HL Deb 18 December 2002 vol 642 cc707-18

6.32 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Bach)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made earlier today in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence on the contingency preparations for possible military action against Iraq. The Statement is as follows:

"My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and have set out the Government's approach to Iraq on a number of occasions. The Government's approach has not changed in any way. We are committed to the disarmament of Saddam Hussein's regime by ensuring its compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441. Our primary objective is to achieve this by peaceful means. Saddam Hussein is being given every opportunity to disarm voluntarily.

"We hope that he will take this opportunity to do so. But, given his previous record, it would be foolish to assume that he will comply unless he faces clear and overwhelming pressure. That is why we must continue to present a credible threat of force.

"When the House debated this issue on 25th November, and discussed it again at Defence Questions on 9th December, I made clear that we would continue with the prudent preparations and planning necessary for military action, should it be required. I said that we would continue to take appropriate steps to ensure that British forces were ready and had the training, equipment and support that they needed. What we are doing is ensuring that we have a range of military options available should they be required.

"The House may find it helpful if I set out again the work which we have put in hand.

"As I told the House on 25th November, we have already taken action to provide additional capabilities that may potentially be needed, either by bringing forward programmes which were already planned or by making new procurements against short timescales. As the House will recall, these measures include bringing forward the purchase of further temporary deployable accommodation, upgrading the infrastructure available in deployed field hospitals, improving battlefield ambulances and enhancing the ability of our forces to handle and exploit secure communications. We are approaching the shipping market this week to charter vessels which might be needed to move equipment and personnel. We are also acting on the lessons learnt from Exercise Saif Sareea II, particularly in relation to the Challenger II tank, the AS 90 artillery system and desert clothing and boots. I can assure the House that we are working closely with industry to ensure that British forces will have the capabilities they need for the contingencies they may face.

"As I previously indicated to the House, we are also continuing to consider the number and mix of reservists who might be required in the event of military action and to ensure that the machinery and processes involved in mobilising reserves are ready to be used if and when the time comes. Relevant units and individual reservists will be informed of the possibility that they would be included in a call-out should that become necessary. We will take steps to identify individuals who may have genuine reasons for not being available in the months ahead. Information will also be made available to reservists for their employers.

"More generally, I have authorised a range of steps to improve readiness. This includes training, ensuring that the right quantities of equipment are available to those who may need them, as well as the procurement of stocks and spares. For some units it will involve a reduction in their notice to move. This does not mean that they are about to be deployed, but it does mean that they will be ready to deploy at relatively short notice if required. I would emphasise that the involvement of any particular unit in these processes does not mean that it will necessarily take part in any military action that may be required. The purpose of these preparations is to provide the necessary range of options, not a specific plan.

"We have already announced the long-planned deployment of Naval Task Group 2003 in the new year, with scheduled visits and exercises in both the Gulf and the Asia-Pacific regions from February to August. This is a routine deployment which happens about every three years. But, like all maritime deployments, it remains available for a range of potential operations if required. The group will be led by HMS 'Ark Royal' and will include the Type 23 frigate HMS 'Marlborough', the Type 42 destroyer HMS 'Liverpool' and support from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels 'Fort Victoria' and `Orangelear. A nuclear-powered submarine will also be assigned to the group for part of its deployment. In addition, a Mine Countermeasures Group, comprising HMS 'Ramsey', HMS `Grimsby', HMS 'Shoreham', HMS `Ledbury' and R FA 'Sir Bedivere' will deploy ahead of the task group to undertake a series of exercises and port visits in the Gulf region.

"Further to these routine deployments, we are also considering the deployment of additional maritime forces early in the new year in order to ensure the readiness of a broad range of maritime capabilities should they be required.

"Finally, I want to emphasise once more that these are contingency preparations aimed at increasing the readiness of a range of options. This process does not lead inexorably to military action. The use of force is not inevitable. But as long as Saddam's compliance with UNSCR 1441 is in doubt, the threat of force must remain and must be real".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.38 p.m.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement of his right honourable friend. Late last night it was not on my radar, but it is a fast-moving situation. I remind the House that I have a direct interest as a serving officer in the TA.

We on these Benches and elsewhere are becoming increasingly frustrated that the media seem to be obtaining more detailed briefing than Parliament. For instance, during our recent debate I asked the Minister about the method of mobilising the TA and made some suggestions. I read the answer in yesterday's papers.

