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Mr. Donald Anderson: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is falling into his own trap in the matter of selective quotations. Mr. Cohen's starting point was a very warm response to the European developments that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now dismissing. He quite properly said that there should not be duplication of planning staffs but he agreed that there should be a strategic planning staff at European level. That is precisely the policy that the Government are following. There is a debate within Europe, and others will want to go further, but it is surely wrong to dismiss those who voice a different opinion. We have made it clear that we do not want duplication, but the Americans themselves assume that Europe should have a planning function at a strategic level.

Mr. Howard: But it could all be done within NATO. If we do not want duplication, why have a political and a military committee, and a military staff outside NATO? They are, in essence and inevitably, duplicating functions that should remain in NATO. There is no need for them.

Mr. Anderson: The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned the Balkans. Miss Rice has made it clear that it may not be in the US strategic interest to be involved in the Balkans, but because of migration flows and the turbulence across frontiers, Europe certainly does have an interest there.

Mr. Howard: I accepted that a few moments ago. I accept that there may be situations--the Balkans may be an example--in which European members of NATO would want to get involved but the United States would not. That could all be done within the framework of NATO.

I have not quite finished with Mr. Cohen's speech. He went on to say that the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe--DSACEUR--should be at the heart of EU-NATO relations. In this, he was echoing our Defence Committee, which proposed that DSACEUR should have the right to attend all meetings of the European military committee. The Government's response to that proposal was typically disingenuous. They said:

Of course, that was not agreement with the Defence Committee's proposal. It was not even an answer to it. I should be grateful if the Minister could listen for a moment, because I want an answer to this specific question: will DSACEUR have the right to attend all meetings of the European military committee, as proposed by the Defence Committee, and if not, why not?

Is it the case, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph this week, that the Government have conceded that the holder of the post of director general of the military staff should be French? Would not that symbolise the way in which the Government now dance to a French tune on these matters? Given France's history of ambivalence towards

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NATO and the growing stridency of the anti-American rhetoric indulged in by French leaders, would not that give the clearest signal to the Americans of the real nature of this enterprise?

The Sunday Telegraph also suggested that Pentagon chiefs have made it clear that they would be unwilling to share intelligence data with the new EU alliance--another point touched on by the hon. Member for Swansea, East. I do not expect the Government to comment on intelligence matters, but is there not a real danger that that will indeed be the American position if these events proceed, especially given recent history, including what happened in the Kosovo campaign?

These are serious questions. I hope that we can have some answers. My charge against the Government is that they are jeopardising the relationship that has always stood our country, our continent and the world in good stead, by committing themselves to a wasteful, pretentious and ill-thought-through European enterprise. It may yet turn out to be their greatest act of treachery.

5.7 pm

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South): First, I apologise for my absence yesterday. I was listening to the debate but began to feel unwell, so I had to leave halfway through the opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Let me make it clear how much I admire our British forces. Like the majority in Britain, I am very proud of their action and I believe that they make an outstanding contribution on our behalf throughout the world. I am more than pleased that the Government are acknowledging that and spending billions. This is the first time for many years that so much has been spent, and it is long overdue.

I want briefly to express my pleasure and pride in the fact that two of the amphibious landing craft are to be built in my region, in the north. That, alongside the order for tanks, has made people feel that they have a proud future in Great Britain in which they, too, will be seen as supporting the activities of our armed forces. I am pleased, of course, to have the opportunity to contribute to a debate on defence and the armed forces for the second time in a week. That gives me real pleasure.

My intention today is to welcome, although with great caution, the clear support that the Government are now giving to the principle of equal opportunities in the armed forces' selection and recruitment policy. At long last, that approach will give all people the right and opportunity to serve their country in many roles, although not 100 per cent. of roles are open to people in that way. I hope that, by the end of this Parliament or the beginning of the next, women will have the right to apply for selection for 100 per cent. of roles, and that fewer exclusion clauses will be put in their way.

I believe that people with the necessary talent and ability should be recognised and, if they are able to pass the rigorous selection criteria, they should be given the opportunity to serve. I am more than pleased that the Royal Air Force should have opened up 96 per cent. of all roles to women. The figure for the Army is 70 per cent., and for the Navy 73 per cent. That is a valid beginning to giving all those who choose to do so the opportunity to serve their country.

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I am pleased that some people--although only some, as yet--are consigning to the dustbin the belief that only men can or should fight on the front line. The implicit belief has been that women are only able to care. I want to persuade the House that everyone, to varying degrees, is able both to fight and to care, and that recognition of that is long overdue.

