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House of Commons

Monday 29 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Missile Defence

1. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead): What discussions he has had with the US Administration on missile defence since July; and if he will make a statement. [8349]

5. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What recent discussions he has had with his US counterpart on national missile defence. [8353]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I discussed missile defence with the United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, most recently on 22 August. There have been regular contacts between officials. I have consistently made it clear that we share US concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and that we shall continue to work together to tackle the potential threat with a comprehensive strategy. However, it remains the case that the US has not decided how it wishes to proceed with missile defence and has made no request for the use of facilities in the United Kingdom.

Harry Cohen: What does the Minister know about the implications for missile defence of the Shanghai agreement between Presidents Bush and Putin and indeed of President Bush's visit to China? Even if some type of deal is done between those states, will not the United States's missile defence project make the world a far more dangerous place—not only because of an increase in the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons in non-nuclear states, the direct militarisation of states and the likelihood of more non-state terrorists undertaking asymmetrical attacks, but because of an increase in the proliferation of nuclear weapons—

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is only so much that the Minister can take.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes the discussions that have taken place between the United States and Russia on a range of different subjects, probably most of which he mentioned in his question.

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What is important is that both Russia and the United States have set out their thinking on missile defensive systems. We have encouraged both countries to engage in a constructive dialogue such as has taken place between NATO members and Russia. Those discussions will continue and we strongly support them.

Paul Flynn: Would not the world be a far safer place if the star wars money were invested in conflict resolution and confidence-building measures between the nations? Star wars has been accurately described as a Maginot line in the skies. Can the Secretary of State explain how a terrorist or other enemy armed with the Ebola virus or the smallpox virus would be affected by star wars and could be persuaded not to turn our cities into biological Armageddons?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is knowledgeable about these matters, and he knows that in fact the specific proposals we are discussing on missile defence are not the star wars proposals of a previous United States President. How the United States proposes to spend its taxpayers' dollars is obviously a matter for the United States. As for my hon. Friend's more specific question, I simply do not accept the argument that fanatics who are prepared to take lethal chemicals in a suitcase into public places are any less dangerous, or require us to be any less on our guard, than those who are prepared to launch ballistic missiles. I do not find that argument at all persuasive.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): The Secretary of State is being a bit less clear than the Prime Minister was last week when he bluntly said:

to ballistic missile defence, including the 200-odd Labour Members who signed an early-day motion against it. If the Government are committed in principle to ballistic missile defence—which is what the Prime Minister's press secretary said before the summer—will the Secretary of State now have the courage of his convictions and stand up and make the case for ballistic missile defence in principle?

Mr. Hoon: We have set out our position very clearly on a number of occasions. If the hon. Gentleman has followed the subject closely, he will be aware that the United States is considering a range of different ways of dealing with the threat. In those circumstances, it makes sense for the United Kingdom to await a specific proposal from the United States and a specific request.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth): Did the right hon. Gentleman, in his discussions on missile defence, consider the situation in Israel and Palestine, where missiles and projectiles have been going to and fro? Did he consider the possibility that there would be much less need for a missile defence system if there was an effective settlement in Palestine and the Palestinian territories adjacent to Israel? Is he aware that that issue is the key concern of most Arab nations?

Mr. Hoon: That is an ingenious way of asking a foreign policy question. Nevertheless, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we find a way back to the negotiating table in relation to the middle east

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peace process. The Prime Minister, the President of the United States and other members of the international community have accordingly been using their efforts, both directly in the region and by telephone, to achieve the types of discussion that are necessary to reinvigorate the peace process.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the research findings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are evaluated and considered in any further discussions that he has with the USA? As he may be aware, those findings suggest that if a rocket from what is considered to be a rogue nation were taken out by a missile at the boost stage, although the missile might well disable the rocket, the warhead itself could continue zinging through the sky and land in Europe. The findings also suggest that even if a laser could be fitted on a 747 aircraft, although the laser might disable the rocket, the warhead itself might be left to go zinging across the sky. Will he ensure that that is discussed, and will he impress upon the Americans that, if the research is evaluated and found correct, that would make Europe a much more dangerous place?