The Statement refers to a "credible threat of force". I am slightly worried that that smacks of a bare minimum. Will the Minister confirm that the intent is that the US and the UK combined could deploy an overwhelming military force?

Does the Minister agree that it may be necessary to deploy a coercive force in order to leave Saddam and/or his generals in absolutely no doubt that they must comply with UNSCR 1441 or face serious consequences? Does the Minister further agree that this is more likely to avoid war than any other course of action? On previous occasions I have raised issues of sustainability. Those issues will not go away but there is no need to repeat them this evening.

The Statement will disappoint many regular and volunteer members of the Armed Forces because they still have little idea when or if they will have to deploy—even if they make assumptions about Saddam's course of action. This could well be their last break at home for some time. I am sure that they would like to know the situation. It might not be a quick operation. It could be more than six months. In addition, Members of both Houses are concerned that the long-term future of Iraq will have to be dealt with. A political power vacuum would be bad enough but a military one would be even worse.

Ministers have made significant and welcome improvements to the policy for the operational welfare package. The principal facilities now on offer are telephones, internet facilities and two weeks' rest and recuperation mid-tour. Those arrangements are entirely appropriate for peacekeeping operations and overseas training exercises and postings. However, they may be impractical for reasons of electronic and general security and because of hostile terrain and rapid movement. Will the Minister ensure that soldiers' expectations on any deployment that may occur are realistic? I know from personal experience how painful it can be when conditions a long way from home are significantly worse than expected.

The Statement referred to exploiting secure communications. Does the Minister agree that does not mean Bowman? Even if he had a few thousand Bowman radios in stock, there is not the time to undertake the complex fitting or to train operators. The Statement referred also to improving battlefield ambulances. What consideration is being given to fitting satellite tracking so that the staff can know where an ambulance is when it is deployed? The Minister may want to reply in writing to that question.

Many Members of your Lordships' House and in another place have questioned the nature of the deployment. We know that the Minister will say nothing about that but whatever the size of the deployment, it will be necessary to mobilise TA medical formed units. Does the Minister agree that any such deployment will have a significant effect on elective surgery in the NHS? Does he envisage mobilising other TA logistic units as formed units?

I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in wishing all members of the Armed Forces and their families a merry Christmas and every success in the new year.

6.43 p.m.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords. I welcome the Statement that has been repeated in this House and emphasise the objective of resolving the situation peacefully. The Minister knows that we on these Benches have many reservations about war in Iraq. Having said that, if war were to come, it would be only prudent to make provision for that eventuality. I was interested by the sentence about Saif Sareea II. Many lessons have been learned, considering the shortcomings in artillery tanks, rifles and boots. I will not ask any questions about tanks because I realise that the Minister would not be able to answer them. However, I hope that the lessons from that exercise have been taken into account.

I echo the words of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. Our thoughts must be with the families of servicemen—especially those personnel who have been designated in the naval fleet that will be deployed straight after the new year. This will be a period of great distress for servicemen with families, considering the risks that they might face in the new year.

The Statement mentioned that HMS "Ark Royal" will be leading the task force. Can the Minister say whether HMS "Ocean" will be ready for deployment at some future point, if there were any difficulty with HMS "Ark Royal"? I share the concern of the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, which we have raised a number of times in this House, about personnel availability for field hospitals. Can the Minister give any indication of the extent to which personnel are available for fitting out field hospitals? Is there still a gap in the availability of those personnel?

I hope that the Minister agrees that before action can be taken there must be a return to the Security Council for a further resolution. That seems only prudent. Will the House be recalled during the Christmas Recess for a debate if events move apace? I hope that the Minister agrees that military action will require a debate and vote in another place.

Finally, has all the information that can be provided by this country to the UN inspectors been provided? If further action is to be taken, so much will rest on a full and complete listing of information.

6.46 p.m.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I warmly thank both noble Lords, particularly for their kind, well-meant comments about the British Armed Forces and their families. I am sure that their messages will get back to those families. This House recognises just how superb our Armed Forces are—including their families. We say that all the time but we mean it every time that we say it. As a united House, we pass on our best wishes to them all.

