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Lord Sainsbury of Turville: My Lords, as I explained, most people are now voting clearly with their feet. More than 80 per cent of benefit recipients already have access to a bank account; 58 per cent of all new child benefit recipients and 59 per cent of all new pensioners have their money paid directly. The idea that in today's world we can continue with a paper-based system and bury our heads in the sand about change is simply not an option.


3.31 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 in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows:

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    "Turning to the United Kingdom's Armed Forces, I have set out in successive Statements the forces that we have prepared for this purpose. We have deployed a substantial naval force of 29 Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessels, including the aircraft carrier, HMS "Ark Royal", and the helicopter carrier, HMS "Ocean"; a land force led by Headquarters 1 (UK) Armoured Division and including 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, 16 Air Assault Brigade, 7th Armoured Brigade and 102 Logistics Brigade; and an air force comprising about 100 fixed-wing aircraft and 27 helicopters.

    "In all, about 45,000 servicemen and women have been assigned to the campaign to disarm Iraq. Our forces will make a major contribution to the military action to disarm Iraq, which we will pursue at a time and on a schedule of our own choosing. They are trained, equipped and ready for the tasks that they may now need to undertake. British forces are already engaged in some military operations, although the House will understand why I cannot give further details at this stage.

    "Events over the coming days will dominate the 24-hour media. The House will recognise that we must all be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis of 'breaking news' before there has been time to conduct a proper investigation. Similarly, the House will understand—and I hope the media will too—that if we respond to media pressure for instant operational detail, we could risk the security and safety of our forces. We cannot therefore offer a running commentary on media reports.

    "I will, however, ensure that the House is kept fully informed of significant developments. That is why I am making this Statement today. In addition to Statements as and when necessary, I will arrange for a short summary to be placed in the Library of the House, and copies made available to Members in the Vote Office, as warranted by the day's events.

    "My right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be travelling to the European Council this afternoon. Once military action has begun and UK forces are substantially engaged, the Prime Minister will ask to make a broadcast to the nation.

    "Once again, we are placing an enormous weight of responsibility on the shoulders of our Armed Forces. We have not taken the decision to do so lightly. The commitment to military action of service personnel is always the gravest step that any Government can take. I know that the thoughts and prayers of the House and our country are with them, and their families, as they embark on their mission. We hope for their safe and swift return".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.37 p.m.

Lord Vivian: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by the Secretary of State in another place and for assuring the House that he will keep your Lordships informed and that short summaries will be placed in the Library, as warranted by the day's events.

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Military operations are likely to be unpredictable, as events in the early hours of this morning confirmed. It is appreciated that throughout this conflict targets will present themselves at short notice and it will be essential that military commanders are able to react immediately and with the necessary autonomy. It is also important to ensure that those commanders in the field are left to get on with the job and win the battles, and that Ministers do not interfere with decision-making on the battlefield.

The Statement refers to last night's aerial attacks being carried out using coalition aircraft and cruise missiles on targets in the vicinity of Baghdad. Will the Minister tell us whether those coalition forces included the UK? If so, what part did we take? Will he confirm that the coalition is far wider than just the United Kingdom and the United States of America and comprises some 35 nations, although not all are directly involved in military operations? There are reports of some four Scud-B missile attacks on Kuwait. If it is confirmed that those are Al Sammoud missiles with a range of at least 600 kilometres, it would prove beyond dispute that Saddam Hussein had continued to lie and deceive and had failed to disarm. Can the Minister provide more detail about the reported exchange of artillery fire? We welcome the recovery of all the crew and the special forces from the United States helicopter crash in southern Iraq.

It would also help the House if the Minister could provide more information about the situation regarding Turkey. Apparently the Turkish parliament is sitting now. Does he consider that there will be a positive outcome to the request for approval of coalition overfly rights and the movement of US troops through northern Turkey? Is there any likelihood of interaction of Turkish and Kurdish forces in northern Iraq?

It is assumed that Iraqis will be given prisoner-of-war status on surrender. But, bearing in mind that it is a very expensive manpower operation to guard prisoners of war and costly on rations, water and medical facilities, what role might they be invited to play in later stages of the conflict, perhaps as volunteers fighting for us?

I endorse caution in respect of claims that the conflict will be over in a very short time. We hope sincerely that it will be. Cautious optimism is the best approach to adopt. There will inevitably be events in the next few days or weeks that involve bad, distressing news. It will test our determination to continue the fight. However, momentum must be maintained, and we must all have the strength and resolve to see this through to the end.

