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9.30 pm

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): I shall start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) on his first appearance in the House. I pay him the courtesy of agreeing with my hon. Friends that he made a good speech. It was an excellent start to his political career. We crossed swords during his election, but I give him the benefit of the doubt on his first speech in the House and I welcome him on behalf of the Conservative party.

As there is limited time available for my response to the debate, which was in two halves, I shall mention only those who commented on defence matters. If they will forgive me, I shall leave the remarks of those who spoke purely about foreign affairs or other matters to another time.

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My hon. Friends the Members for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) spoke about defence. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford made some pertinent points about Sierra Leone. Although I disagree with the comments of my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Mr. Cohen), I welcome him to his permanent place in defence debates. I did not agree with what he said on defence, but he said it rather well.

The two speeches of note on that subject from this side of the House were from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), who both made powerful contributions in the short time available about the effect on NATO of what the Government have agreed and exactly where that takes us.

I pay tribute to our troops and their families. We have come to expect the highest levels of professionalism from our forces--perhaps we should not, but we do. They have shown that professionalism time and again. Whether or not we agree with Government decisions, or whether in opposition Labour agreed with the previous Government, the truth is that when our forces are called on to act to implement Government policy they do so with the utmost efficiency and professionalism. We are deeply proud of what they do. We are also proud of the families who support them and worry about them when they are away. All too seldom do we hear comments about their sacrifice and their sense of duty. Much is asked of them, and they give a lot. It is worth while recognising what they do.

I also want to mention quickly one or two areas on which we will not be able to go into detail given the short time available, but which we have dealt with in two recent debates. I am sure that the Minister will recognise that when he winds up the debate.

The Minister will shortly bring the quinquennial Bill to the House for its Second Reading. We are disappointed that the three services discipline Acts have not been put together. I understand why that is difficult, but it is high time that we got on with it. The Government would have had our full support to make that work.

I welcome the proposals for the Ministry of Defence police, which the Minister had the courtesy to let me see today. Others will be welcome during the passage of the legislation. However, I give the Minister notice that the big issue that we shall want to debate is the move down the politically correct road, which will damage the ethos of our armed forces. The Government have incorporated the European convention on human rights in legislation, but included no caveat to protect our armed forces from what may become intrusive legislation via the courts. We will want to know how they intend to deal with that, because it could be damaging.

In the run-up to the next election, the Government will have to return to the issue of overstretch and the current problem of a shortage of fast-jet pilots, among other forces. I gather that only 18 combat-ready Sea Harrier pilots are available, which is a serious indictment of the Government. We shall return to that issue again and again, as well as to the problems of forces families and the homes that they have been unable to live in because of their state.

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Sadly, I was not present to hear the comments of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), but I understand that he mentioned an important facet of overstretch and of the reason for the haemorrhaging of middle and senior-ranking and non- commissioned officers from the forces. He rightly referred to medical services, which were a problem under the previous Government and are still a serious problem now. The Minister has dealt with the matter in part, but is it not time for us all radically to rethink our approach to medical problems relating to families and service men? My colleagues and I would be happy to engage in a serious debate about that.

European defence is the key issue that the Government presented to us today, following the Nice treaty. Two serious questions need to be answered. First, will the proposal--will what the Government have signed--duplicate the structures, dilute NATO and eventually decouple the United States from the defence and the alliance of western Europe? We think--I believe--that that will happen.

The Prime Minister cannot now complain that he ignored all this because it was not a problem until the last few days before Nice, when the Americans suddenly discovered it. That is not the case. The Prime Minister knows that all along--from St. Malo through Cologne to Helsinki, and even Nice--the whole issue of the autonomy of the structure was critical, and he agreed at every turn with every statement that was written about the force being autonomous. There was never any question of its being anything else.

Last week, when Mr. Cohen, the American Defence Secretary, made it clear publicly that the Americans had deep concerns, the Prime Minister pretended that it was the first time he had heard of this, and that suddenly he was in a face-off with the French presidency. What utter nonsense. He knows very well, as does the Foreign Secretary, that Mr. Cohen has made that absolutely clear to the Government privately, endlessly, over the past two years, since St. Malo at the start of all this.

Nothing was a surprise to the Government a week ago, and they were not in a spat with the French just at the last moment. It is realistic to say that the Government knew all along. In his recent meeting with President Chirac, the Prime Minister said that they were at one and saw "eye to eye" on European defence matters. That was before the Americans, apparently, warned him publicly. That gave the game away and revealed that the Government were in reality very keen on all the proposals.

