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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order.

6.8 pm

Laura Moffatt (Crawley): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to make my maiden speech in this defence debate. I shall begin with a few words about the former Member of Parliament for Crawley, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). He brings colour to the House, and he is a jolly and courteous character. As we have just heard, he is an honest man and I wish him well in his new constituency.

It gives me great pleasure to tell the House a little bit about my constituency. Crawley is a wonderful town and I believe that it is the best of the new towns, although, like me, it is getting on a bit. This year, we are celebrating our 50th birthday with a variety of events throughout the year.

Back in its early years, Crawley attracted the pioneers from London--people such as my parents who wanted to raise a family in a house with a garden and to work close by. Crawley has now grown to a population of almost 100,000, but we still have lots of open spaces, sports facilities and cultural facilities second to none. Only last week, the Minister for Sport opened our new football stadium and he was warmly welcomed by the town. Crawley is a good place in which to live.

Even in the early days, politicians understood that families need good-quality housing with gardens and they resisted high-rise buildings, for which we have a lot to thank them today. For most of this time, Crawley has had a fine Labour council which has always been guided by sound principles of good financial management and has always insisted on the very best facilities and services. In turn, the council has been rewarded by the support of the town.

The wise and principled leadership of Alf Pegler, known as "Mr. Crawley", was tragically ended last year by his death. I can only say how sad I am that he died before his dream of a new Labour Government came true. His work goes on in Crawley and it will not be forgotten.

Crawley is a very lively town, with the majority of economic activity in Sussex. We have Gatwick, a major international airport which now handles 25 million passengers and is expected to handle 40 million passengers on a single runway--an enormous technological feat. It takes a lot of co-operation by all involved to cope with such a demanding resident as an international airport. We work together to reduce aircraft noise and we absorb 32,000 workers on and off the airport, with all the special challenges of having such an exciting activity within the constituency and the influences that that has on the economy.

The House may remember the "boom town to gloom town" national headlines about Crawley in the late 1980s. I am glad that this Government are tackling head-on

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boom-bust economics and that they are facing issues of training and education so that we are equipped in Crawley to take on the fantastic job opportunities there.

Many companies are involved in our town, some of which are involved in the defence industry, mainly in simulation and communications equipment. These companies which, incidentally, always said to me on visits before the election that they had thrived and prospered under previous Labour Governments, provide the very best in the world and compete with the best in the world. They provide our forces with the new technologies they so desperately need to play their part not only in defending the realm, but in peacekeeping, the early detection of conflict, fighting crime and dealing with natural disasters.

We must have up-to-date forces who are able to take on the many different roles asked of them. The strategic defence review should properly take account of those differing roles and we should not allow our forces to be overstretched and under-equipped. I believe that the review is taking proper account of those factors.

What the Prime Minister said to the new Labour conference earlier this month about the United Kingdom must surely be true of our armed forces. He said:

With being the best in every sense of the word goes a determination to be fair and to treat those in our armed forces decently. That is why I shall devote the rest of the time allowed me to the plight of those suffering from what we have come to know as Gulf war syndrome.

During the previous Parliament, United Kingdom Gulf war veterans felt that they were being ignored and that their condition was not taken seriously. There is, however, no doubt that they are ill. Many are suffering a great range of symptoms, families are breaking up under the strain and people are becoming sicker and sicker. During the previous Parliament, sufferers felt that they were no nearer the truth. People who, before the Gulf conflict, were fit and well are now reduced to shadows of their former selves. We have a duty to do our utmost to understand why this has happened. Why has it happened to United Kingdom troops and to United States troops, but not to French troops? We must have some answers.

Much of the work undertaken by eminent epidemiologists was rubbished by some during the previous Parliament. It is now time to work in complete co-operation with other nations involved in the Gulf war and to pull together all the information and studies. Every aspect of life before and during the conflict, such as diet, levels of stress, types of clothing worn, and chemical and inoculation exposure, needs to be included. We must also collate successful treatments from GPs caring for veterans, and establish efficacy and good practice for care. It is vital that this information is shared between all agencies.

There is a need for the utmost urgency and our Minister for the Armed Forces has made an excellent start. I believe that he has a real understanding of the issue. The Ministry of Defence published a document in early July, entitled "Gulf Veterans Illness--a new beginning", which offered hope to hundreds of veterans. Funding for research has doubled and, in July, the Minister for the Armed Forces met veterans once again. The Defence Select Committee quickly resumed its work in the new

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Parliament by questioning the Minister on the issue. He had a superb grasp of it and, with the publication of the new report today, we are making real progress.

The search for answers is to be stepped up. Fairness is the watchword for the new Labour Government and our record in six short months has borne this out. People are suffering long-term illnesses that they could not reasonably expect. Our mission in the House must be clear--to ensure that the nation can have confidence that the very best efforts are being made to find answers, not only for justice for the veterans, but for the prevention of such suffering again. We can now have that confidence.

6.16 pm

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I congratulate the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on a splendid maiden speech. I am sure that her sentiments about the victims of Gulf war syndrome will be echoed around the Chamber and around the nation. Justice for them and for their dependants is long overdue.

I also take this opportunity to pass on the good wishes of many of the service men whom I represent in Portsmouth, and of those who live in Hampshire, to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) for his efforts to get a fair deal and greater understanding of Ministry of Defence problems. I thank him for his efforts on their behalf.

I also congratulate the Ministry of Defence team on its performance at Defence Question Time. It was certainly the most enjoyable Question Time in my short time in the House in this Parliament and in my previous time in the House. Ministers' responses were the most positive that I have heard for a very long time.