Women were involved in active service in world war two. That fact has conveniently, been forgotten, by those who want to exclude women from 100 per cent. participation in the armed forces. It is shameful that only now is a formal commemorative statue to be built in remembrance of all the women who served in that conflict. Many women served on the front line in the second world war and many died, proud to give their lives for their country

Some hon. Members might claim that women are the weaker sex, that they must be protected, and that they represent a gender problem and a weak link in a combat team. They should read the accounts of those women who fought on active service between 1939 and 1945. If they did, they would be ashamed their wish to consign women to a secondary role rather than a primary one.

Convincing evidence of women's physical ability and dextrousness is evident in the work that women did in the munitions factories of the 1940s. The cosy, rosy picture of the little woman at home is also blown away by the history of the land army. The stereotypical perception of women is also called into serious question when one reads the history of mining. Women were miners and dug coal alongside men, and they participated in industry, education and politics. Despite their full achievement in all roles, women have been defined by some, conveniently and for far too long, in terms of the support given by "the back-room girl".

I remind the House--seriously but not entirely without humour--that behind every successful man there is often an even brighter and more convincing female. I am sad to say that successful women have to be twice as capable--and often twice as bright and determined--as the men with whom they compete.

The armed forces of tomorrow must not accommodate the stereotypical beliefs that I have described. Although I do not doubt that such beliefs are well meaning and serious, I know that women consider them to be patronising and undermining.

I am proud of the British armed forces, so I find it sad that sexism is writ large in the ethos of much of those forces. That sexism is perpetuated by the many who persist in regarding the forces as a man's world, where front-line combat--the acceptance of commands or roles that might cause one to die in action for one's country--is considered to be the right and prerogative of the male. My contention is that the approach of the armed forces should be that all people have the right and prerogative to choose to serve in roles that they fit and can accommodate. It is, of course, the right of the armed forces to select, without prejudice, people who have the talent, ability, suitability and the desire to serve. However, I believe that only when the selection process is fair as well as rigorous will the best be chosen.

There are, of course, changes taking place. The serious questions that impact on whether a woman should be allowed 100 per cent. participation in the armed forces are at last being asked. The Army is carrying out a study of

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the effects on combat effectiveness of opening all roles to women. I warmly welcome this. I would not want any person to be selected for a role in the armed forces that they could not accommodate. I am assuming that the study will test and assess the extent to which combat roles are supported, disrupted or undermined by operating joint male and female forces. I believe that the tests used will assess whether mixed-gender forces will reduce the commitment of all in achieving the set target, which of course includes raising bayonets against an enemy or aggressor.

Valuable evidence--albeit not great in volume--from American studies and the Israeli army suggests that women in combat on the front line in action are as relevant to that action and show as much commitment to it as any male involved. That evidence is small in size but is a valued start with regard to providing evidence and information that will inform the debate on achieving equal opportunities in the armed forces. Inevitably, much is said about the training to achieve effective combat. Standards are set and they must be achieved if the Army is to survive any and all affronts.

People who participate in all parts of the armed forces have the talent and ability to do the job in hand. I am absolute in my belief that a commitment to equal opportunities must in no way compromise the performance of the force. Equally, I believe that a commitment to equal opportunities will not compromise the performance of the force. It is emphatically the case that when on active service in the Gulf or Kosovo, whether on a rescue or other mission, the whole team must be able to meet the standards required. There is no room, and there can never be any room, for a weak link. That fact is absolute. However, we must have knowledge about women's capabilities to judge whether they can maintain their combat roles under pressure. It is only when the roles are open to women and they are given a chance to prove their capabilities, to perform in training and under pressure, that we can assess accurately whether they should be selected for all front-line combat roles, such as in the Marines, in submarines or elsewhere.

The research provided for the Equal Opportunities Commission clearly states that equal opportunity becomes a valued tool when we recruit personnel. We must ensure that we define appropriate talent and select people of appropriate talent and standards, establishing effective training to ensure effective activity. The EOC believes that if we ensure appropriate selection, recruitment and training, the armed forces will get women who are capable of performing under pressure, and will, of course, also get men who are capable of performing under pressure.

The debate on equality and opportunity clearly turns on the requirement to select people who want to serve, who have the ability to do so and who, after training, prove that they are capable of doing so. When selection is approached in that way, women and men will serve alongside each other in the armed forces. My overwhelming hope is that many women will be given the right to command.

It saddens me to have to end on what I consider to be a note of some disdain. I was not in the House yesterday, as I explained, but I watched the monitor and I have read Hansard, and I am thoroughly unhappy about the comments of the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). Much of what he said was not explicit, and I suggest to the House that that is cheating. We should say to each

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other what we mean, and mean what we say to each other. In his comments, many of which were implicit, he made statements that I found thoroughly offensive. One comment--

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