As to deploying an "overwhelming" and "coercive" force, the noble Earl will understand better than most that I cannot possibly comment. I can say this and emphasise it. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, began his contribution by mentioning this aspect. No decision has been taken to launch military action against Iraq. Military action is neither inevitable nor imminent but it is very important that a credible threat of force is shown to Saddam Hussein. To ensure that credible threat of force, we have been undertaking prudent planning and preparation in close consultation with the United States. That preparation forms an incremental process to that end. It involves developing a state of readiness for a range of options, depending on what may happen in the future. Some of those preparations were set out in the Statement.

The noble Earl referred to the operational welfare package—which, as he knows, is specifically designed to ensure that our Armed Forces personnel have free access to the internet, telephones and letters to allow them to keep in touch with their families as far as is possible. I think that was the point that the noble Earl was making. He knows that the package has been used successfully on recent deployments to the Balkans, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone. We hope to build on those successes for future operations, if there are any.

I will not comment on Bowman but I will say that personal role radios—which are separate from the rest of Bowman—have been introduced into service this year. They have been used successfully in Afghanistan. Some 24,000 of them are now in service and are an important new form of communication for our Armed Forces.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, kindly asked a question about HMS "Ocean". When he asked me about HMS "Ocean" yesterday, he mentioned that his information was that the ship would not be available in the foreseeable future because of a refit. I thought yesterday that that was not right, but with a sense of discretion I did not comment on it. I have checked it out in the 24 hours or so since. I can tell the noble Lord that it was decided in early October this year to advance by two weeks the refit of "Ocean", the Royal Navy's helicopter landing platform. This was a prudent contingency measure to broaden the range of options available to the UK and it improves the fleet's readiness. She is now out of refit, but I shall, of course, not speculate on what part she might or might not play in anything that may or may not arise.

So far as concerns hospitals, there will be no gap in terms of personnel if people are needed. I believe I have answered the questions posed by the noble Lord.

6.51 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, are the Government aware that they cannot go to war by stealth? Going to go to war requires evidence, sanctions and legality. Are my noble friend and the Government aware that many people in this country feel that, unless there is a second Security Council resolution specifically authorising the use of force, the Government will not be on the right track?

I know that my noble friend is responsible for moving soldiers—he is not a Minister at the Foreign Office, but he does represent the Government. One can at least say this to him, in the hope that the Government will listen. Will he take back to his colleagues the fact that the Government must reject the extraordinary proposition raised in the Security Council—of which I found an echo in the Statement by the Secretary of State for Defence—that a country or countries are entitled to use force in order to enforce a Security Council resolution even in circumstances where the Security Council itself does not wish that resolution to be enforced? It is a staggering proposition. I hope that on behalf of the Government my noble friend will reject it.

Lord Bach

My Lords, there will be no war by stealth. The noble Lord, who speaks with great experience on these matters and is greatly respected by all in this House, knows that very well. What I have mentioned today are, I repeat, prudent preparations: first, to put up a credible threat of force against Saddam Hussein, but also in case war is necessary—which is something that is neither imminent nor inevitable. I know from previous debates the noble Lord's strong feelings about a second resolution of the Security Council before any further steps are taken. It would be the Government's preference that there should be a second resolution, if that is necessary, before any force was used. But I have to tell the noble Lord that any decision on further action by the Security Council will be taken in the light of the circumstances at the time and that all options are open. Let Saddam Hussein be in no doubt that full compliance is the only option that will avoid serious consequences for Iraq.

It is important to state that it is up the Security Council to uphold its authority and to take whatever action is necessary to ensure full compliance. Kofi Annan, no less, has said that the Security Council must be prepared to face up to its responsibilities. Historical parallels can be dangerous, but it is perhaps worth noting that the Kosovo campaign was not one that was supported by the Security Council. I think that very few Members of this House would say that that was not a campaign that deserved to succeed or that it was not in the interests of humanity.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no prospect whatever of successful inspection activity unless it is backed up by the credible use of force? As to any suggestion that sanctions can do the job after 11 years of failed sanctions, I should have thought that that was a lesson that we had now well and truly learnt. But if there is to be success based on the credible use of force, it is important that the language on both sides of the Atlantic does not suggest that war is inevitable—or there will be no pressure on Saddam Hussein; there will be no benefit in terms of the compliance that he is willing to give when hoping to avoid military intervention.

