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Jeremy Corbyn: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that national missile defence would fundamentally undermine all the nuclear peace treaties of the past 40 years? Is it not time that people told the United States to abandon this foolish project and instead work for world disarmament?

Mr. Duncan Smith: It will not surprise the hon. Gentleman to know that I do not agree with that at all. [Interruption.] I am glad to see that he is shocked; otherwise I would be worried. Ballistic missile defence is important. There are unstable nations within striking distance of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and our allies in Europe who have decided that both weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles can be used as weapons of terror. They have already embarked on an arms race and they do not believe that the west has the courage or resolve to see them off.

Even though the hon. Member for Islington, North honourably disagrees with the Secretary of State, there is not a problem with the hon. Gentleman's position. My problem is with the Secretary of State's position, because he privately says to the Americans, "Do not worry; we will be there when you finally need us," but dare not lead the debate in public. That is the most shameful part.

At least in the 1980s, the Government were prepared to put their cards on the table and say that they believed in working with the Americans, but this Government skulk

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behind others. The new Italian Government have welcomed NMD. The Polish Government have welcomed it. The Australians have welcomed it. I gather that the Japanese have welcomed it, but the British Government, who are supposedly the best ally of the United States, have not. That is the most pathetic thing: either be for it or against it, but for goodness sake, climb out of the hole and say something.

The Government will not be able to bring the United States along with them on any other subject if on this big subject they are unable to give an indication of their support. Their support is vital. The Government are trapped by their party. One hundred and seventy three Labour Members have signed an early-day motion on national missile defence, which says that they wholly oppose the Government, and I dare say that more will sign it. I shall welcome future debates on the matter.

The Gracious Speech has given us an insight into the challenges that lie ahead for the Government, a Government who have reduced the standing of politicians and politics to such an extent that the turnout at the election was extremely low. People believe that it is no longer important to vote because the Government do not care what Parliament has to say; they care nothing for scrutiny and criticism. They will ride roughshod over any opinion with which they disagree. We will oppose them until we show the British public that they have failed in the things that they promised to do and we chuck them out at the next election.

2.5 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I am grateful for the opportunity to draw to a conclusion this part of the debate on the Gracious Speech devoted to foreign affairs and defence. My intention is to try to take a strategic view of the security and defence interests and set a number of current issues in context.

First, however, may I say what an honour it is for me to have been reappointed as the Secretary of State for Defence? It is a great privilege to work so closely with the men and women of our armed forces and their civilian colleagues. To see them in action--planning complex operations overseas in places such as Sierra Leone, helping to tackle flooding and foot and mouth disease at home--is a lesson in how to get things done efficiently, effectively and successfully. I know that the whole House will agree that they are, man for man and woman for woman, the best in the world--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear!"]

Before dealing with more specific defence issues, I congratulate hon. Members, especially those making their maiden speeches today. Having devoted months, and perhaps in some cases years, to their efforts to get here, I am sure that, if my own experience is anything to go by, they were more anxious about their maiden speech than about anything that they encountered either in their selection or, indeed, their election campaigns.

I congratulate, therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight) on what was an excellent and fluent speech, giving proper praise to his predecessor, Ian Bruce, who all Members will remember as a determined and persistent questioner--he was a very persistent questioner. My hon. Friend also paid proper tribute to the Dorset coastline and to the considerable defence interests in his constituency. I had a particular

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view of that combination recently, when I was carried at very high speed in a rigid raider along the coastline by some highly specialist members of the Royal Marines who were based not too far away. I look forward to arranging a similar visit for the new Member in due course.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) on his excellent maiden speech. With his predecessor, he obviously shares a love of history. His affectionate description of hard-working Chesterfield was a complete answer to those The Times columnists who appear to want the whole of Derbyshire to look like a Posy Simmonds cartoon. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will represent Chesterfield very well--during this Parliament.