Mr. Hoon: I am aware of research into the implications for the boost phase means of providing for missile defence. That is why the United States is looking at a range of alternatives. There are those who recognise the benefits of boost phase, in that it is possible to hit a larger vehicle travelling more slowly, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, other difficulties result from that. That is why such a careful evaluation of the respective merits of the options available is being undertaken.


2. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): What plans he has to undertake a review of defence policy, to take account of the latest assessment of the terrorist threat. [8350]

10. Barbara Follett (Stevenage): If he will make a statement on changes to defence priorities since 1998 under the strategic defence review. [8358]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We have no plans to conduct a new review of defence policy. The security priorities and defence missions set out in the strategic defence review remain valid. The SDR left the armed forces well placed to participate in the campaign against international terrorism, but we need to look harder at asymmetric threats of the kind that we saw on 11 September and ensure that we have the right concepts, forces and capabilities to deal with them. This is the work that I have put in hand already.

Dr. Lewis: That answer is not quite on all fours with the Secretary of State's previous pronouncement that the attacks on the United States provided an opportunity, if necessary, to "rebalance our existing efforts". Does he accept that the response to terrorism—the military response over which he has control—will be very expensive? Can he assure the House that the money that will have to be spent on our military response to terrorism

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will not be diverted from other necessary military capabilities as set out in the strategic defence review, which he has just confirmed is still valid?

Mr. Hoon: I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The work in hand is designed to examine the way in which our existing capabilities, many of which were well prepared for the kind of threat that we saw on 11 September, will nevertheless need further adjustment and rebalancing in the light of those threats. Much of the work done for the strategic defence review on ensuring that our armed forces were rapidly deployable is precisely the kind of work that is necessary to deal with a terrorist threat. None the less, more work needs to be completed. That is why I judge it necessary to conduct that further work within the Ministry of Defence.

Barbara Follett: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the British armed forces' ability to respond to the threats posed by the post-11 September situation has been greatly enhanced by the 1997 strategic defence review? Does he not think that now is the time to build on that success?

Mr. Hoon: I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, we are building on the work of the strategic defence review. We shall add what I have described as an extra chapter, to ensure that we can deal specifically with asymmetric threats of the kind that we saw on 11 September.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Royal Marines' winter 1999 exercise was cancelled as a result of financial constraints. Can he give us an assurance that there will be not only a proper analysis of the combat effectiveness of our troops and their ability to deal with the current threat but an increase in the resources made available to meet the many commitments that the Government have undertaken? Does he have any response to what Brigadier Lane said today about the effectiveness of his Royal Marines, whom the Secretary of State has charged with the task of leading the spearhead into Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: I had the opportunity to see the Royal Marines as they completed the exercise in Oman last week—an exercise that tested our ability to deploy forces rapidly right across the range of capability. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Royal Marines, in particular, much appreciated that. There was no doubt in their minds about their combat effectiveness or their readiness to take action. I am sure that if he looks carefully at what their commanding officer said—what he actually said to the "Today" programme, as opposed to what he was interpreted as saying—he will see that there is little doubt that the Royal Marines stand ready to deal with any threat, whenever it might arise.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) had not left the Defence Committee and been shunted into a corner of the Opposition Whips Office, he would have been able to participate directly in the first inquiry of the Committee into the same subject on which he has just asked his question? I have talked to the hon. Gentleman, who is my friend—although I am ashamed to admit he is—and I would be grateful if my

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right hon. Friend would give me and the Defence Committee some indication of the timetable of his little inquiry into what tweaking needs to be done to the SDR to bring it into line with the increase in the threat to the UK home base as a result of the events of 11 September.

Mr. Hoon: I anticipate that the work will follow the lines of the SDR. I want it to be open, and to give all hon. Members the opportunity to make representations, even from the redoubtable fastnesses of the Opposition Whips Office. I am sure that communication can reach and emerge from there, and I want everyone who has the opportunity to think deeply about the subject to contribute to what is an important debate for defence in this country. I would anticipate that we would be ready to publish conclusions in the spring of next year.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Secretary of State agree that our splendid armed forces have one most disturbing weakness, which lies in defence medical services? After the Government decided to close the only military hospital, at Haslar, we are now 75 per cent. short in some key specialties such as surgery and anaesthetics. Will the Government review the decision to close the hospital? That is not only a local issue but a matter of serious national concern.

