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Mr. Menzies Campbell: Will the right hon. Gentleman provide an assessment of the Government's attitude to the suggestion that NATO should have a right of first refusal in any circumstances in which European forces might be deployed in the sort of roles that he has described? It strikes me that that could be an important part of ensuring that the United States was never excluded from decision making and it would also deal with those members of NATO that are outside the European Union.

Mr. Hoon: We are working to achieve coherence between NATO planning processes and the emerging EU planning processes. I do not entirely accept that a formal right of first refusal would be appropriate, because of the way in which a crisis can develop internationally. A crisis might begin as a relatively small-scale problem that was initially the responsibility of the EU because NATO had judged that it was more a matter for European nations to deal with than for NATO. Therefore, a formal right of first refusal might not necessarily achieve the policy objective that I assume the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants. However, it might be achieved by ensuring absolute consistency between the planning processes of both NATO and the EU, an absence of duplication between the two, and real consistency in the international community's response. That is precisely what the Government are seeking to achieve and for which we have achieved widespread support, both within NATO and the European Union.

I think that Opposition Members have forgotten about what underlies this policy area. The Americans understand that we are strengthening NATO; we are not weakening it by strengthening the European contribution. For years--arguably for decades--our US allies have been calling for Europe to get its act together. That is precisely what we are doing. In Birmingham, we

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discussed the change in direction needed by the alliance, from a large, immobile defensive force intended to confront a massive attack on Europe--NATO's primary function for more than 40 years--to one capable of deploying quickly and effectively for crisis management and peace support operations.

We discussed the defence capabilities initiative, the alliance's programme to improve the capability of its forces in key areas such as air-to-air refuelling and strategic air lift. This will enhance the ability of European states to deploy their armed forces as part of coalition operations and ensure greater interoperability with US forces.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): During the NATO discussions at Birmingham, what discussion took place about the United State's proposal for national missile defence? Did most European countries say that they were opposed to such defence and would not co-operate with it? Did the British Government give a private opinion to the US that they would be prepared to co-operate if a request were made?

Mr. Hoon: There was little discussion of national missile defence at Birmingham, not least because by then the United States had indicated its intention of deferring a decision. As I said to my hon. Friend during Defence questions only the other day, the US having decided to defer the decision, it would be purely speculative for him to suggest that the UK had made any commitment in one direction or another. Unless and until a request is received, he is merely speculating.

We strongly support the departmental central index--

Dr. Godman: I am delighted that Europe is getting its security act together--I think that those were my right hon. Friend's words. Can he assure the House that the Governments of Finland, Sweden and the Irish Republic have the same enthusiasm towards the concept of a rapid response force?

Mr. Hoon: I can give that reassurance. Those countries welcome the opportunity that the headline goal affords to participate in the effective forces that that goal presupposes. Smaller countries clearly are not in a position necessarily to have the full range of forces that are available, for example, to the UK Government. However, they can play a significant part in building up those forces. Finland and other Scandinavian countries are planning a Scandinavian brigade, which will contribute to the rapid reaction force that is envisaged in the headline catalogue. That will allow them to play a part which otherwise would not be available to them. Significant opportunities are afforded to the countries that my hon. Friend has mentioned.

We strongly support the DCI. It is modernising NATO in the same way that we have adapted our own forces following the strategic defence review. We will no longer be waiting for a threat that is most unlikely to arrive. Instead, we will have the capability to deploy and to deal with threats as and when they occur.

Our involvement in future operations of any scale in and around Europe will almost inevitably be as part of a coalition. This emphasises the importance of forging closer links with those countries that we may find

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ourselves operating alongside in a crisis. These are countries within NATO and like-minded countries elsewhere, such as Sweden and Australia. The benefits of that sort of multinational defence co-operation are obvious. We cannot hope to obtain the very best in military equipment and capability by going it alone. Modern defence equipment programmes are very expensive and require a phenomenal technological input.

