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4.27 pm

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): I apologise for not being here yesterday, but there is serious flooding in my constituency. The river Roding has burst its banks and I had to visit a number of my constituents and see the damage to their homes.

I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Defence, and it is important to put on the record the fact that our Chairman my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) could not participate in our debate, as he is on parliamentary duty in Hungary. He asked that that information be conveyed to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I also have a constituency interest in some matters that have been discussed. As a member of the Defence Committee, I welcome yesterday's announcement on Bowman. However, as Member of Parliament for Ilford, South, yesterday was a sad day for me because it confirmed what has been apparent for a long time.

My constituents were supposed to manufacture the new system. According to the Archer consortium, the designated manufacturing site was going to be the former Plessey site in Ilford where in 1948, 10,000 people were making defence equipment. In the second world war there were bomb attacks all round Ilford to try to hit the Plessey factory and its underground tunnels. Ultimately, that factory was bought by Siemens and then British Aerospace. Following British Aerospace's failure to deliver on the Archer project, and the way in which the work force in my constituency were sold an illusion that there would be 700, 800 or perhaps even 1,000 jobs for many years, BAE Systems, having acquired several other factories in the Essex and Kent area, announced that it was restructuring its operations and that from February, the Ilford site would be closed.

That means the end of my constituency's continuous 80-year association with defence manufacturing. It must be placed on the record that Ilford and people living in

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Ilford made a major contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom through their work in the defence industries over many years. It is sad that it has come to this--which is the fault not of the present Government but of the fiasco of the Bowman project, its delays and all the things that are dealt with in the Select Committee's report on major procurement projects. We are not discussing that today, but I must place the fact on the record.

I intervened on the Minister on a point arising from the inquiry that we conducted into Operation Bolton and the no-fly zones in Iraq. The Committee's report and the Government's response are among the documents that are available for the debate. When we visited the facilities in Kuwait, the Ali Al Salem air base, we saw the great contrast in facilities in the region. There is an enormous contrast between the facilities that our personnel have to inhabit there and the facilities available to the personnel of the United States and to our personnel in Saudi Arabia.

I know that the Secretary of State has seen that; he has visited the region. I know that pressure has been applied and discussions have been held with the Kuwaiti Government about the standard of accommodation. In his response, the Minister said that things would improve soon. The facilities are not British Government-owned property. The building has been made available by the Kuwaiti Government for use by our personnel, but it is not adequate. The washing and sleeping facilities resembled the worst kind of 1930s hospital accommodation. They did not look in any way adequate, particularly given the extreme temperatures in Kuwait. It will be a pleasant day when we finally get good accommodation for our service personnel, who are doing a vital job in Kuwait in enforcing the no-fly zones against Saddam Hussein's brutal, expansionist and fascist regime.

I shall spend much of my time talking about European defence and the lessons arising from the Kosovo report that the Select Committee published the week before last--but before I do that, may I concur with the remarks of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) about ethnic minority recruitment. The Select Committee has just started another inquiry into armed forces personnel. Yesterday we took evidence from the air marshal, the second sea lord and other leading figures in the armed forces about recruitment of ethnic minorities and women to the respective services.

One important issue is how we get young people from inner cities, and from cities generally, to go into the armed forces. There is good ethnic minority recruitment to the cadet services, yet that has not yet been translated through. We need to find role models in our armed forces. For example, the United States had Colin Powell. We need people in senior positions in our forces and services who act in the same way as people have in the media and, increasingly, in other professions, including the judiciary. Even in the Metropolitan police, senior black and Asian figures are coming through.

In the armed forces, we must have that relatively soon. If we do not, we will not tap into the great interest that might exist among many of our black and Asian British citizens. They might recognise that interest if they could see that they would not suffer discrimination and

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ostracism by the people that they had to work with, but would be able to progress to senior positions in our armed services.

Mr. Blunt: I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not expect the armed forces to turn things round overnight. I know that under the current Administration, huge efforts are going into that area. I welcome the results in the Army cadet force, which will lead into Army recruitment--but inevitably, it will be a gradual process. It was a priority of Sir Malcolm Rifkind when he was Secretary of State for Defence. Policies were put in place then, particularly with regard to the Household Division, but do not expect the proportion to go from 1 per cent. to 5 or 10 per cent.--which is probably a more realistic figure, representing the size of the young population--immediately. I know that the armed forces are trying. Let us please give them credit for what they are doing.

Mr. Gapes: It is important to recognise that change will take time, but the problem we face is that the targets set by the armed forces themselves are not yet being met. The inquiry that our Committee is establishing will investigate the reasons, and I hope that we will be able to discuss it. That is not a criticism of the leadership of the services or the MOD. There is a new commitment under this Government in terms of targets, encouragement and recruitment, but we must address the other barriers.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): My hon. Friend is right. Targets on recruitment have not been met, but is he aware--I am sure that the Select Committee is aware of it--that the promotion of black and ethnic minority service men to higher ranks is very rare? There are very few at a high level in the services. There is a need for further investigation into the issue of promotion.

