HC Deb 27 May 2004 vol 421 cc1725-35

1.1 pm

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

I should like to make a statement on troop levels in Iraq. Overall I am announcing a net increase of around 370 in troop numbers to bring the total of UK forces in Iraq to about 8,900. As the House knows, we keep the number and composition of UK forces in Multinational Division (South East) under constant review. Since MND (SE) was established in the summer of 2003, we have made a series of adjustments in the light of the security situation on the ground and the advice of the General Officer Commanding. The most significant have included the multinationalisation of the headquarters, which was originally based on a UK division; the deployment of two additional surge battalions which I announced in September; and the deployment of a replacement for those battalions, together with a small number of Royal Military Police, primarily to provide a surge capability to assist with the training and development of Iraqi security forces in MND (SE), which I announced to the House on 28 October and 15 December.

As a result of the latest advice from the General Officer Commanding, we plan a number of further such adjustments in MND (SE). The two surge battalions currently 1st Battalion the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 1st Battalion the Royal Highland Fusiliers-have made excellent progress in their work with local Iraqi forces, which are increasingly taking on responsibility for basic security functions in MND (SE). We therefore judge it unlikely that we shall need two battalions to perform that role beyond this summer, but that too we will keep under review. As a sensible precaution, we are reducing the notice to move of 40 Commando the Royal Marines in order to keep open the option of deploying it to continue this work when the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and Royal Highland Fusiliers reach the end of their tours. In the meantime, 40 Commando will continue with its current activities.

In January 2004, we deployed two additional platoons of Royal Military Police from 110 Provost Company to assist in the provision of specialised training for the Iraqi police service. They will reach the end of their tour in June, having performed an invaluable role. We judge that the work should continue, and therefore plan to deploy two platoons of the RMP from 160 Provost Company to replace those returning next month.

The House will be aware that the security situation in Iraq remains difficult, even in parts of MND (SE), which overall continues to be one of the more stable areas of Iraq. In particular, there is a continuing threat from violent groups in the area around al-Amarah in the province of Maysan. Although UK forces and Iraqi security forces have taken, and continue to take, robust and appropriate action to deal with this threat, the General Officer Commanding, Major-General Stewart, judges that with the planned withdrawal of 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders—a light infantry battalion—at the end of its six-month tour in July, it would be advisable to take this opportunity to deploy a Warrior-trained infantry battalion. That will provide Major-General Stewart with a well-protected and mobile reserve, giving him greater operational flexibility. We therefore plan to deploy 1st Battalion the Black Watch with a small number of logistic enablers. That will involve around 600 personnel—a net increase of around 200 when the withdrawal of 1st Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders is taken into account.

Finally, in view of the nature of the threat posed by violent groups around al-Amarah in particular, which has involved both mortar and rocket attacks on UK bases, Major-General Stewart has requested, and I have agreed, the deployment of 69 Squadron from 36 Regiment Royal Engineers—some 170 personnel—for about three months. The engineers will carry out force-protection work. including the construction of additional physical defences in British bases, to reduce the threat posed by the kinds of attacks that we have seen in recent weeks.

I emphasise that these are sensible adjustments, at the request of the General Officer Commanding, to UK forces in MND (SE). It remains the case that we, with our coalition partners, are considering the levels and dispositions of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead, to support in particular the sovereign interim Government of Iraq through the process leading to the election of a transitional assembly and Government early in 2005. If we judge that further changes to the UK military contribution in Iraq would be appropriate to support that process, we will of course inform the House at the earliest opportunity. At present, however, no such decision has been taken.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con)

Conservative Members are glad that the Secretary of State has come here today—rightly, at the insistence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition—to make his long-overdue and heavily trailed statement about further deployments to Multinational Division (South East). Will he confirm that that is fully endorsed by the chiefs of staff, and is he satisfied that it fully conforms to the Government's apparently slight understanding of their own political objectives? If that is indeed the case, we believe that it is right that this should happen in order to provide additional security as a reserve, and stability as the handover approaches and throughout the period leading up to the elections—subject, of course, to the Iraqi interim Government's wishes.

I have to say that the choice of 1st Battalion the Black Watch strikes my hon. Friends and me as astonishing. The Secretary of State may realise that the Black Watch fought throughout Telic 1, and has been back in England for less than a year. It seems an astonishing manifestation of overstretch and of the state of the Army in terms of the regiments that it can deploy that it has to deploy a regiment that has only recently returned from Iraq after a very hard time.