We are, however, talking about a review of our defence capabilities. When the Minister for the Armed Forces introduced the debate, he said that the review would be policy led and not resource driven, but he did not go on to talk about what would happen if the policy was driven by a lack of resources and reversed its aims. Listening carefully to what the Minister said and to what the Secretary of State said in his excellent speech yesterday, we heard them talk about the 29 per cent. less expenditure and the 100,000 fewer personnel available to the armed forces. What they did not say was that resources would be made available to secure the strategic defence of the nation if the review suggested greater commitments than we have at present.

We have had no clear commitment that there will be no reduction in expenditure. We need cast-iron guarantees because otherwise the defence review is a meaningless exercise. Many who have spoken in the debate have rightly celebrated the quality of our armed forces and I also pay tribute to the many men and women I have met during my time representing in politics the city of Portsmouth and the county of Hampshire. I know from travelling around Europe and elsewhere of the high esteem in which our armed forces are held, whether they are members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Army or the Royal Marines who have a splendid reputation wherever they serve because of their tough role on behalf of the community.

Recently, I visited eastern Europe, where the contribution of the British Army was greeted with widespread admiration and support. Nobody had anything but a good word for the performance of our troops in

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Bosnia and the way in which they behaved, handled problems and developed the technique of responding to difficult circumstances in many different parts of the world.

We also need to pay tribute to our reserve forces in the Territorial Army, the RAF and the Navy. They should be considered to be a national asset. They are flexible, available and we can count on them. We need to understand that they play a continuing and vital role in the defence of the nation and share the responsibility of our defence capabilities.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) pointed out yesterday the many deficiencies in the starting point for today's debate on defence capabilities. He talked about the lack of foreign policy objectives and the fact that we still have not clearly established our priorities.

Many hon. Members have rightly and traditionally used the debate to raise constituency matters. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and others spoke about the Royal Ordnance explosives factory. Let me pass on to the House the support for his campaign and that of others who wish that resource to be retained of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and my hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). They are committed to that cause and support the need to maintain an explosives production unit in the United Kingdom. We should not make ourselves vulnerable by allowing a bad decision to be taken.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mr. Jones) who made a thoughtful speech yesterday. He spoke about the worthwhile Astor project. However, the issue is not quite as straightforward as it appeared from his presentation. I represent many people who work for Lockheed Martin, which is based in the city of Portsmouth. That company and its work force have assembled a rich cocktail of expertise and commitment to making the project work. It could be a real asset for the defence community of the nation. I would not want any Minister to rush headlong into a decision without considering what was available.

As I represent the home of the Royal Navy, it would be wrong of me not to mention the city of Portsmouth and its commitment to the Royal Navy. The local newspaper, the Portsmouth News, has recently been running a petition, which I am delighted to say the Secretary of State has agreed to receive in a few weeks' time. Signatures were not collected door to door, so people had to make the effort to go and sign the petition. It was signed by thousands of people and it concerns the very subject that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex spoke about--getting people to realise that we get nothing for nothing and defence has to be paid for. It urges the Government to provide resources to give the Navy the right capabilities to fulfil what the nation expects of it. Many people in Portsmouth have witnessed at first hand the run down of the Royal Navy which has affected civilian jobs as well as the service personnel who go to sea on our behalf. It is important that the Government take seriously issues such as those raised by the Portsmouth News. The people of that city have responded magnificently in support of our armed forces.

What are the armed forces for? Many hon. Members have challenged the Minister to explain that. Those who go to the cinema regularly will have seen the

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advertisement that shows how our armed forces help such laudable causes as famine relief, clearing up after earthquakes and other natural disasters and supporting communities affected by them.

Last week, I heard the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office tell the Oxford Research Group that he wanted the armed forces to do more to combat the threat of drugs particularly in the Caribbean. For the first time, a Foreign Office Minister had said that the review had a distinct responsibility to produce some solutions that would give greater flexibility for our armed forces to be used in the defence of communities against drug addiction. However, there was no announcement in the House. We heard nothing from the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence about what the policy guidelines should be.

The two-day debate on defence policy is a bit of a hit and miss. Is it meant to be suggestion box days where we put all our proposals in a hat in the hope that someone will pick them up and run with them? We have not been given sufficient information to make the review the substantial exercise that is required to take our armed forces into the next decade with any degree of surety about where they will be in 10 years' time.

Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting Gibraltar with other hon. Members. The strategic necessity of that base is clear. We need to consider it in connection with the threats that were discussed yesterday and have been well documented. The base at Gibraltar and the two sovereign bases in Cyprus are key issues in the long-term defence of the nation, yet no Foreign Office statement has been made.

Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Defence was challenged to name the enemy. I supported him whole-heartedly when he talked us through an eloquent presentation on where he saw potential enemies. I urge any hon. Members who have not yet done so to read the document recently produced by the North Atlantic Assembly on the state of Russian forces. It describes a horror story waiting to happen--in some cases, it has already happened--posing threats across eastern Europe and beyond. There is the opportunity for someone to go out of control. We need a quick response to the real threat resulting from the collapse of the old Soviet armed forces. How right the Secretary of State was to make that issue plain and simple to understand in the House.

The review should have started to address some of the policies that the Ministry of Defence has recently put into practice, such as the number of agencies that have been set up. I read with interest questions that were asked by hon. Members towards the end of the previous Parliament concerning the role of those agencies. There has been no proper evaluation of whether any of the targets set are capable of being achieved or whether the setting up of 40 or more agencies within the Ministry of Defence has produced real value for money. The review should have been given the opportunity to examine their role and the way in which they are to be developed over the coming years in the defence of our nation.

Let me touch on an issue that many hon. Members have mentioned. We have heard a great deal about procurement--pieces of metal, fabric, computers and everything else that we need for the defence of our nation.

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Some hon. Members have spoken about the other important commodity that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key)--

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