If we are to have United Nations resolutions, there must be some real belief that the members of the United Nations are prepared to support them and make sure that they are carried out. The most depressing aspect of the present situation—which will impact to an extent on the morale of our own Armed Forces, a very important factor to which a number of speakers have referred—is the feeling that there is genuine international support. The depressing point at the moment—as against the situation at the time of the Gulf War, when 28 countries contributed a large number of their specialist skills such as check detachments for chemical warfare defence units and other valuable skills—is that at present this looks very much like a two-party activity. At the moment, it appears that only ourselves and the United States are prepared to stand behind the United Nations resolution.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his questions and comments. He has vast experience of these matters. I entirely agree with him concerning sanctions. It is abundantly clear that we should not be in this position had sanctions worked over the course of the past 11 years. I agree that war is not inevitable. It is the British Government's view that war is neither imminent nor inevitable. The noble Lord is quite right: to suggest that it is inevitable in some ways takes the heat off Saddam Hussein himself. It is the credible threat of force that is so critical.

I want to make it clear that the Government's policy is to give Saddam Hussein every opportunity to comply with the obligation placed upon him in the United Nations resolution. However, as the Prime Minister has made clear, if he does not disarm, he will be disarmed.

Lord Judd

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that on these Benches as well there are those of us who are very glad that a message is going out to our Armed Services as to how much we feel for them and their families at this juncture? It must be a time of great anxiety and stress. We are fortunate to have the calibre of people that we do have in our services.

Does my noble friend agree that among those of us who look for specific authorisation for any military action by the Security Council, should it become necessary, there is nevertheless an understanding that in the present context if the threat of military action, if need be, is to be credible, the kind of action that has been spelt out today is essential and well appreciated? In that context, will my noble friend assure the House that the Security Council and the Secretary-General are fully appraised of what we are doing; and that what we are doing is being done in co-ordination with other members of the Security Council and indeed with other member nations of the UN? Or is it being done by ourselves alone, or simply with the United States?

Can my noble friend reassure the House on one point which troubles me greatly? We are putting all this effort into ensuring that the military threat is credible. Are we putting as much effort into ensuring that the UN inspection has all the resources, personnel and back-up that are necessary to ensure that it is a success and does not prove to be an inadequate operation?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his support for our argument that it is essential, if there is to be a credible threat of force, to behave in the way that we have. What we are doing in terms of the Statement that I have read out is something that we, of course, have decided to do. But the Government are well aware of their obligations to the United Nations. My noble friend can rest assured on that point. I want to emphasise that the British Government have full faith in, and give full support to, Dr Blix and his colleague, Dr El Baradei, in their very difficult task. We want to give them every support that we can. We want them to succeed.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden

My Lords, it is reassuring to hear that equipment and supply lessons from recent deployments are being learned. There is no shortage of them. However, can we have the simple undertaking that whatever formations or units are warned for operations they will not be denied the equipment that they may need, and in ample quantity, on grounds of expense alone?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I can give the noble and learned Lord the assurance that he seeks today.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that both Saddam Hussein and the British people will be made aware that it would be better to send out our forces now so that, in the event of Saddam Hussein's refusal to comply with the international position, our troops could take action well before the very hot weather? Such weather would place them in uncomfortable, if not intolerable, conditions, were Saddam Hussein to achieve his aim of delaying matters for as long as possible.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I must answer my noble friend in this way: nobody can predict whether, or when, military action might become necessary. It is pointless to speculate. We are engaged in what I described as sensible planning and preparations at a pace that we judge to be right. As for the concept of a window of opportunity that some commentators mentioned, Saddam Hussein would be very ill-advised to work on the assumption that he need only make a show of co-operation for the next few months. The requirement to disarm will not go away; nor will the threat of military action.

Those who say that military operations during the Iraqi summer would be impossible—I know that that is not what my noble friend says—are perhaps those who said that military operations during the Afghan winter would be impossible. It is common sense that extreme environmental conditions present particular challenges, but those challenges apply to the Iraqis as well as to us.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, regardless of the international politics of going to war, does the Minister accept that many of us believe it would be unacceptable to commit our forces in action in the Gulf if the armoured vehicles were to be fitted with the unreliable and insecure Clansman radio system? That would make the forces vulnerable to an extent that would make their commitment unjustifiable. I do not know whether the Minister shares my opinion.