I feel a special affinity with the troops deployed as the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, with which I spent the greater part of my life, and the 16/5th Queens Royal Lancers—now the Queens Royal Lancers—which I commanded, who are both about to be in action. I wish them and all other units, including our coalition partners, the best of good fortune. I pray for their safe return and for their families to be given strength during this worrying time.

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3.42 p.m.

Lord Redesdale: My Lords, I echo the support for the servicemen and servicewomen from all three services in the Gulf in what is a very frightening time for them and their families. I realise that the Minister will find it extremely difficult to answer many questions on a fluid situation. I shall try not to ask any to which he obviously would not have answers.

I have only three questions. The first concerns the attacks last night. Can the Minister confirm the process by which targeting was agreed between the British and the Americans? Does all targeting go through the British chain of command, ending with the Prime Minister, for such sensitive targets? I ask that, in particular, because it will be a difficult conflict to prosecute, considering that we are trying to change the regime but at the same time spare casualties on the Iraqi side and as much as possible of the infrastructure which will be so necessary for humanitarian assistance in the coming few weeks.

My second question is this. Of the 35 countries mentioned by the spokesperson for the Official Opposition, which have supplied military support in the field? At present it appears that around three have done so.

Obviously, the Minister may not be able to answer the particulars of my next question, which relates to a matter of some concern, but he may be able to give the reason behind any action taken. There are indications that prisoners of war have been trying to surrender to the allied forces. It is rumoured that they have been turned away. The Minister may be able to confirm or deny that. On what basis would such soldiers be turned away, considering the uncertain fate of any soldier trying to desert the Iraqi army?

Now that we are at war, we support our soldiers. However, there is a perception that it will be a short and bloodless war. That may well not be the case, but we hope that it will be. We thank the Minister for all the information that he can give Parliament in the coming few weeks.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Bach: My Lords, I am truly grateful to both noble Lords for their comments, questions and, in particular, for their support of the Statement that I have repeated. For the moment, I pick out the noble Lord, Lord Vivian. I found what he said quite moving, because he has real, distinguished experience over many years in the British Army. He spoke to the House with the benefit of that experience. We also have in our thoughts today our colleague, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, who is serving his country as we speak.

I shall answer those questions of the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Redesdale, to which I can respond. The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, insisted that commanders in the field should have considerable freedom. They will have that freedom, as he knows they have in the past.

As I understand it, the United Kingdom was not involved in last night's engagement. The noble Lord mentions 35 nations in the coalition; I understand that

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there are more than 35. In response to the question of which nations provide what assets, all provide an asset by supporting what, in the view of Her Majesty's Government, is a noble cause. I am not in a position to say which nations have or have not provided military assets.

I am afraid that it is too early to say whether the missiles that the noble Lord, Lord Vivian, refers to are in breach or not. Whether or not they are, I do not think that we would be surprised to find during the next few anxious days and weeks that quite a number are in breach. I am afraid that I have no more details about the artillery fire incidents that occurred yesterday.

On Turkey, I cannot speak for the Turkish parliament. We very much hope that it will decide to allow coalition aircraft to fly over Turkey. But I am afraid that we will just have to wait and see.

Both noble Lords asked about prisoners of war. It goes without saying that they will be looked after entirely appropriately under international law. I cannot comment on the question of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, on the rumour about incidents yesterday. Yesterday was a particularly difficult day on the border between Kuwait and Iraq, but I cannot confirm or deny what is said to have happened.

All that I may say about last night's incident over Baghdad is that the British Government knew about it in advance, as one would expect. Targeting is taken extremely seriously by the whole coalition. I tell the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that we take very seriously our responsibility to act within the framework of international law regulating international conflict. Very careful attention is applied to ensure that we minimise the risk of damage from any quarter to civilian populations and infrastructure. I think that those points answer the questions that the noble Lords posed.

3.50 p.m.

Lord Rea: My Lords, did not the Statement do Hans Blix an injustice by using only part of his statement to the Security Council? He went on to say that he regretted that he had not had more time to finish his work. The British-American coalition seemed to be in a great hurry to get started, and one of the reasons given for that was the weather conditions. Could it not also have been the fact that Mr Blix might have found that there was no evidence of weapons of mass destruction that warranted a pre-emptive strike, rather as my right honourable friend Robin Cook suggested in his resignation speech?

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