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Mr. Wilkinson: On a point of order. Is it normal for an hon. Member to make criticisms in that way? Perhaps the hon. Lady notified my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) that she was going to make critical remarks about him. He served in Her Majesty's armed forces for a long time, and his point of view was valid.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: First, I remind the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) that points of order should be addressed to the Chair.

I hope that the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) will assure the House that she was not accusing the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) of being a cheat, which would be unparliamentary use of language. I underline the point that was made by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood: strong criticism of an hon. Member should be preceded by a notification that it will be made.

Ms Taylor: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not inform the hon. Member for Blaby of my intentions. I saw him in the House this morning but, sadly, assumed that he would be here this afternoon. I am sorry about that. I most certainly did not use the word "cheat" in the way you feared.

I point out, with sincerity and concern, that yesterday the hon. Gentleman said that few of us had any real experience of war. In opening his remarks, the hon. Gentleman referred to the second world war and said that he regarded that as the real war. I am seriously concerned about that, and I shall send him a note about it. What is his perception of the Gulf war, the Falklands or the Balkans, especially the situation in Bosnia and Croatia during the early 1990s? The men and women in those conflicts believed that they were fighting in real wars. In our communities, the families and friends of those who died in those conflicts believe that those people fought in real wars.

The hon. Gentleman referred to women in ways that I found unfortunate and insulting. His speech implied that to allow women on to the front line and into the infantry would lower standards, and that involving women in those ways would help to undermine the ability of the infantry and fundamentally alter its capabilities. I should like to know--indeed, the House deserves to know--the source of the evidence to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I know of no such evidence. The House has been a victim of prejudice that was personal and patronising.

Mr. Blunt: The hon. Lady is entitled to her point of view, but I share the opinion of my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) about the involvement of women in the infantry and the fighting echelon which, in extremis, have to close with the enemy. I agree that it would be deleterious to the performance of the men if women served alongside them. We are entitled to our point of view. It is unfortunate that the hon. Lady should describe my hon. Friend's views as insulting to women. Both my hon. Friend and I are interested in the optimal

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performance of the armed services. I should be grateful if the hon. Lady would not suggest that we believe anything else.

Ms Taylor: I made no such statement. I would not for one minute imply that the hon. Member for Blaby does not have the optimal interests of the armed services at heart. However, it is important that we all understand the impact of what we say--in this case, that women are seen as an undermining force.

I am pleased that the Ministry of Defence is beginning to address issues of talent and opportunity by participating in the equality debate. I am absolutely convinced that in future people will be selected to command and serve on the basis of their talent and ability. Now that the equality debate has been opened, that should be the focus of tomorrow's armed forces. I hope that it will be and that the House will support women who want the opportunity to serve their country in 100 per cent. of the roles performed by our armed forces.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I want to share some simple arithmetic with the House. There are 63 minutes left for Back-Bench contributions and seven hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. I hope that hon. Members will use the time as equitably as possible.

5.27 pm

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): I listened with great interest to the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor). Equality and ability are obviously important to her, but she should also recognise the importance of suitability. I was a gunner in the armed forces. Many gunners manned the anti-aircraft sites, or ack-ack sites, outside the main cities. Although I was never in such a unit, I suspect that few women would have found such a role suitable. If they were rejected for such a job, that should not be regarded as discrimination. That would be unfair to people who take a professional view of the suitability of people of different sizes and abilities to handle the awful job of fighting on the front line. That has to be taken into account. The hon. Lady does not seem to have grasped that issue.

I am aware that other hon. Members want to speak, but I want to cover a little of the old ground and clear up the matter of Europe. I am an Atlanticist. I have lived in America and know that it is vital to this country in terms of trade--and the way in which it came to our rescue in the first and second world wars and again during the cold war. It is important that we should all see the American influence as part of the democratic way in which we, as a democratic nation, serve the cause of peace.

There are those involved in European security and defence who wish America to keep away and gradually disappear from playing a role in the defence of Europe. I notice that as an active member of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I have been a member of the Assembly for some 20 years, so I have seen it through the cold war. I have seen the initiatives that we have needed to take with the Russians both in the cold war and in peace. Some people may think that we can remove the

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American presence by creating a European security and defence identity. To do so would have the effect of decoupling us from the United States, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said. New methods of command and control and a new bureaucracy would be established. My right hon. and learned Friend quoted some of the comments made by French politicians, such as the Prime Minister and other senior officials. Their ideas would lead to the exclusion of the United States. That would be folly.

We still have an uncertain world to deal with. Wilfully to exclude America on the ground that we do not want it to dominate us would be wrong. One phrase was quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) yesterday. The French European Affairs Minister said:

It is not only people like that who speak in such terms. Some of my French colleagues whom I very much admire would disown such a statement, but the French have always been an unwilling partner in NATO. More recently, they have been more active and have played a useful role, but they have long wished to play some role that would strengthen Europe and, so they think, make Europe more independent and get rid of the American influence.

There are those who, because they want Great Britain to play what they regard as a more constructive role in the European Union, go along with those views. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe said, the Prime Minister has altered not only the tone but the words of his language. I do not believe that he or we ever contemplated that we would be playing some grandiose role in creating a new organisation that would ultimately distance Europe from America for political reasons and make it a political power--a big new European state.

It is not good enough for Labour Members to regard my comments as an example of Europhobia. I believe more than some of my hon. Friends that we should play a constructive role in Europe, but to me Europe is an economic organisation, not a political organisation that deals with defence in such a way that it rules out the sorts of co-operation to which we have been used.

Europe can obviously play its part in bringing together the disparate parts of Europe. Some countries are members of the European Union, some are not, and some are not involved in any of the western European organisations. The EU can perhaps help to coalesce the interests of the countries of Europe. It can do something that it has not yet grasped. If it wants to preserve the peace and stability of Europe and play its part in the world, it must rise to that responsibility by providing the money to fulfil those obligations.

The United States may get rather tired, fed up and critical of some of the things that we are doing. I am bound to say that some European countries have a lot more work to do in terms of security and defence. That is why my right hon. and learned Friend was right to quote the new setting of the decision to discuss the various organisations that would cut across the existing arrangements that have worked so well. The establishment of permanent political and military structures as soon as

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possible after the Nice European Council is on the agenda. If that goes too far, it will not only create another bureaucracy but widen the gap between ourselves and the United States.

I hope that we will not hear in the Minister's reply or in Labour Members' speeches that the sentiments that I express are Europhobic. They are not. They are designed to face the reality of some of those influences in Europe who believe that a federal state with a European army is the way to guarantee the peace of Europe. There are countries in Europe that do not want to touch heights of commitment that we in Britain have. They want a security umbrella, but not necessarily in the form of a federation. In some countries--our own is one such--it would not be believed that, in this day and age, it is right that military command should be put under the umbrella of a federal government.

Federation is not an unworthy objective. After the US war of independence, the Americans tried to establish a federation; they failed, because the various states wanted to run their own affairs. It took almost 100 years to develop a federal state. With the differences that exist--in language, in history and in our systems of democracy--why should we assume that the only true path to security is increasingly to develop institutions that gradually undermine the sovereignty of individual nations?

Obviously, we can try to develop trade, common laws and so on to work for our mutual benefit, but to put under federal control foreign policy and its handmaiden--defence policy--with the consequence that all decisions on sending service personnel to fight would cease to be taken by national Governments, is to live in cloud cuckoo land.

We should learn from the American experience. If we want to develop a federal society in which such decisions are taken by a federal government and not by individual states, perhaps we should wait 100 years--we would be the better for it.

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