as Ali Hassan al-Majeed, who are in Damascus at present, could be arrested for killing 100,000 Kurds and for gassing the Kurds at Halabja. Why on earth are the Government not—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Lady, but that does not relate directly to the statement.

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has raised that issue with me on a number of occasions, and she lists the other members of the Government whom she has addressed on the same question. We all admire her determination and, indeed, the principle of what she is setting out, but there is obviously a need for further consideration of whether what she recommends is practically possible and whether it would achieve anything. I rather thought that her answer from the Attorney-General was quite encouraging in that sense. What she advocates is sensible, but it obviously requires further practical consideration.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

While the deployment will obviously send out a positive message to our allies and, I hope, a message of determination to the Saddam regime, what message does the Secretary of State imagine it will send to the people of Iraq? Is he satisfied that enough is being spent by the US and UK Governments in telling the people of Iraq the true position and what problems they face? Is he also satisfied that our troops, while protected against the possibility of a missile attack, are satisfactorily protected against biochemical or biological warfare being waged against them in the early stages of their deployment?

Mr. Hoon

Let me make it clear that the Government—and, I anticipate, no other Government —have any quarrel whatever with the people of Iraq. It may be that the only Government with any serious difficulty with the people of Iraq are the Iraqi regime led by Saddam Hussein, who have perpetrated unspeakable horrors on them over many years. Indeed, there is growing evidence to show that the people of Iraq are sick and tired of Saddam Hussein and are ready for a change. That is clearly anticipated by resolution 1441, but it is important that we continue to maintain the pressure on the regime and those who support them without in any way causing unnecessary difficulty for the people of Iraq.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton)

All of us in the House recognise the professionalism and dedication of our armed forces, but, given what the Secretary of State called the massive deployment of American forces in the Gulf area and, in particular, the commitment over the weekend of more American divisions—armoured, airborne and infantry—will he tell the House what, specifically, those units add to the capability of the massive force already assembled in the Gulf; or do they simply provide political credibility for that American force?

Mr. Hoon

In the planning of any multinational operation, it is always necessary to identify the contribution that individual countries can best make. It may help my hon. Friend if he considered carefully the contribution that British forces were able to make in military operations in and around Afghanistan, when exactly the same question could have been asked. British forces provided some excellent assistance to American forces in areas where the Americans required that extra assistance. Should military action be necessary in Iraq, the same principle will apply.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

Bearing in mind the role that air power plays in modern warfare and the fact that a high proportion of air service personnel are on 10-day stand-by notices, could the Secretary of State give some certainty to those personnel and their families by telling the House when a statement will be made on any air deployment?

Mr. Hoon

I cannot give a specific date. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that air power can be deployed at much shorter notice than the force that I have set out to the House today. Certainly, the deployment of air power is under active consideration, including the impact on the Royal Air Force and the decisions that will need to be taken in conjunction with our allies.

Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that no British troops will be used in an invasion of Iraq unless the weapons inspectors have reported back to the United Nations that a material breach has taken place, and the Security Council, having failed to persuade Saddam Hussein to resolve this matter peacefully, makes a decision about what military action is appropriate?

Mr. Hoon

I can assure the House that the process set out in Security Council resolution 1441 will be followed.

Mr. John Lyons (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)

If the UN Security Council decides not to take military action over Iraq, will we accept that decision?

Mr. Hoon

That is a matter for the United Nations Security Council and its individual members. That decision has yet to be taken.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Did the Defence Secretary know that Kofi Annan said that it was the credible threat of force that had forced Saddam Hussein to allow in the weapons inspectors? Did he also hear Tony Benn on the "Today" programme, who, when asked whether he would support the deployment of force if there were a proven material breach and a second UN Security Council resolution, refused to answer three times? Have the critics who find it so easy to criticise the Government suggested to him an alternative way of disarming the murderous dictator?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's observations, not least about what Kofi Annan has said on a number of occasions. What unites all Members of the House is the need for the support of United Nations Security Council resolutions. It is important that all right hon. and hon. Members of the House and any critics outside recognise that, if the United Nations process is to mean anything, its decisions must be upheld and enforced.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

President Bush senior stopped the first Gulf war when the killing went above 100,000. Is there to be no limit to the turkey shoot this time? The United Nations has said that there are likely to be some 900,000 refugees in the event of war. What would be the policy of UK and US troops if those refugees were in the way of their push towards central Baghdad?

Mr. Hoon

No decision has been taken on the use of military force. I should make it clear to my hon. Friend that it is necessary to prepare for all contingencies. We cannot assume that military action will be easy and straightforward. We are potentially committing people to difficult and dangerous operations, and we must have regard to their safety and security while respecting the rules of international law that govern such deployments.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

What proof has the Secretary of State found of collaboration between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda?

Mr. Hoon

We are aware of some contact between the Iraqi regime and al-Qaeda over a number of years, but as I have made clear to the House on several occasions, there is no evidence to link the Iraqi regime to the appalling events of 11 September.

Mr. Jenkin

We thank the Secretary of State for the answers he has been able to give, and recognise that there are some that he cannot give. He is, however, aware of the old adage that sweat saves blood, and he has failed to reassure us that none of the units now being deployed on this operation has been withdrawn from Operation Fresco. Can he assure us that none of the units being deployed is likely to be drawn on for firefighting duties?

Mr. Hoon

I said that 16 Air Assault Brigade, for example, would be withdrawn from Operation Fresco in stages. I made that very clear. I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House, however, that it will be properly prepared for any military action, should that subsequently be required.