The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) chose not to follow parliamentary tradition in his maiden speech. He did mention the civil war, however, when across the east midlands parliamentary forces achieved great successes against those who sought to subvert parliamentary democracy, ensuring that the newly elected Member for Newark was able to make his speech today. Perhaps, if I may say so, he might have named his son Oliver.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor) gave a maiden speech of a different kind, addressing the House directly for the first time in three years. She did so with her characteristic clarity. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills will deal with her observations during the debate on Monday. However, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary asked me to deal specifically with one issue raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury: less reputable immigration advisers. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informs me that the Immigration and Asylum Act 1999 contains new powers to regulate immigration advisers and immigration lawyers. Furthermore, powers brought into force earlier this year will have an increasing effect and impact.

Yet another variety of maiden speech was delivered by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), back on the field after being sent off by the electors of Bury and now in new colours for North-East Bedfordshire. Such were his personal qualities in his previous incarnation that he was always a well-liked Minister, despite always being associated with the introduction of the Child Support Agency. I met him one day in London during a European election campaign and asked him why, unlike his ministerial colleagues, he was not out electioneering. He ruefully pointed out that, as Minister for the CSA, none of the Conservative candidates wanted him anywhere near them. I wish him well on his return.

There was a final maiden speech--that of a leadership pretender. The hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) provided an interesting insight into what kind of leader he could be. His speech was wholly and completely negative. We will know what he is against, but we will not have the slightest idea of what he is in favour of. He had valuable parliamentary time in which to set out his thoughts, after an election defeat, about what might be the Conservative party's policy on defence and foreign affairs. I should have thought those subjects suitable for a man who wishes to lead his party and, presumably, the country one day, but we heard nothing--not a word, phrase or sentence--that gave us

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the slightest idea of what he is for. We heard a lot of knocking copy and negative criticism, without any sense of what he might actually believe in. It is a matter of regret that he did not take that opportunity to inform the House about his thoughts and what he is for, as opposed to what he is against.

As I have said, I want to deal with the Government's defence policy in its strategic context. The world is no longer threatened by an east-west confrontation. The cold war is over and is now a decade behind us. The world has moved on since those times. We now face a diverse range of challenges to our national, regional and global security. We need to continue to shift our thinking from that dangerous, if relatively predictable, past to the challenges and opportunities of a much less certain future.

We know that the threats that we face will become more diverse. At the same time, they will probably be less likely to involve interstate wars between similarly armed, conventionally equipped military forces. Where conflicts do occur, they may be prolonged, but probably at lower levels of intensity. During the cold war, we faced predominantly high-intensity, conventional threats. We must now also consider the risks from drugs, terrorism and international crime. There is a significant technological risk that the information age could leave us vulnerable to new forms of attack, and we face the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to nations or groups who might use them against us or against each other.

In the Balkans and elsewhere, we face instabilities and tensions that could continue to threaten European security. Further work is needed to ensure the former Soviet states' integration into a peaceful and prosperous world order. Further afield--for example, in Africa--environmental, demographic, economic and social changes and pressures will also threaten security. They in turn will lead to pressures for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.

Facing such an unpredictable future means that we need to emphasise the importance of the armed forces' flexibility and responsiveness. We need to minimise the risks to security, by addressing their origins and managing their consequences.

Globalisation has become a fact of life. It necessarily involves a more important role for the international community. Multinational coalitions and organisations will need to be still more effective in responding to the emerging security challenges. That means supporting the United Nations, modernising NATO and developing the European Union's ability to contribute. Increasingly, we will need to build flexible multinational and bilateral relations with other nations to be prepared to deal with the problems both before and as they arise.

That is not to say that there are no longer direct and obvious threats to international security. Saddam Hussein reminds us that some nations are still pursuing an expansionist agenda favoured by tyrants down the ages. We have to be ready to handle such threats to international security and human rights. The security environment is, therefore, far from benign. The risks we face are more complex, less predictable and harder to deal with than those we faced during the cold war.

