HC Deb 27 January 2003 vol 398 cc560-2
11. Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

If he will make a statement on the size of United Kingdom armed forces on duty in the Gulf. [93178]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

UK armed forces on duty in the Gulf region include about 1,000 Royal Air Force personnel supporting patrols over the no-fly zones and about 1,500 Royal Navy, Royal Fleet Auxiliary and RAF personnel supporting our contribution to the campaign against international terrorism. As part of our continuing preparations for possible military action in Iraq, a relatively small number of service personnel are working in liaison and planning teams in the Gulf region. In addition, a wide range of personnel from all three services perform defence diplomacy duties throughout the Gulf region.

Mr. Osborne

Does the Secretary of State agree that many thousands of those soldiers face weeks of anxiety and uncertainty as the campaign in Iraq hots up? Will he join me in condemning those insurance companies, such as Norwich Union and Prudential, that refuse to provide life assurance cover to them? When does he plan to talk to those insurance companies so that at least that part of those soldiers' fears and anxieties is addressed?

Mr. Hoon

The situation was dealt with effectively on behalf of the insurance companies by the Association of British Insurers, which indicated that the recent report in The Times was "misleading and inaccurate". Those are its words. It went on to say that life cover for members of the armed forces can usually be purchased at standard premium rates, that existing life insurance policies will continue in force and that armed forces personnel are encouraged to recognise the long-term nature of life insurance. So, there seems to be a clear view from the insurance companies that policies will continue to be available.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

One anxiety faced by our armed forces in situations where there may be conflict is the possibility of casualties due to friendly fire. Given the revelations from the investigation of the friendly fire killings of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year, will the Secretary of State tell the House what representations he has made to the United States authorities on the issuing of amphetamines to US pilots when they go into combat? Given that the side effects include irritability and heightened awareness all round, will he confirm that he has made representations to his US counterpart on the use of amphetamines in any military action?

Mr. Hoon

I dealt with that question the other day. A disciplinary inquiry is under way in the United States, where the use of amphetamines by two pilots has been alleged, and the House should await the result of that inquiry before I comment on it.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

The Secretary of State obviously did not hear the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), so I shall repeat it. Are the British forces in the Gulf currently under US Centcom command, will they remain so if hostilities break out, and what plans are there to withdraw or redirect British forces should American forces engage in hostilities without British participation?

Mr. Hoon

The question asked by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) related to British forces on duty in the Gulf, and I answered that. Those on duty in the Gulf are currently performing acts of planning and liaison with relevant authorities, and not simply with the US authorities.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is the Secretary of State aware that, if British forces are used in the war against Iraq, there will be concern not only about the military effect of action but about its politically destabilising effect throughout the Arab world and throughout the entire Muslim world from northern Nigeria to the streets of Bradford? Does he agree with the President of Egypt, Mr. Mubarak, who said a few months ago that, if America and Britain attacked Iraq without an explicit UN resolution, not one regime in the middle east would be able to contain its population?

Mr. Hoon

I have had conversations with a good number of representatives of various countries in the Gulf and the wider middle east. Their views were not in accord with that expressed by my hon. Friend. Clearly, there are concerns about the destabilising effect of possible military action, should it prove necessary. However, there are stronger concerns about the politically destabilising situation of allowing Saddam Hussein to continue in power, particularly if he develops and is able to use weapons of mass destruction. I do not believe that views on what is politically destabilising are necessarily as consistent as my hon. Friend might suggest.

May I assume from what my hon. Friend said that, if there is a second UN resolution authorising the use of force, she will strongly support it?

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