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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): What my right hon. Friend says about the Shia is nonsense but, apart from that, he mentioned the recent hijacking. Yes, the confrontation with Saddam has gone on for 10 long years, with no result in sight. Would not it have been at least a bit graceful to have entered into some kind of dialogue with the Iraqis, after they had been so quick to give up the hostages?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry, but I must disagree with my hon. Friend. The reality is that any negotiations along the lines that he suggests would be regarded by Saddam Hussein as a sign of weakness. We would simply be giving in to his appalling behaviour, and that would not advance by a single step the cause of international law, to which I know my hon. Friend is committed.

Our aircrew show great courage and professionalism in the face of the threats. They are authorised to respond in self defence. They do so within the bounds of international law, and attack only those military targets posing a threat to coalition forces. They go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties.

Saddam has claimed that civilian casualties have been widespread, but on nearly 30 occasions when he says that civilians have been killed, we know that no bombs were actually dropped. Our actions are right and we will continue to maintain our patrols over Iraq for as long as it is necessary to do so.

We also have a destroyer or frigate permanently deployed in the Gulf region. That contributes to the multinational interception force that operates under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council to enforce sanctions against Iraq. At the same time, Britain is playing a leading role in trying to make progress on Security Council resolution 1284. As many right hon. and hon. Members will know, that resolution offers Saddam an opportunity to lead his country away from isolation and a suspension of sanctions in return for progress on the remaining disarmament issues. Saddam has a clear choice between international isolation and a return to the international community.

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I have described its role in the Gulf, but this year has been an especially busy one for the Royal Navy. At the start of the year, Opposition Members entertained themselves by claiming, quite wrongly, that the Navy was unable to go about its business because we did not have enough money to buy fuel.

Since then, there has been a major, around-the-world deployment of naval forces, which return to Britain later this month. Naval task group 2000 visited over 30 countries, from Vietnam to Venezuela. The Illustrious carrier task group deployed to the Gulf, before diverting to Sierra Leone on its way home. In September, the Invincible carrier task group was involved in a major series of amphibious exercises in the Mediterranean with friends and allies.

When the fleet returns to port at the end of this year, it will not be because it has run out of fuel, but because it deserves a well-earned rest. Where there are equipment problems, we have been putting them right.

Mr. Duncan Smith: The Secretary of State says that we were the only ones who had fun about the fuel issue. It was not fun at all. Will he confirm that the Navy's annual fuel budget was cut by 30 per cent. and then had to be reinstated, which was the cause of the problem that meant that ships could not leave port at Christmas?.

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that for a moment.

The House will be aware that the United Kingdom hunter-killer nuclear submarine fleet was recalled recently for checks to be made on their reactor systems to determine whether they had the same defect as HMS Tireless. I can now update the House on the present position.

The inspections have shown that there is no evidence of the problem in five submarines. Although four of them were already alongside undergoing repair, maintenance or refit, this means that HMS Triumph, which has the capability to launch Tomahawk missiles, will return to operational duties very shortly.

Analysis of more detailed inspections will allow a recovery programme to be set in place for those submarines that are affected. We aim to have that established by the end of November. In the short term, HMS Triumph's availability means that we are much better placed to conduct operations, including those in support of the deterrent.

I have set out many of the ways in which British forces continue to make an important contribution to preventing conflict and ensuring greater security around the world.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): The matter of the submarines is enormously important. The news that the Secretary of State just gave the House is encouraging to some extent, but can we be absolutely clear what the position is? How many submarines have been found to be suffering from the same defect that brought HMS Tireless into port? How many will need extensive repair work? If he does not know the answer to that question now, within what time scale will he be able to inform the House?

Mr. Hoon: There is a programme of inspections. The reason why we were so determined that the inspections should take place as quickly as possible was concern that

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there was a generic design fault in the construction of the reactor. That appears not to be the case. In five of the boats we have not been able to find that particular problem. One of them will be very shortly available for deployment. We are continuing with more detailed inspections of the remaining vessels and I will certainly bring the House up to date as and when I have more specific information available.

I emphasise that our forces also play a vital role closer to home. Even with progress in the peace process, Northern Ireland remains our single largest operational commitment. While no one should underestimate the difficulties that lie ahead, it would be equally wrong to play down the progress already made towards a peaceful settlement. The political process has enabled us, on advice from the Chief Constable, to bring our force levels down to around 13,500, the lowest figure for almost 30 years. I look forward to the conditions being in place that will allow us to reduce our forces further still, but we are not yet there.

All of the important work that our forces undertake on our behalf depends on one thing--the quality of our people. It is the men and women who make up our forces who deliver time after time. The Government have built and sustained a strong economy. This allows us to invest in Britain's health, education and transport. In addition, because the economy is so strong, we are able to provide more resources for defence: an extra £1.25 billion over the next three years. A strong economy means that we must work even harder to recruit and retain the people we need to make sure that our forces remain the best in the world. This is a huge challenge.

Mr. Cash: Does the Secretary of State agree that intelligence is of great importance to our defence and the security of our forces? Is he aware that serious disquiet is growing in the United States and the Pentagon about the developments in European defence and security policy--the European security and defence identity in particular. Given what he said about the lessons that had to be learned and in view of the leaking of NATO secrets by the French during the Kosovo war, will he give the House an assurance that the military intelligence arrangements with the United States will remain as good as they ever have been in the past 50 years?

Mr. Hoon: I am delighted to be able to give the House that assurance, but I will be dealing in more detail with European defence later in my speech.

The recruitment of sufficient numbers of suitably qualified, strongly motivated young people is fundamental. The armed forces are one of the United Kingdom's leading employers, particularly of young people, with over 25,000 new recruits each year. Recruitment over the past two years has been buoyant. Last year, there was a net inflow to the full-time trained Army for the first time in 15 years. The overall intake for all three services was about 25,533-- 96 per cent. of our target. For the fourth consecutive year, the number of women recruited into the armed forces was well in excess of 3,000. More people than ever before from the ethnic minorities are joining the armed forces--although we recognise that we must do even more.

Just as recruitment is fundamental, so is retaining the immense talent that we already have. It should not be a surprise that our people--who are among the most

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motivated and best trained in the country--are attractive to civilian employers, who can often offer a more stable, if less interesting and exciting, life style.

I realise that there are no easy answers, but we are addressing those issues head-on with our policy for people. To select only a few examples, we are tackling overstretch by reducing commitments; we have greatly improved support to deployed personnel and have substantially expanded their allowance packages; we have implemented the armed forces pay review body recommendations in full, on time and unstaged; and we have set up the service families task force, which is already delivering real benefits for families.

My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will say more about our wide range of initiatives on retention later in the debate, but it is clear that our policy for people is already helping to make service life a more attractive long-term option for our personnel and their families.

In the longer term, I am absolutely determined that we should do more. However, to establish the armed forces firmly as a career of first choice takes time. It must be based on sustainable policies, not on quick, short-term fixes. However, for the first time we have a highly visible policy for people touching on every aspect of personnel management. That is a major step forward.

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