On the wider but vital issue of the unity of command, given the confusion earlier in the week on the part of the Prime Minister. will the Secretary of State confirm that these troops will continue to be under British command after 30 June, within existing coalition arrangements? Will he also tell us what the relationship is likely to be between the interim Iraqi Government and any new multinational force, and will he say what the rules of immunity will mean in practice?

In the light of his announcement, will the Secretary of State say whether troops in Iraq on existing operations will be moved from their present duties to other locations? As for practical questions of the deployment, will he confirm that the Black Watch, the Royal Military Police and the sappers will be given all the equipment they will need for operations in intense heat and a hostile environment? Will he also confirm that they will have received the full training package in every respect, including conduct on the taking and processing of prisoners? How many of the troops will be reservists? Will the Secretary of State assure us that, given the likely nature of the security challenges that the Black Watch in particular will face, the troops further deployed will have full access to all the riot control equipment that they may need? Has he assured himself on their medical back-up, and will he confirm that they are fully briefed on the welfare package?

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there is no intention of deploying British troops out of their existing zones of operations? Will he confirm that other discussions about further and indeed possibly strategic deployments are continuing, and will he reassure us that he will make no statement on these matters while the House is in recess? There are still many questions of profound importance with which he will need to deal over the coming weeks. We shall want his assurance that the House will be kept better informed than has previously been the case.

The Government need to show that they have reclaimed a grip on the drift of their policy in Iraq, and prove that they are the master of their objectives and not merely the victim of events.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. He and the House can take it that the series of practical points he raised will be addressed when necessary, if they have not been addressed already.

The Black Watch had appropriate training and was the choice for that reason, given the requirements of the General Officer Commanding.

Indeed, as I indicated clearly to, the House, that deployment is on obvious military advice. I have dealt with the immunity question already. On the question of location, I made it clear that it was a deployment to the Multinational Division (South East). The training package and the other matters that the hon. Gentleman raised have already been dealt with—[Interruption.]

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab)

This appears to be a limited, stabilising deployment at the request of the local commander. I understand that President Chirac has been positive about the new draft UN Security Council resolution. Our troops have a high regard for the professionalism of their French counterparts, with whom they work in the Balkans and elsewhere. Now that there will be—hopefully within a few weeks—a new UN Security Council resolution and a sovereign Iraqi Government on 30 June, what is the prospect of countries such as France and Spain contributing to stabilising the position and supporting the civil power?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. He invites me to speculate about a situation that has not yet been reached, but like me he is clearly optimistic that a new Security Council resolution and a sovereign Government in Iraq will encourage other countries to contribute forces. As he knows better than me, many of those countries have constitutional restrictions on the deployment of their forces in the absence of an appropriate UN resolution. That resolution should be available before 30 June. I hope that that will encourage other countries to deploy their troops.

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend will agree that it is entirely appropriate for the media to cover and to scrutinise the operations of our troops and their conduct on operations, but does he also agree that, when there is a cynical and destructive approach, it has a malevolent, negative effect on the morale not so much of our troops, but of service families at home? Will he urge, even though he may be banging his head against a brick wall, a bit of common sense on the part of the media?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who served with great distinction and is more aware than most of the damage that such speculation can cause. We have seen a number of suggestions that various forces will depart imminently for Iraq. It is important that there should not be such speculation, not least because of its impact on families.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD)

I thank the Secretary of State for notice of the statement and for coming to the House before the recess.

We have always said that if the commanders on the ground require additional troops, they should get them, but we have also said that if the United Kingdom is to take on additional commitments outside our existing area, that decision should be subject to a vote in the House of Commons. Does the fact that the deployments are at the request of the commanders on the ground and involve more armour and more barricades mean that the security situation is in effect deteriorating? Will there be an additional call-up of more TA troops to cover the deployment? In January, the right hon. Gentleman told the House that the interval for tours of duty for our troops worldwide stood at nine months. What is it now?

Many of us both within and outside the House oppose the war in Iraq, but it was this House of Commons that authorised that deployment. Does the Secretary of State understand that, if he is to continue to receive that support, he must bring back to the House of Commons any extension of that remit?