Eurofighter, for example, will be the world's finest fighter aircraft. It is the result of the combined efforts of four nations. As a result, we will get it at a lower price and with more advanced technology than if we had tried to go it alone. There will be huge operational benefits from four NATO nations using the same aircraft, many of the same weapons and much of the same ground equipment. If the UK went alone down that path, Eurofighter would cost much more and would be much less capable.

There are many other examples of effective multinational equipment co-operation. The Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile is Anglo-French. New armoured vehicles are being designed and will be produced in collaboration with Germany. We are talking to the Australians about our future strategic tanker requirement. There are exciting projects that will bring the countries of NATO, Europe and our friends and allies further afield closer together.

It is not just in procurement that benefits are to be had from working more closely together; there are real operational advantages, too. The UK-Netherlands amphibious force brings together the excellence of our Royal Marines and the Dutch Marines. They have similar equipment, use the same tactics and deploy from the same sort of ships. They work together in peace, and can deploy together in a crisis.

The allied Rapid Reaction Corps, which the UK heads, distinguished itself in Kosovo. In addition, there is the possible twinning--not joining--of German, Italian and RAF Tornados in the suppression of enemy air defences, utilising the best of each country's capability to improve the end product. The key point about multinational defence co-operation is that it improves operational capability and, where that is the case, we will do more of it.

Over the past 12 months, Britain's armed forces have once again made us proud. They have done everything we have asked of them and more, often in dangerous and difficult circumstances, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Northern Ireland, the Gulf and Sierra Leone.

The Government are serious about defence--we are serious about investing in defence; we are serious about looking after the people who provide our defence; and we are serious about ensuring that structures are in place, both in Europe and at home, to deliver the defence that the nation needs. We are doing all of that not with words but with actions, and we are already seeing the benefits. We are not modernising Britain's defence for the sake of it: we are doing it to ensure that Britain's forces, which are the best, remain the best. We are the only party prepared to commit the investment necessary to get the job done.

4.46 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to our armed forces. He is right to be proud of all that they

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have achieved. I also associate myself and all members of my party with the condolences that he gave to the family of Brad Tinnion and to others who were wounded. Although Brad Tinnion was the only person who, sadly, lost his life, others received wounds in what was a brilliant operation. We have come to expect our armed forces to deliver, but when they do it still sometimes takes our breath away. We are justifiably proud of them, and I therefore associate my party with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about them and their actions.

In future, would it not be a good idea to have these debates on a substantive motion rather than as an Adjournment debate? I understand that that is a little difficult without a White Paper, but perhaps it would be possible to find a mechanism--such as Select Committee reports--by which we can create a substantive motion and thus involve other hon. Members in shaping the debate. That is solely an observation, but I hope that the Secretary of State will relay it to his colleagues who sit further down the Treasury Bench--not that they are officially present at the moment.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to talk about the activities in which our armed forces have been involved. I shall follow his lead and quickly refer to them. Forces in Bosnia and Kosovo whom my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and I visited have operated in extremely difficult circumstances. They have had to spend long periods away from their friends and families, often on tour for six or seven months before going back home for a briefer period than that. They have then had to turn around and go back, if not to the same location, to areas close by. When we were in the region towards the end of last year, soldiers said to my hon. Friend and me that they would like to spend more time with their families and have more opportunity to train. I simply present those comments to the Secretary of State as key objectives--to give service people more time with their families and more time to train lest they lose those skills.

We are justifiably proud of what our forces have done. Recent events in Kosovo and Serbia are testimony to their hard work. We do not know how the situation in Serbia will develop--things still hang in the balance--but our forces can be proud of the part that they have played. The right hon. Gentleman was right to praise them.

The right hon. Gentleman was also right to say that the war in Iraq is in many ways the forgotten war. RAF pilots fly daily sorties. When my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) visited the forces there, he realised that they are almost completely forgotten by our national papers. That is not a criticism, merely an observation. Those pilots risk their lives daily, but we have got used to that idea and forgotten them. On behalf of the Opposition, I pay tribute to what our pilots have been doing. They are doing their duty and doing it excellently, and the Secretary of State is right to draw attention to that. It should no longer be the forgotten war.

