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20 Jan 2003 : Column 32continued
The Deputy Prime Minister: Those are matters for individuals to make decisions about. I have made it clear to the FBU and its members that it is not worth pursuing any further strike, and they must make their judgment on whether they remain in the FBU. It is their right to do that. I am sure that there are different voices and opinions in the FBU itself about the course of action, but it is for the union to make its own decision. That is called a human rights consideration, which I support.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): It is not just working practices, but Government fire regulations that are seriously antiquated. Beyond the repeal of section 19 of the Fire Services Act 1947, do the Government have any plan to accelerate their leisurely timetable to introduce a new fire services Act?
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
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.
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.