Mr. Hoon

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's proposition, which is not recognised in the constitutional law of the United Kingdom. It has not been the practice previously. If he thinks about what he has just said, if there were a need for British forces in southern Iraq to assist coalition forces in a different area, clearly that would be an operational decision taken on the ground. It could not await the return of some resolution to the House of Commons and a subsequent vote. What is important, and the statement provides it, is that we recognise the operational requirements on the ground in Iraq and take appropriate decisions.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) (Lab)

Is the interim Iraqi Government one of the coalition partners, to which the Secretary of State referred, that are considering the level and disposition of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead? When the Iraqi Government become supposedly sovereign, will they still be able to say to the British Government that they may need more troops or, indeed, fewer troops?

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry but I do not accept the way in which my hon. Friend has characterised the position. After 30 June, there will be an interim sovereign Government in Iraq. As has been made clear by Secretary Powell and by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, it will be a sovereign decision as to whether foreign forces are located in Iraq. The sovereign Government will consent to their presence, as indeed independent Governments have done in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. Therefore, the arrangement will be wholly consistent as a matter of law between a sovereign Government and coalition forces—there with the consent of a sovereign Iraqi Administration.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con)

The Secretary of State should really treat the House with greater openness and transparency if he wants to maintain the support, particularly of my hon. Friends and me, for the Government through very difficult times—we have offered support consistently since the war started. He did not answer a single question that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) posed. Last week at Defence questions and in the Iraq debate, the Secretary of State said that there were no plans to send any further troops to Iraq. The next day, the quality broadsheets all said—they had clearly been briefed because they all had the same story—that 3,000 troops were to be sent. Now he says that 370 troops will be sent. Does he think that such media manipulation is likely to maintain the cross-party support that the Government have? I warn him that he is putting it in danger—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I can speak for myself, and I suspect that I speak for some of my hon. Friends.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked a supplementary question. I am not having more than one supplementary.

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes that view. I could, had I been concerned with anything other than openness, have chosen to announce the deployment by way of a written ministerial statement. It would have been perfectly proper and in accordance with the principles governing such matters to do so. I chose to make the statement today precisely in the interests of the openness that the hon. Gentleman rightly described. He is a former Minister. If it were possible to manipulate the media with quite the skill he suggests, I am sure that he would have been aware of that. If the media choose to speculate, albeit wrongly, about these matters, it is not the responsibility of the Government.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab)

As my right hon. Friend said, insecurity remains a major problem in Iraq. May I ask him to pay tribute to all those people, not just the military, who are helping to reconstruct that country. including the two British nationals who were killed this week? One was known to me and had a home in south Wales. He was helping in the reconstruction of Iraq's oil ministry and hoped to return quite soon. Unfortunately, both he and his colleague were killed this week. It is important to make the point that many people of all nationalities are helping in the reconstruction of the country, and they are often risking their lives to do so.

Mr. Hoon

My hon.Friend puts the position extremely well. I join her in paying tribute to those who died and extend my condolences on behalf of the Government to their families. She is right that the key to allowing those people who are risking their lives to continue their excellent work to rebuild that country on behalf of the Iraqi people is security. That is why I have announced today a further deployment of British forces. Security is the key to all else that we need to achieve in Iraq.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that even those of us who are opposed to the British presence in Iraq accept that it must be right to deploy limited additional troops to provide additional security for those already there, but that we will not accept any extension or deepening of our overall role?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman and I have regularly debated constitutional law in years past. I look forward to receiving from him the detailed account that he will no doubt give as to why he makes that opposition in the way he does.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op)

Last week, I was in Basra with members of the Select Committee on Defence and met Major-General Stewart and many of our people there, including the naval forces on HMS Grafton, who are doing an important job. The Secretary of State is right that the security situation has deteriorated recently, but our forces and the civilians who are helping to supply clean water and with the reconstruction are doing a fantastic job and it would be ridiculous to follow the course suggested by those on the Opposition Benches and withdraw or reduce our commitment at this time. The next few weeks are vital and we need to see this through.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have had the opportunity to discuss with him and other colleagues their recent visit to Iraq, and they have helpfully set out for me some of the more practical details of what they want to see achieved quickly in Iraq. I am very conscious of that matter, and we will take it fully on board.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP)

When is any Minister in this Government going to admit that they have led this country and our troops into a morass of monumental proportions? The Government are no longer in control of events, and the Secretary of State is dodging deployment decisions in Najaf at a time when the American President is predicting chaos to come. What is wrong with a policy of replacing American and British troops with troops drawn from Islamic nations under UN authority? When will the Government accept that we now need an exit strategy, not a "dig a bigger hole" policy?

