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27 Jan 2003 : Column 559continued
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): The number of new recruits in the financial years 200001 and 200102 were 22,960 and 23,578 respectively. The time taken to complete full training varies, with some trades requiring well in excess of two years, but the numbers completing
Mr. Cunningham : Given the number of young people joining the armed forces and the possibilities of a first-class career, but given also the build-up in the Gulf, can the Minister reassure us that there will be sufficient British forces for the peacekeeping missions around the world for which they are renowned?
Dr. Moonie: Yes, I can assure my hon. Friend that that is so. What is important is the proportion of those whom we recruit to initial training that we manage to bring through on to the full trained strength. Over the past few years, we have put a great deal of effort into improving the training stream to try to ensure that we lose fewer people on the way.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): The Army remains stubbornly short of about 6,000 men. We stand on the brink of war, yet sections of the Army have had their recruiting suspended. Can the Minister explain that?
Dr. Moonie: Recruiting has held up very well this year and we have reached 16,990 new recruits in total after eight months, which is 68 per cent. of the target. The Army has not stopped recruiting and it has not stopped initial training. Due to a successful Army recruiting year, the numbers have exceeded available training places for the remainder of this financial year. As a result, a small number of Army recruits who were due to commence initial training in March will be offered places in April and May 2003. There will be no effect on any immediate operational activity.
Dr. Moonie: I can answer that very brieflynot sufficient, but the numbers are increasing. There are gratifying signs that we are recruiting more effectively from ethnic minorities, and we shall continue to put a great deal of effort into increasing the percentage.
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.
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.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): No decision has been taken to use military force in Iraq. It is clear that Saddam Hussein will comply with international law only when diplomacy is backed up with a credible threat of force. That is why it is necessary to prepare our armed forces for any military operations, as set out in recent statements to the House.
John Barrett: If there is no specific UN mandate for military action against Iraq, what will the Secretary of State do to receive the backing of the millions of people in this country who are against action being taken in their name without such a resolution?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman anticipates a situation that has not yet arisen. I assure him that this country wants effective action to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction. I believe that the country will strongly support the Government's efforts to achieve that laudable end.
Mr. Hoon: I assure my hon. Friend that all decisions taken by the British Government in relation to any possible action against Iraq will be in conformity with international law, the humanitarian element of which is significant.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow): The Secretary of State has said that he would prefer a second UN resolution before any military action, but that he would not feel bound by the unreasonable use of the veto. If another country uses the vetoas is provided for within the rules of the UNwhat does he think is within the UN charter that gives him, the Prime Minister or George Bush the right to decide that it is unreasonable and ignore it?
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): The Secretary of State's gracious tribute to the late Lord Younger will be widely appreciated, not least by his son James, who happens to be a constituent of mine. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that studied inactivity is not an option; that appeasement, whatever the intentions of those who advocate it, is invariably disastrous; and that, if we do not take the steps and show the moral courage necessary to act, if it is unavoidable so to do, future generations will not forget the fact and will not forgive it, either?
Mr. Hoon: It is clear that the policy of containment, if it has not actually failed, is certainly failing. Therefore, it is incumbent on the international communityas the unanimous vote of the Security Council in November recognisedto take action to deal with the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Certainly we do not have the choice of doing nothing. Saddam Hussein has a choice: he can choose to disarm, or, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the international community will have to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) made clear, the Government can count on possibly stronger support from the Conservative Opposition than from many of the Secretary of State's own colleagues if the taskforce goes into action. If it does, is it not the case that it must be adequately defended? Is he content that, out of our three aircraft carriers, only one is available? Is he content that that one has been converted to the role of a commando and helicopter carrier largely because of the paying-off of Fearless before Albion became available? Is he also content that the most experienced pilots of Sea Harriers will not be deployed? Is he not worried that some will feel that that may have less to do with the availability of alternative land-based aircraft and more to do with the fact that if the Sea Harriers and their pilots distinguish themselves in any conflict, it will show how unwise it will be to phase out the Sea Harriers
Mr. Hoon: We have sound military advice from those responsible as to how best to configure the force that is being planned to take military action in Iraq, should that be required. [Interruption.] I am getting some helpful advice from Conservative Front Benchers that the hon. Member for New Forest, East has a doctorate in obsessions. I thought it better to suggest that he had a doctorate in armchair generalship.