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Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): My right hon. Friend is right to say that the deployment of British troops at any time is a grave step. Therefore, the House should reflect that and be in a sombre mood.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement has the massive support of my constituents in Middlesbrough, of the people of Teesside and of the people in our country, and that the Government's approach and determination to eradicate and eliminate global-reach, state-sponsored terrorism is right and proper? Is it not right to communicate that majority view, that massive view, in our country to those in our armed forces who are serving now and who may serve in future? Although there may be dissident and siren voices who are entitled to be heard, they should be washed out in the clamour of support for our armed services.

Mr. Ingram: I know that my hon. Friend will accept that I deeply hold the sentiments that he has expressed, and I have expressed them over recent days. It is a grave step to deploy our armed forces, whether for this country alone or as part of a coalition.

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There is massive support within this country and internationally for our objectives. Everyone has realised the enormity of what we are facing. If some have not understood that, they should just examine what happened on 11 September and what flows from that. There is a need for all of us who recognise the very valuable role played by our armed forces to keep repeating that point, not just for those who are on the front line and who may be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, but for the families in and around the areas from where the troops are deployed. They need our support; they need our genuine comfort at this time. That is why I mentioned in my statement the need to ensure that we give maximum support to families, too.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): While we all welcome the Minister's statement, does he agree that what he has announced is nothing more than a rebalancing of an existing force, when most of us had hoped that he might be coming to the House to announce a significant stepping-up in the tempo of operations and, indeed, the deployment of forces on the ground?

What has happened to HMS Ocean, the new commando carrier, which one would have expected to play a significant role? Why is it necessary to convert HMS Illustrious to a helicopter-carrying as well as Harrier-carrying ship? What possible military use could 200 men in a lead force in HMS Fearless be when the main component of the Commando is back at its home base? While I see that it is more desirable to keep troops on a long lead than a short lead, surely that is not evidence of any great desire to step up the campaign, which is what needs to be done.

Mr. Ingram: I do not want to start trading operational decision-making processes. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge from both his military background and his time in the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that he will recognise that the tempo of demand can rise and fall. It is probably different from anything that we have ever faced before—what has happened in other theatres does not necessarily apply in this theatre. It is why the Chief of the Defence Staff has talked about the varying nature of the type of action that we could take and why I mention the probability of the tempo rising and falling as needs demand.

There are no plans to put large-scale troops on the ground at the present time. That is a military judgment. Obviously, that is in line with any political objectives we may also have, but these matters have to be carefully balanced.

The hon. Gentleman asked about HMS Ocean. That ship is coming back for refit, which is why it has not been retained in theatre. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about the matter, we can get all the details to him. We do not need to get into a squabble about a particular ship. We have put a very large component of ships in the area, and we believe that that will meet our needs.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the 200 men and the total complement. I have explained that those returning home would be available for immediate deployment if the tempo increased sufficiently to require their presence there. Indeed, that will apply to any other resources we need to put into theatre if needs change.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): In his opening statement, my right hon. Friend stressed our friendship

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with the Government of Oman. Would he care to speculate on why it appears that the Government of Oman are not prepared to allow their territory to be used as a base for operations in Afghanistan?

My right hon. Friend says that we should be conscious of certain things. I ask whether Ministers are conscious of the fact that, on Saturday 17 November, Ramadan begins. Do we have the clear, categorical assurance that there will be no military action during Ramadan? It would be absolute folly in terms of the Islamic and Arab world if we were to conduct military operations during Ramadan.

My right hon. Friend comes back on bin Laden. May it not be, as the BBC World Service seminar, which a number of us attended, suggested, that bin Laden is an elusive venture capitalist of fundamentalist beliefs? If that is the case, what about the intelligence work that should be done in Germany, Britain and America? There are a lot of people who think that the atrocity in Washington and New York was honed and finalised not in Afghanistan, but rather nearer home.

Mr. Ingram: My hon. Friend raised a number of questions. I shall not speculate on our relationship with Oman, because I have already set out our very close relationship with it, and I do not recognise the way in which he presented the matter.

On Ramadan, my direct answer is no, I will not state what my hon. Friend is asking. The military campaign will continue. On the nature of bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organisation, I am surprised that my hon. Friend asked that question because we have made it clear that every effort is being made to close the economic and financial aspects of that particular organisation.

To undermine an organisation's ability to raise money and use it for nefarious ends is an effective way to deal with terrorism. Every effort is being made in this country and internationally to use the best intelligence available, not just in terms of military intelligence, but also that connected with the financial institutions, to close down that aspect of the terrorist network.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): May I say to the Minster that I am sure that all right-thinking people will wish success to our armed forces in this most challenging and crucial enterprise on behalf of our freedom and our ultimate democracy? It is much better to employ more troops quickly now than to have a build up later because the mission has not been accomplished as swiftly or as successfully as desired. I hope that he is also bearing in mind the crucial importance of Pakistan's interests. This operation should therefore be concluded by the winter and a relief and reconstruction programme undertaken in Afghanistan to accompany our military operations.

Mr. Ingram: I cannot agree or accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the nature of the deployment of troops and their use. We say consistently that we have taken the best advice on this and we can get no better advice than that from the chiefs of the defence staff. I would rather accept their judgment than the expression set out by the hon. Gentleman. He is right, however, about our overall objectives in Afghanistan: it is not about the destruction of that country, but about its reconstruction. That remains one of our objectives, not just from a UK

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or coalition perspective, but from the perspective of the international community. That is why the UN is putting in so much effort to achieve that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): We are all concerned about the well-being of our forces. Does the greater deployment of our troops mean that bombing may not be as necessary as it was previously and that it might now be limited to the protection of those troops?

Mr. Ingram: I will not set out in detail our future intentions in that respect. I said in my statement that the bombing campaign would continue, that it would be proportionate, targeted and for the specific purposes laid down to achieve the military objectives that we have been discussing this morning. My hon. Friend should take on board that we should not be setting out in detail the nature of this operation. The bombing has achieved major objectives, but if there are still targets required to be taken out by such a bombing campaign that will also be our objective.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Defence returned yesterday from a two-day visit to Operation Saif Sareea. I hope that he has already heard that we were hugely impressed, as he was, by the success of that operation, particularly the close working relationship between Oman and United Kingdom forces, which has undoubtedly done much to strengthen the ties between our two countries.

While it is unfortunate that certain deficiencies in our forces have already been exposed by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch)—and I do not believe that to be helpful to our forces—if we are to be engaged in operations in Afghanistan, it is important that any deficiency in spares must be remedied at the earliest opportunity. In the light of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid–Sussex (Mr. Soames), can he tell the House whether the Government have plans to bring other units to a state of high readiness and not just a small contingent of commandos?

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