Mr. Hoon

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has not had the opportunity to watch the lunchtime news, but there appears to be encouraging news from Najaf, which is completely contrary to his forecast. I accept that he has been remarkably consistent: he has come to the House and forecast doom and disaster at every turn. However, the situation has not developed in the way that he has described, and it does not appear to be developing in that way today in Najaf. He should be paying tribute to the way in which coalition forces have dealt sensitively and sensibly with the position in Najaf, rather than running everyone down in that way.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab)

I should have thought that the loss of 68 British lives was enough of a disaster for us not to dismiss it. Is it not true that theNew York Times has just apologised for misleading its readers because it believed the lies of the crook Ahmad Chalabi? Is it not the case that Members might well have been misled on the war, which has not found weapons of mass destruction, which has not decreased the threat of terrorism—but increased it—and which has replaced the torture rooms of Saddam Hussein with the torture rooms of George Bush? If there is to be a major extension of our troops in Iraq, it is absolutely right that we follow the example of the first time around, and vote on it. Is it not the case that the Secretary of State is against a vote because he believes that he would lose it, and that the country would not forgive us if—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One supplementary is just fine.

Mr. Hoon

I note with interest the accounts concerning Mr. Chalabi. As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is currently an investigation into the intelligence that formed the basis of our decision to take military action in Iraq, and I am sure that those responsible will also be looking carefully at the newspaper accounts.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)

In view of what the Secretary of State has said on Najaf, will he reassure the House that no requests have been issued by our American allies for British troops to deploy outside their area? Is it his present intention to keep British troops in their existing zone of operation in the foreseeable future?

Mr. Hoon

I made it clear in the conclusion of my statement that there are continuing discussions, particularly on ensuring security in the handover to Iraqi sovereignty. We are well aware of determined threats to disrupt that handover, and there is likely to be an upsurge of violence, not least against Iraqis. We have seen some appalling recent incidents directed against those Iraqis who have the courage and determination to stand up for their country and attempt to rebuild it. That is why we are continuing to consider the position as we move towards the handover.

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)

Further to the question of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), are the Government considering security control by British forces of Najaf and Karbala? Has that been requested and if so, by whom?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear that we are currently considering a range of issues. It is important that we, with our coalition partners, continue to examine the security situation as we move towards the handover. I am sure that even those opposed to the military action in Iraq would recognise that the return of Iraq to a sovereign interim Iraqi Government is a vital stage in the process of allowing Iraqis to assume responsibility for their own affairs. We must therefore ensure that they have appropriate security support during that period.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD)

Will the Secretary of State say exactly when the decision was taken to send these troops? The House was told yesterday lunchtime that no decision had been taken, but 24 hours later, we are being told that it has now been taken. What has changed between yesterday and today?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Cabinet tends to meet on a Thursday morning.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab)

Even those of us who believed that Britain was misled into an illegal war on Iraq understand the current predicaments of the UK troops there. Will the Secretary of State clarify two points from his statement? On the current deployments, he used the words "the latest advice" from commanders in the field. Was that in the form of a request from those commanders, rather than a request from the US Government? Will he also acknowledge that the mandate that the Government have from Parliament does not extend to an increased role in Iraq that would specifically deploy UK troops under US command? Nothing would put UK troops at greater risk than being placed alongside US torturers, in an indistinguishable relationship.

Mr. Hoon

To deal with my hon. Friend's second point first, UK troops have been under US command repeatedly in recent times, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which did not appear to place them at great risk, if I may say so. On his first observation, he misunderstands the way in which such matters work. Obviously, we keep under regular review the number and nature of our forces in our areas of operation and discuss that on a regular basis with the General Officer Commanding. When that officer indicates that in his military judgment there is a requirement for more forces or for a different mix of those forces, we consider that carefully. If appropriate, as is the case now, we take the necessary decisions.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con)

We are all proud of the courage and professionalism of our soldiers, but they are being stretched thinly, and some units particularly thinly. Will the Secretary of State answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) put to him on the Black Watch? That was one of a number of highly pertinent questions that the Secretary of State just did not answer.