Mr. Gapes: That is one of the issues that the Select Committee will consider. We have just begun the new inquiry, and I hope that in a few months' time, we will be able to have a whole debate on it.

In yesterday's debate, there was a lot of what I can only describe as hysterical Europhobia with regard to European security and defence identity, or European security and defence policy. I was surprised by the comments of the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who seems to have been reincarnated as a rabid Eurosceptic. In his previous incarnation, he always struck me as one of the most pro-European Conservatives. Perhaps, to preserve their position in the modern Conservative party, Members take the view that they must make over-the-top, hysterical remarks about all things European.

The Kosovo conflict, and the Select Committee's recent report, drew attention to the fact that if we are to be serious about defence matters in Europe, we must address a number of important operational and equipment questions. It appears from the evidence that we received and from our conclusions that, basically, the Europeans cannot operate in any way in any conflict situation without the involvement of the United States.

Paragraph 313 of the report says:

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I would welcome it if the Conservative party became part of that European political co-operation and consensus in trying to make our defence capabilities in Europe more effective. In my opinion, the greatest threat to the future of European defence and to NATO does not come from Europe or any European politician, but from the election platform of the United States Republican party. I suggest that anyone who doubts that goes on to the internet and clicks on the policy positions adopted by the Republicans over the past three or four years, and on the speeches of Condoleeza Rice, who is the senior policy adviser to George W. Bush. I hope that if that party's policy is implemented, sense will prevail among the American electorate or the wiser heads in the State Department and the Defence Department. If they go ahead with ballistic missile defence, they will cause the worst crisis in relations between Europe and the United States that we have seen for more than 20 years.

I am not encouraged by the remarks of the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the shadow defence spokesman, who seems to be whipping up hostility to the idea of Europe increasing its defence capabilities, and acts as a cheerleader for the unilateral deployment of ballistic missile defence--which we know will have serious consequences for relations between the United States, Russia and China, and for the future of arms control, the strategic arms reduction treaties and many other things. That worries me enormously, especially given Russia's key role in ending the Kosovo conflict, to which the Select Committee referred in its report, and the key role of diplomatic efforts, in co-ordination with Russia, if we are to achieve a transformed Balkans that can become part of Europe.

The geographical position of Serbia is central to those efforts, and our relations, as west Europeans, with Russia are crucial in influencing what happens between the Serbs and their neighbours. The last thing that we need now is global unilateralism from the United States, which encourages conservatism and reaction in Russia, which then leads to irredentist positions among the Serbs and their neighbours in the Balkans. That would be an absolute disaster.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, talked about NATO enlargement and widening European security. We should now seize the opportunity presented by the half-completed revolution in Serbia and the democratic transition following the death of the fascist Tudjman in Croatia. I was in Croatia in June and met many far-sighted, good people there. The Croatian Government have invited Serbs back to Krajina and are standing up to the hard right. Even though they are a fragile coalition Government, they are doing their very best. We need to encourage those forces.

That requires the United States to be engaged in Europe, not to withdraw its forces unilaterally from Bosnia or the Kosovo area--contrary to what George W. Bush seems to want. We need both wings of NATO--its European pillar and the United States--to work together with the Russians to rebuild security in the

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Balkans region. Those issues are fundamental to the future of the defence policies that we, as a Government, bring forward during the next few years.

The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford referred to gratuitous United Nations involvement. I do not believe that our involvement in the UN is gratuitous. I do not believe that those unarmed British military observers whom the Select Committee met on the Iraq-Kuwait border, the UNSCOM mission, protected by Bangladeshi troops under an Irish commander, and including Senegalese, Russians, Americans and Canadians, are gratuitous. This country should be proud of that important international security and peacekeeping role.

Similarly, what we are doing in Sierra Leone is vital. We should be proud that we are saving black African children from having their arms mutilated and their heads cut off. We should be proud of the fact that when the UN has difficulties it comes to us and says, "Please help." It knows that we have professional armed forces and brave people who are prepared to put their lives at risk to provide international peace and security.

We need to talk not about "gratuitous" UN involvement, but about how to strengthen the UN. We need to talk about how we as a permanent member of the Security Council can work to strengthen the UN bodies that deal with such matters, so that we do not have to rely on NATO or regional alliances or coalitions of the willing, but can build permanent international structures for peace and security. The UN is important. The European defence capability initiative and the ESDP are important. Above all, none of that would be possible without the men and women of our armed forces and their families who support them.

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