Mr. Hoon: I would be a little more sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's complaints if he had addressed them to those who were responsible for running down the defence medical services so catastrophically. If he in fact did so, I am grateful for his continuing observations on the problem. We need to address the issue and improve the services. Much effort and many resources are going into that, but that will not involve any review of the decision on Haslar, because part of the importance of the work that we are doing is to ensure that we can provide medical services to our armed forces across the board and across the country.

Jim Sheridan (West Renfrewshire): Under the defence policy review and in light of the proposed cessation of the manufacturing of propellant by BAE Systems in Bishopton, can my right hon. Friend guarantee that alternative supplies of tested and safe propellants are in place to safeguard the interests of our armed forces? Can he further tell the House whether the Ministry of Defence has reconsidered the strategic implications of the cessation of manufacturing at the sole remaining UK propellant factory following the events of 11 September?

Mr. Hoon: I understand why my hon. Friend has raised the issue, and he is right to do so on behalf of his considerable constituency interest. However, I assure him that we have considered the matter on several occasions and I have every confidence in the arrangements for providing security of ammunition to our armed forces.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): Will the Secretary of State send our best wishes to the Royal Welch Fusilier who was seriously injured in Northern Ireland on Friday night? I am sure that we all wish him a speedy recovery.

I reiterate our support for the Government in their determination and resolve to support the US in its campaign to defeat international terrorism. I also assure the Secretary of State that we expected the campaign to

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be protracted, we never believed that civilian casualties could be avoided, and we are prepared to support the Government through periods of difficulty and uncertainty. However, does he agree that it is essential to avoid the mixed messages that have been causing serious concern about the direction of the campaign in recent days?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's good wishes and will ensure that they are passed on; I appreciate his support. He has made his case in a straightforward way. However, I do not accept that there have been mixed messages. It is a hallmark of a democracy that different people can at different times give differing views. I do not believe that it is helpful at this time for these different emphases to be subject to the microscopic examination that from time to time occurs.

I do not believe that mixed messages have been given. Our campaign aims have been set out clearly and the military means of achieving them have equally been set out clearly and on a regular basis.

Mr. Jenkin: In that case, may I press the right hon. Gentleman on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) regarding the comments of Brigadier Roger Lane, the commander of 3 Commando Brigade? The Minister of State told the House on Friday that the lead elements of this force will be "immediately available" and those comments were echoed by Sir Michael Boyce, Chief of the Defence Staff, who said that they were "ready now". However, Brigadier Lane appears to be giving contrary indications about the need for further training and the lack of intelligence. Can the Secretary of State use this opportunity to clarify the intended overall message?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the opportunity to say that I believe that Brigadier Lane's comments were deliberately taken out of context in a most unhelpful way. He was referring to the importance for any military operation of having members of the armed forces prepared for that specific operation. There is no doubt that the Royal Marines, as I saw for myself on Friday, remain at the highest state of readiness. They will continue to maintain that state, and I have no difficulty in saying that they are immediately available for operations. The point is that they need the necessary level of preparation to deal with any specific operation as it arises. That would be true for any members of the armed forces in any situation. It is only prudent to allow that preparation to take place.

Mr. Jenkin: Perhaps the lesson is that Ministers should not use officers in the field for high-level political messages—those should be reserved for Ministers.

Will the Secretary of State clarify the overall objectives of the campaign against international terrorism? The objectives published on 16 October include bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and destroying the terrorist networks of al-Qaeda, as mentioned by the Under- Secretary of State for Defence, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) on the radio this morning. In addition, objective (d) states:

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Mr. Hoon: Yes, I can give that confirmation. On regime change, we gave the Taliban regime every opportunity to give up Osama bin Laden, to stop allowing the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorism and to abandon their support for attacks on other countries. Every opportunity was afforded and so far, at any rate, Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership have not accepted those opportunities. That is why it is important that part of our military aims involves the replacement of the leadership of Afghanistan by a Government who are not prepared to support either Osama bin Laden or terrorism in general.

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