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Where does the United Kingdom fit in to all this? The United Kingdom is a major European state; a leading member of the European Union; a major trading nation; and a member of the UN Security Council, the G8, NATO and the Commonwealth. It is, therefore, no surprise that we have an interest in dealing with the full range of today's challenges. Our national security depends on promoting international stability, particularly in Europe, and also more widely. However, we also have a responsibility to lead the international community in responding to the risks that I have mentioned. We have the skills to do so. We have perhaps the most respected armed forces in the world. We are able to make a real difference as a force for good.

When the Government came to power in 1997, we recognised that changes around the world meant that we needed to adjust the range and capabilities of our armed forces to meet new challenges. We recognised that we would usually find ourselves acting alongside other like-minded countries on the international stage, not necessarily alone. We recognised the need to switch from the static structures of the cold war to a flexible, rapidly deployable expeditionary capability.

The strategic defence review did that and did more. It looked far into the 21st century to provide a vision of the role of our armed forces in a changing world. That vision remains valid today, although it was always intended to be dynamic, not set in stone. We will continue to adjust our detailed plans for implementing the SDR to ensure that they remain fully relevant in the light of experience and the developing strategic context.

The SDR re-examined the broad roles and missions that faced our forces. It recognised the growing importance of international peace, support and humanitarian operations. It acknowledged the value of defence diplomacy, using the skills of our armed forces and civil servants to build trust and prevent conflict.

Those conclusions have subsequently been borne out in Kosovo, the Gulf, Sierra Leone and East Timor--places where we have worked with other nations to help people who cannot always help themselves.

The SDR conclusions are borne out when we consider Macedonia today. NATO and the United Kingdom remain ready to assist the Macedonian Government in reaching a political agreement with the ethnic Albanian minority and to play a part in implementing it with military force if necessary. We appreciate the continuing role that Macedonia plays in supporting our operations in the Balkans, and hope that all parties will work constructively to resolve the current problems.

The SDR also recognised the need for new and improved military capabilities, such as strategic lift by sea and by air. It appreciated the need to change force structures and achieve greater flexibility through more joint formations, such as joint force Harrier, the joint helicopter command and the joint nuclear, biological and chemical defence regiment.

The ultimate expression of that joint approach is the joint rapid reaction force--a pool of powerful, versatile forces drawn from all three services that can be deployed to crises at short notice. Elements of the JRRF have already been deployed effectively to East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. Indeed, in Sierra Leone, the first paratroopers were patrolling Lunghi airport within hours of the decision to deploy.

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The JRRF concept will be demonstrated again this autumn, through a major exercise--Saif Sareea 2--in Oman with the Sultan's armed forces. It will be our largest exercise for many years. The UK contribution will include more than 20,000 personnel, a naval carrier task group, nuclear submarines, armoured and commando brigades and around 50 aircraft, including C-17s and Tornado GR4s. Few other nations could achieve that level of activity. It also shows our commitment to providing the best possible training for our armed forces.

We are therefore making excellent progress in implementing the SDR. More than half the key measures are now in place. However, it is a long-term process. We always planned that it would not be completed until well into the next decade.

The introduction of new equipment is a good example. The SDR acknowledged that new kit was required to give our forces the required expeditionary capability. It recognised the need for more and better investment to improve efficiency and release more resources for the right capabilities.

On Tuesday in Paris, I signed agreements with European partners on the A400M transport aircraft and the Meteor air-to-air missile. United Kingdom industry has a key part to play in those two programmes; A400M alone will create up to 8,000 jobs in the UK.

I was asked why there was a change in the number of orders for A400Ms. The answer is simple: the United Kingdom's requirement has not changed, but other countries inevitably change their requirements from time to time. It is inevitable that the details of a multinational purchase of a complex, sophisticated aircraft will be resolved over time. That is the history of such projects. If the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green intends that we should never engage in such projects, despite their considerable benefits to our industry, he should state the position of a Conservative Government in the unlikely event of their being elected.

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