There is plenty of evidence that the Government's assertion that they have managed to insert NATO's right of refusal in the document is nonsense. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe made that absolutely clear. The cornerstone of the force's being part of NATO is that NATO should be able to decide who will operate, but nowhere does that exist in the documents that the Government have signed. There is only a vague and general statement about circumstances where NATO as a whole is not engaged.

The Government know very well that NATO as a whole is rarely engaged. The reality is that there will be caucusing among EU members before they go into NATO meetings, and it will end up with the United States versus the EU members of NATO. That is hardly a way to

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balance the alliance, but the Foreign Secretary and the rest of the Government--and particularly the Prime Minister--have left us to pick up the pieces.

Then there is the concept of operations being conducted without NATO assets. It is a fact that the EU will make the judgment on that, without any question. It was made clear in the annexe to the presidency conclusions on security, which states:

The EUMC is the European Union Military Committee. That is the reality, as is what was signed at Nice. The EU makes the decision, not NATO--and certainly not the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister.

There is also a wonderful admission in the document about the chain of command. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe pointed out, the end of the document makes it clear how the arrangement will work:

There we have it. There is not one formal link between any of those EU defence institutions and NATO. All we have is a clear indication of who will hold the decision-making power; it certainly is not NATO.

What the Prime Minister said--that the right hon. Gentleman had managed to hold the line against the vicious French or the other Europeans who were hellbent on driving America out of Europe--was nonsense. As I have said, the right hon. Gentleman had agreed from St. Malo onwards about all those arrangements. He said that it was a "victory for common sense." I look only at what the others are saying. Interviews and comments from the German Government in the Suddeutsche Zeitung are clear. They say that

The two to whom they were referring are President Chirac and the Prime Minister. That is the reality. In France, President Chirac said after the signing of the agreement, which he was happy to sign:

the force must

Therefore, President Chirac has no doubts about what was signed. It appears that the Prime Minister is in some form of denial. We have a series of duplicate structures: a Political and Security Committee, a Military Committee of the EU, the Military Staff of the EU and strategic planning--duplicate structures and a weakening of NATO.

The Government say that those structures and all that was agreed are not about anything important; they are about only some small-level delivery of Petersberg tasks. That was a question that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex got on to powerfully. We know that the Government are running to the election and that, now they have signed the agreement, they have gone into a process of denial, but will the Foreign Secretary please explain: if this is only about low-level Petersberg tasks, why do we need 100 naval ships on call, 400 combat aircraft and

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between 60,000 and 100,000 men? It is absurd to think of that as aid to the civil power. The Government are dumping all that on its head; they want to ignore the reality for those who want to break up NATO. That is the route that they are taking because that is the force to which they have signed up.

Given that the first conclusion is that what the French say about the matter, not what our Prime Minister says, and what other leaders are saying in Europe is correct, there must be a bigger scheme on offer. We saw it from the newspaper Die Welt before the Nice summit. It said clearly, referring to the German Government, that the whole scale of operation was way beyond Europe--it is the Caucasus, the middle east and north Africa. It is straightforward. They know that. They believe it and that is what they believe the Prime Minister has agreed.

Only today, the chief of staff to the French armed forces, Jean Pierre Kelch, said in Le Monde that

Everyone else knows what the Prime Minister has signed. All he does is come back and deny it. We know what Secretary Cohen said. He would not deny that what he said still stood after the Nice treaty. Everyone knows that the Government have signed up to that.

The question for all of us is this: why did the Prime Minister ever embark on that policy? I am reminded that both he and the Foreign Secretary said time and again that they opposed it. Only in 1997, the Foreign Secretary said:

I remember that he grovelled to the previous Foreign Secretary in 1996 when he said that

There it is: a Foreign Secretary who says one thing one day and does another thing another.

The reality, as we know, is that the Government have given way on the issue. They have entered into an alliance with others who would change and break NATO, and have done so for one petty political reason: they were left out of the single currency. As they feared that the single currency would go ahead and they would lose influence in Europe, they signed up with the French to a process delivering Britain's defence forces outside NATO. The Foreign Secretary knows that, as do the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, who is not in the Chamber. That is the reality.

I have travelled from Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe to NATO and elsewhere, and all the ambassadors--not only the British ones--say the same--that enhancing European military capability and co-operation should and could have been done within NATO. The only reason why it has not been done is that the Government joined the French, who would not rejoin the military wing of NATO, thereby opening the door to current developments.

I tell the Foreign Secretary--who is hiding his head--[Interruption.] Yes, he is hiding his head. He has agreed to proposals that will break NATO and decouple the United States from European defence. All he has to remember is that, at the next general election, the Opposition will take great pleasure in taking a stake

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marked "Euro-army" and driving it through the heart of this little beast called new Labour, driving them from government.

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