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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): It may not be known in the House, and it should be known by the hon. Gentleman, that tomorrow is the 333rd anniversary of the formation of the Royal Marines. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the House will join me in congratulating the corps--in which I am proud to have served--on a fantastic record, second to none, in defending Britain for centuries.

Mr. Mackinlay: This is an occasion on which I am delighted to have given way. It is pertinent for the hon. Gentleman to draw the attention of the House to that anniversary. I saw an absurd press report--in The Daily Telegraph, I think, so I do not take it tremendously seriously--of a suggestion that there should be a merger between the Royal Marines and the Parachute Regiment. I would welcome some reassurance from Ministers today or tomorrow that that was utter nonsense, which I am sure that it is. It would be important to those serving in the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marines commandos and people associated with them for that nonsense to be put aside.

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One of my visits was to the Royal Marines school of music, whose relocation to Hampshire was the subject of considerable debate at the time of "Options for Change" and subsequently in the House. I can report to the House that the school is well accommodated in suitable accommodation, and standards are being more than maintained. Under Lieutenant-Colonel Waterson, great efforts are being made to offer the men and women in the Marine band opportunities to qualify for music degrees during their period of service. That is a relatively new development, but it is in line with what is happening elsewhere in the armed forces, which I welcome. Service men and women are to be given increasing opportunities to attain civil qualifications, which will give them a sense of achievement and help them with their later careers.

My activities this summer have reinforced in my mind the importance of the flexibility and benefits that the United Kingdom derives from its carriers and other amphibious facilities around the world. That is important politically and militarily. Often, they can be deployed in advance of political decisions, so that Governments can be told that our armed forces are already in place, whether for humanitarian purposes, to rescue people in dire circumstances, as happened in the Caribbean this summer, or for peacekeeping purposes, to intervene where that is urgently required.

In the past five or six years, our forces have been involved in numerous peacekeeping operations and in providing humanitarian relief. All too often, those activities go unreported. The television cameras are often not there, and our forces are taken for granted. Hon. Members expect our armed forces to have that capacity. It is important for our role in the world that we have the facility to intervene in troubled areas or in areas where a crisis has been brought about by natural disaster.

Will Ministers assure us that, in addition to HMS Ocean, which is being constructed at Barrow-in-Furness and will be a major additional facility enlarging our capacity to mount amphibious operations, replacements will be ordered for Fearless and Intrepid? It is important that we should have such capacity, for the reasons that I outlined, both military and political.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I also spent some time on HMS Invincible as part of the Commons defence study group. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments about the flexibility of aircraft carriers. Will the Minister consider not just Fearless, Intrepid and Ocean, but the Invincible class itself? Those are now old ships and we must start working on replacements for them as well.

Mr. Mackinlay: That is entirely correct. I am sold on the necessity for the United Kingdom to have the capacity to protect itself through its amphibious ability. A score or 25 years ago, we might have abandoned that facility. That would have been profoundly foolish, and one of the great historic mistakes.

Reference was made to the fact that our armed forces are under strength. The Royal Marines were short by 296 commandos in September 1997, and there are many thousands of vacant places in the Army, Navy and Air Force. I believe that the move to tri-service recruitment shops has not proved successful. I have taken the

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opportunity--I invite other hon. Members to do likewise--to interview young men and women in our secondary schools to discover whether their appetites have been whetted regarding careers in the armed forces. I find that the concept is put to very few young men and women who have the physical and mental capacity to serve in our armed forces. With a bit more effort and imagination, perhaps we could fill the vacant posts in our armed forces with good-quality youngsters. I hope that the Government will introduce some initiatives in that regard.

There is another area worth mentioning in a defence debate, which I wish to raise. I understand why, in light of the IRA and security situations, it was decided that men and women in the armed forces should not wear their uniforms in public. However, I believe that that was an appeasement to terrorism to some extent, and I suspect that those who wish to murder members of our armed forces will always identify them in any event. If the ceasefire endures--I hope that it will--perhaps the Government will review that policy. Unlike people in other countries, the British public do not see their armed forces in uniform--which may also have a knock-on effect in recruitment terms. I hope that the matter will be reviewed in this new climate. Even if no instruction were given, perhaps individuals in our armed forces could have the option of wearing their uniforms in public.

I suppose that the kernel of this debate is the armed forces review. I am somewhat saddened that, although it is considered all right for the Conservatives to conduct an armed forces review, apparently it is not appropriate for a new Government to do likewise--despite the fact that the Labour party has been out of office for 18 years. It seems both prudent and fair that Government should have the opportunity to review and take stock of our defence position.

We have been told that it is a foreign policy-led review, and I shall dwell on that point for a moment. I welcome that approach. I am aware of our foreign policy requirements in broad-brush terms, as well as the expectations of the people of this country and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I am at one with the Secretary of State on this point: if we have foreign policy commitments--of which we are all familiar--we must vote the means of fulfilling them. I agreed with everything that the Secretary of State--who, unfortunately, is not in his place--said. However, before he gets too excited, I must add that my election address did not contain the word "new"--I removed it completely.

Over the weekend, I noticed one or two of my colleagues who describe themselves as "new Labour" postulating in the media that there is scope for making major savings from Britain's armed forces. I do not share that view--especially if we are to maintain foreign policy expectations. At times of crisis, such as a natural disaster or genocide, Members on both sides of the House are the first to demand that the British Government--whether Conservative or Labour--intervene. By and large, I agree with that. However, we must remember--to put it bluntly and crudely--that, if we want to maintain our present role and capacity in the world, we must will the means. That does not come cheap. While there may be some opportunities to readjust the configuration of our role, we cannot use that possibility to support a reduction in the overall resources available to our armed forces. I am at one with the Secretary of State on that issue. Through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I tell those who think that they can have their cake and eat it that that is not possible.

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My penultimate point concerns the volunteer and cadet forces. My county of Essex--if I may be parochial for a moment--has only 459 all ranks in the Territorial Army. I believe that the county deserves more not because I am from Essex but because I think that our territorial armed forces should be distributed evenly throughout the country. Essex is close to London, near the motorway and major transportation networks and has a substantial population. I think that there should be no further reduction in the Territorial Army or in volunteer forces generally, and certainly no such reduction in my county. There will be some opposition if that occurs.

I acknowledge the great service provided by the volunteers who run our cadet forces. There is a case for examining the funding of those forces. Funding should be maintained, but distributed more equitably in order to ensure that the three cadet forces are resourced sufficiently so that they may continue and enhance their important community role.

The shadow Secretary of State is now in his place. He referred to NATO and I hope that, contrary to his better judgment, he might find time to read in Hansard my references to his comments earlier. As I have said, I feel strongly about that subject. It is a matter of fact that the United States Senate will have to approve the widening of NATO membership, and I hope that it will not fail to approve that increase. If the United States did not approve the widening of NATO membership as recommended by the Madrid summit, I believe that it would be one of the few foolhardy acts committed by that country and comparable to its failure to join the League of Nations.

For all its faults and deficiencies, the United States has a proud defence record: its long arm reached across the Atlantic during some of our most desperate times. The United States has sustained and led NATO for more than half a century, and it would be a great tragedy if it were to fail to finish the job by extending NATO membership to the new, free, robust parliamentary democracies in central Europe. I hope that remarks in this place and the actions of our Ministers elsewhere will encourage United States senators to approve that important historic event and achieve an extension of democracy and security in Europe.

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