HC Deb 17 May 2004 vol 421 cc660-2
4. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)

What assessment he has made of the(a) adequacy and(b) availability of British infantry to respond to additional urgent deployments. [173152]

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

A number of British infantry units are routinely held in reserve at very high readiness to deploy. This ensures that the Army always has prepared troops available to respond to additional urgent deployments. The adequacy of this system was perfectly illustrated by our extremely swift response to the recent difficulties in Kosovo. The spearhead land element, in this case the 1st Battalion the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, deployed to theatre in less than 24 hours, undertaking its first patrol the very next day.

Tim Loughton

That of course is nothing new, but given the massive overstretch facing the infantry battalions of the British Army as a result of the concurrent operations overseas, and the fact that they now face the prospect of non-combat activities in the UK to deal with fuel tax protesters and possibly another firemen's strike, at what point does the Secretary of State anticipate that infantry availability will run out?

Mr. Hoon

The absolute determination of the Opposition to talk down the skills and successes of our armed forces is remarkable. I have just given the hon. Gentleman an excellent illustration of just how ready and available our armed forces are. Within days, they are able to go out on patrol and conduct extremely effective operations in Kosovo, but what happens? The hon. Gentleman talks them down. That is becoming typical of the Opposition as a whole.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State give the House a vote on the possible deployment of more troops to Iraq? If not, will he give us an assurance that any such deployment will be in the areas where our troops are now, and not in the positions that the Americans are asking us for?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has been in the House for much longer than I have and knows full well that decisions on whether votes are taken are a matter for the House. We keep under constant review the question of the number of troops required in Iraq. We have from time to time increased that number in response to specific requests from commanding officers on the ground. Nothing has changed about the situation. I am sure that she and other hon. Members recognise that, if there were an urgent request fore extra troops, it would be the responsibility of the Government to satisfy that request, before the possibility of any House of Commons vote.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD)

In how many countries are British troops currently deployed?

Mr. Hoon

Quite a number.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con)

I thank the Secretary of State for that accurate answer. Members on both sides of the House recognise the fact that infantry battalions are the workhorses of the British Army. They are vital in both military operations and peacekeeping. There are few other armies in which the infantry can move as easily from one aspect of operations to another as our troops can. However, the select Committee, the chiefs of staff and the former Chief of the Defence Staff have all indicated time and again that the Army is suffering from serious overstretch particularly in the infantry. The decision to put the 1st Battalion the Black Watch on stand-by for reinforcing Iraq is an illustration of just how serious that situation is. That regiment has just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and is now the UK land forces training battalion at Warminster. If the MOD now has to deploy training units, what infantry will be left for further urgent deployments?

Mr. Hoon

Here we go again. The Opposition are absolutely determined to talk down every aspect of the considerable success of the armed forces. Whenever I give illustrations—as I do repeatedly from the Dispatch Box—of just how successful we are, not only in the armed forces but in the management in the Ministry of Defence, all we get from the other side is this determined effort to run down our armed forces.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we ask our armed forces to undertake duties on behalf of our country, we should reward, defend and protect them? If it comes to a point at which they are overstretched, can he estimate how much it would cost to equip and man the extra five infantry regiments that the Opposition are talking about, and where would the money come from?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that the Opposition appear determined to cut the size of the defence budget. In those circumstances, I am sure that the people of this country would draw the appropriate conclusions about whether they could possibly trust this country's defence to the Opposition.

Forward to