Mr. Hoon

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman was not listening sufficiently carefully. I made it clear that the Black Watch was deploying because it had the appropriate training and equipment.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab)

This fresh deployment, on the basis of the Secretary of State's statement, appears to be minimal. Is he aware, however, that the public would be seriously worried about any further large deployment, particularly if it involved deepening and extending our role? Although no one in the House is calling for troops to be withdrawn immediately, people would like to know that we do indeed have an exit strategy.

Mr. Hoon

I hope that I have at least set in train in my hon. Friend's mind the idea that supporting a sovereign interim Government with our forces—operating in the way in which we have in places as diverse as Bosnia, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and being able to train local forces in precisely the same way as in those areas—holds out the prospect of providing the opportunity, in time, as the security situation allows for it, for more and more security tasks to be taken over by Iraqi forces, rather than their relying on the multinational coalition. That is the process that we are setting out to achieve, and it can be achieved as soon as those Iraqi forces are able to carry out the responsibilities that we currently undertake.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con)

I support the troop deployments announced. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the troops now going out, and all British forces in theatre, are fully briefed on the terms of the Geneva convention on treating prisoners with dignity and honour, and that that extends to not taking photographs of them and then publishing them? What constraints apply to the media over their publishing photographs that they might have bought?

Mr. Hoon

I can give that assurance, which I feel that I have already given to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). As a matter of law, there appear to be no formal, legal constraints to prevent a newspaper from publishing fake photographs. Nevertheless, I hope that newspapers, not least in the light of this particular terrible incident, will think more carefully in future before publication.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok) (Lab/Co-op)

Does the Secretary of State accept that many of us are increasingly concerned at the way in which a growing number of British troops seem to be getting sucked into a hole that the Americans have dug, and which they continue to excavate? What steps is he taking to ensure that the concern felt in this House about the behaviour of American troops in Iraq—their over-liberal use of firepower and their treatment of prisoners—is conveyed to the Americans? Surely no British soldier's life should be put at risk simply to try to help the re-election of George Bush.

Mr. Hoon

On my hon. Friend's factual proposition, he will be aware that at the height of operations in and around Iraq, some 45,000 members of Britain's armed forces were involved. That number was rapidly reduced to 8,500, and today's announcement involves only a very modest increase in numbers. As I have pointed out, we adjusted the numbers in the light of the security situation on the ground. That process will go on, in the light of advice from the General Officer Commanding.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

I support the deployment of extra troops; indeed, if the Secretary of State has received such advice it would be folly to go against it. When did he receive the request from the General Officer Commanding, and when did he himself decide to deploy extra troops? Following what he said about the Cabinet, can we now be assured that any other requests will come before full Cabinet before further deployments are made?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman will surely know that the process of ordering the extra troops required to deal with a situation on the ground takes some time—when time is available. Equally, if it is a matter of urgency, the process can be completed within 24 hours. Decisions have been taken to deploy British troops, and they have arrived in theatre within 24 hours. It does not make sense to set out in detail the process through which such decisions are taken, simply because as much time as is needed will be taken to achieve the required improvement in security.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab)

Will the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be no further increase whatever in British troops deployed in Iraq, that they will not come under American command, and that if the coalition Government taking over on 1 July want them to withdraw, they will go? By what date does he expect all British troops to be out of Iraq?

Mr. Hoon

I have made it clear that we keep the number and nature of British troops in Iraq under constant review, so I cannot give my hon. Friend the first assurance that he seeks. So far as the position after 30 June is concerned, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear—indeed, it follows from the transfer of sovereignty—that in the event of an interim Iraqi Government's deciding that coalition forces were no longer welcome and that they no longer consented to their presence, obviously, those forces would be withdrawn.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con)

Is the Secretary of State seriously telling the House that the only Warrior-trained infantry battalion available to go to Iraq is the 1st Battalion the Black Watch? If so, will he at least take this opportunity to express to the soldiers involved and their families his regret at the stress that they are being put under by his decision?

Mr. Hoon

I will not express any such regret. Those troops are available and trained in the job that they are required to do; I am confident that they will be pleased to carry it out.