The Secretary of State is also right to speak about the importance of the job that our soldiers and other service men carry out in Northern Ireland. It is easy to assume, as many hon. Members may, that there is no longer a need for members of the armed forces to be out in Northern Ireland, and that everything is settled. Only today on the news we heard that there have been both a bomb and a shooting there, which brings us quickly to the conclusion that, whatever else is going on, it is not the case that there is no need for our troops.

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The Secretary of State is right to say that he must be cautious when people suggest that we should withdraw more troops from Northern Ireland. I urge him to be cautious about the numbers that he withdraws, and to be certain that he will not have to send them back in two or three months' time, in a slightly more unprepared state.

I spoke earlier today about the possibility of setting up a memorial to those who lost their lives in the service of the Crown as a result of the troubles in Northern Ireland. I thank the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for welcoming the suggestion and speaking about seeing it through. I hope that something can be done. The House owes a debt of gratitude to a special group of people--not just the service men and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but many others, and not just in Northern Ireland--who, as a result of the troubles, made the ultimate sacrifice. It would be good for us to have a place to go and say thank you, rather than remembering just wars and major campaigns.

The Secretary of State spoke about Sierra Leone. He knows that in the earlier operations we supported the Government in their objectives, but I remain concerned about the way in which matters are developing and about the conditions out there. The Secretary of State referred in the House on Monday to extra force deployments--temporary, as he pointed out today--about which I want to ask him some questions, so that we can judge whether there is a threat of our being sucked into Sierra Leone without any clear objective.

Perhaps the Secretary of State, or the Minister for the Armed Forces when he winds up, could explain what conditions will have to prevail in Sierra Leone before British troops are withdrawn--I know that time scales are difficult--and what lies behind the appointment of the brigadier who has gone as chief of staff to the United Nations commander. To what extent is that a change in policy with regard to our connection and involvement with the UN? Does it portend that there is a possibility that we will end up joining the UN force, or is that ruled out? I share the reservations and deep concern of the Ministry of Defence about Britain becoming a full member of the UN force, as that would restrict our options. I understand that the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, does not share that view, but the House would be grateful if the Minister explained the Government's thinking.

What will be the role of the task force? Once it goes out to Sierra Leone, it will carry out what the Secretary of State called an exercise or demonstration. If that is the purpose, how long is it anticipated that the force will be there, and what will happen to it once the exercise is finished? Will it be withdrawn, left there or moved somewhere else so that it can react speedily? Perhaps the Minister can answer that now or when he winds up.

The Secretary of State spoke about the international training team and our long-term commitment to it. Earlier in the year, when we visited the British training force, it was clear to me--and I expect to others--that our team would be there for only a brief period, and that the international training team would slowly start to take over in the autumn, so there would be no need for a separate British training team.

Perhaps the Minister could explain what has happened to the time scale for the international training team. Does he claim that there will not be enough people to carry out

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the training--we were assured that there would be enough people--or is it simply a case of not being able to rustle up the people to do the job? We have received no explanation.

I understood that the most of the British forces who were training would be withdrawn after providing a short sharp start to the training process, but the plan has been extended to next year. What commitments have been made beyond that? If there are such commitments, why have they been made? What has happened to the international training team? My hon. Friends and I would be grateful for some explanation of what is happening in Sierra Leone, and I hope that the Minister, who will wind up and possibly open the second half of the debate tomorrow, will provide it.

We have already taken up a reasonable amount of time, and the Secretary of State gave way on a wide range of subjects. I shall not refer to every subject that the right hon. Gentleman covered because there will be time tomorrow to deal with many of those topics. The Minister will probably mention some of them. I shall concentrate on the European security and defence identity and the development of the European defence programme.

In the next two to three weeks, with the approaching force generation conference, it would be reasonable to try to ascertain the way in which we have arrived at our current position and its implications not only for Europe but for the United States and others. One tends to forget the Canadians, who are very much a part of the process.

For me, it is not a matter of debate that the nations of Europe should be able to do more, have a greater capability, and be more efficient in military terms. As partners in NATO, they owe it to their big partner, the United States. They also owe it to themselves because, for too long, they have assumed that someone else will act for them.

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