As my noble friend Lord King said, it appears that only the British are standing with the Americans on this military operation. Must we pay the entire cost of our military commitment, or are we discussing with our allies in NATO and the EU, who are not prepared physically to commit forces, the possibility that they will at least contribute to the cost?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am afraid that it is much too early to answer the final part of the noble Lord's question accurately. We have the matter in mind. I hope that that will satisfy him for the moment at least.

I cannot give the noble Lord the assurance that he seeks about Clansman. It has been in service for a long time. We believe that it is still capable of meeting the requirements against which it was delivered. Of course technology has moved on, and we look forward to the introduction of Bowman, when that happens. He can rest assured that we will ensure as best we can, if it comes to it, that those in Army vehicles are well protected.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, I remain of the view that there will not be a war, that the threat of farce will work, and that Saddam Hussein will respond. However, in the event that limited action were to take place, can my noble friend assure me that the Government will consider seriously the military occupation of the Basra enclave and the declaration of a free Iraq in the south, with an expanding border to the north? Some of us have advocated that case in the other place over the past five years.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I very much hope that my noble friend's view that there will not be war is right. I have said that, and I know that the House hopes so, too. In response to the second part of my noble friend's question, I know the keen interest that he has taken in a new Iraq, as it were, over many years. But I think that he will understand that I am unable to answer his question today.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords—

Lord Richard

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. It cannot be right that someone who was not present to hear the Statement should then come into the Chamber and ask a question during the very short period available; namely, 20 minutes.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I have apologised. I have one point, so in the method of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I shall be wrong. Can the noble Lord give us an undertaking about Clansman? I am reliably informed that there are no spare parts for them and that spare parts are no longer manufactured. When I was in Oman for Exercise Saif Sareea, the Clansman system did not work properly; so the armoured and infantry regiments have no secure security system. That must be solved before the regiments are committed to battle. It is more important than being polite to the noble Lord, Lord Richard.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord's preparation. He is correct. We have learned, I hope, that if we are to call out reservists, we should do so without asking for volunteers. That would put them in a very difficult position with their families and employers. It should also be borne in mind that all members of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force are volunteers in the first instance and are prepared to go at short notice.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall bear very much in mind the noble Lord's point. I know that the Front Bench spokesman for the Conservatives feels very strongly about the matter. It is too early to say any more about reservists than we have said over the past few weeks.

Lord Rea

My Lords, my noble friend said in the Statement that a nuclear submarine was among the vessels going to the Gulf. Does it have missiles equipped with nuclear warheads? In what circumstances might they be used?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord whether it would. Even if I could, I would not answer the question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, over the past few days, or even the past couple of weeks, has the threat from Iraq grown? If not, why are we making these deployments now? The Minister said that it was to show Saddam that there was a credible show of force. But the United States has an armada of ships, 350,000 ground troops and overwhelming air power in the area. What else does he need to show him that there is force in the area, and that if he fails to comply with the United Nations resolutions he will be taken over? What is it that has persuaded the British Government at this time that they need to deploy extra force, when there is already overwhelming force in the area? Will the noble Lord please answer directly the question of whether the matter must go back to the United Nations under Resolution 1441 before any military action is taken? Will a further resolution be needed? Some believe that that should be so, and that jaw-jaw is still better than war-war.

Lord Bach

My Lords, we all believe that jaw-jaw is better than war-war. However, for the past 11 years Saddam Hussein has taken no notice at all of the sanctions that have been imposed upon his regime by the United Nations. It is time for him to disarm. There is no doubt that he has weapons of mass destruction; indeed, our dossier of 24th September, among other documents, has shown that to be the case. It is now up to Saddam Hussein whether or not he chooses to disarm. In Resolution 1441, the United Nations has made that absolutely clear. The policy that we are adopting is absolutely in line with United Nations Resolution 1441.

I believe that I have already answered the question about whether a second resolution will be necessary. I just repeat: it will be the preference of the British Government that there should be such a second resolution, if it is necessary.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, perhaps I may clarify one point with the Minister in order to help his noble friend. I believe that it is a nuclear-powered submarine that is going to the Gulf, and that there is no question of nuclear weapons being involved.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. However, I chose not to answer the question because, as is traditional, that kind of question is never answered either in the other place or in this Chamber.