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17 Oct 2002 : Column 565—continued

6.42 pm

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I begin by thanking hon. Members for their wide-ranging contributions to today's debate. I was going to say that this was the first outing of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) as a defence spokesperson, but he reminded us that he has done it before briefly.

Mr. Keith Simpson: In opposition.

Mr. Ingram: In opposition, that is. I want to congratulate him on his new role, and I look forward to further debates with him. I wholly agree with the sentiment that he expressed—powerful contributions have been made in this debate, and we all learned from them. Let us hope that that is a two-way process.

Defence in the world is certainly a broad topic, and the contributions to the debate reflect that fact. The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked about homeland

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security and defence in the UK, and I should remind him that we will have a full debate on that subject in two weeks' time, so it would be inappropriate to presage it, or even to enter into such a discussion. There will be more time then to deal with that issue in greater depth, and I look forward to his contribution. I will read what he has said, because it has given us heads-up on the possible responses.

Some 20 Members have contributed to the debate, and the issues raised have been wide-ranging: missile defence, the vexed issue of the threat of international terrorism and its relationship to the debate on what we do about Iraq, defence policy, deterrence and pre-emption, Army manning strength, Challenger 2 tanks, and the recent Saif Sareea training exercise. We also touched on the future of NATO, on UK and international defence budgets, and on UK defence sales—indeed, they are just a few of the issues that were raised.

I listened with interest to the contribution of the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). Although the Scottish National party has recently launched its new policy document, he did not mention it. I hoped that we would get some explanation of it, but I think that it involves Scotland looking inwards, rather than outwards. It is a very interesting policy document running to many pages. What is interesting about it is that it completely fails to mention NATO. We know that the SNP is an anti-NATO party, but the hon. Gentleman missed the opportunity to set out his arguments in relation to this matter. Bearing in mind that he would campaign to rip Scotland out of the United Kingdom, creating uncertainty in an alliance at a time when there is growing threat, we have not had the benefit of his thoughts. Perhaps he disagrees with his party's policy, but he did not tell us that either.

As hon. Members have observed, these are challenging and testing times for defence. We face new threats, and we must urgently seek new ways to protect ourselves, and our interests, from them. That has meant that our armed forces, and the all too often unsung civil servants who support them, have spent the last months working extremely hard as we have tried to update our defence plans and postures. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to that hard work, from which we all benefit. I recognise that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) paid a similar tribute to staff and frontline forces on behalf of their parties.

The al-Qaeda attack in the United States on 11 September last year has been called many things, from a Xnightmare" to a Xwake-up call". It has certainly instilled a new urgency and a new focus on how best we deal, nationally and internationally, with the increased and continuing threats posed by groups such as al-Qaeda and by rogue states such as Iraq. In opening today's debate, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made a number of important points on which hon. Members have alighted, such as his remarks on weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile defence.

On missile defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge), who, I think, has left the Chamber, made his usual case against the development. As I said earlier, debate is a two-way process, and if he is trying to persuade us, perhaps he should wait and allow those who argue against his case

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to develop theirs, and he may learn something, too. If he reads Hansard, however, he should read the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard), who made a very thoughtful contribution on what is becoming an increasingly important issue.

On that point, I have nothing new to add to what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already said. I can only reiterate that the United States Administration have taken no specific decisions about the precise future architecture of a United States missile defence system. My right hon. Friend made it clear that if we were to receive a request from the United States to use Fylingdales, or any other UK facility, for missile defence purposes, we would consider it very seriously. The Government would agree to such a request only if we were satisfied that the overall security of the UK and the alliance would be enhanced. My right hon. Friend also clarified how this debate will be progressed in the future, and how we will proceed to examine the issue as it develops.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State also spoke of our belief in taking the fight to the enemy militarily, and of acting proactively on the diplomatic front to help to defeat terrorism. We are investing heavily in new systems to allow us to do the former, such as the Apache attack helicopter, Eurofighter, the joint strike fighter, the new aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy and a host of cutting-edge technology that will better link up such systems in real time.

On the diplomatic front, we are striving to secure and reinforce friendships across the world, offering help in strategic terms and on a humanitarian basis to help destroy the roots of terror before they can grow.

Mr. Dalyell: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Ingram: I would prefer to reply to the points that my hon. Friend raised in the debate. If I have time to take an intervention, I shall do so.

Several points were raised about the suitability of some of our equipment, not least the SA80 personal weapon system. I welcome the comments made by the hon. Members for North Essex and for East Devon (Mr. Swire) accepting the assurances given by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the matter. The hon. Member for North Essex was, of course, given a full opportunity to examine what testing had been carried out on that weapon system. General Sir Mike Jackson was not at that event, but he is one of the most respected military officers of his generation and the next Chief of the General Staff. He is undoubtedly a soldier's soldier. He has joined the marines and paratroopers who have fought with the SA80 A2 in making it clear that, in their professional opinion, the rifle is among the best available. Those who know General Jackson are aware that he is not a man to be trifled with, and, to those who still have doubts, I say that his judgment and that of other professional experts should be listened to. Politicians and Ministers have a role to play, but the soldiers who use the system will be the best judges at the end of the day.

In the time available, I shall try to deal with some of the issues raised in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) in an

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intervention and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) referred to the recent comments made by the head of the CIA to Congress that Iraq does not pose an immediate threat to the US. This issue is not just about whether there is an immediate threat to the US or to the UK but about the unique threat that Iraq poses to the middle east and beyond. It is about the increasing threat that Saddam will pose if he is left unchecked. It is about Iraq's clear violation of UN Security Council resolutions and international law. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that the purpose of any action that we might take should be the disarmament of Iraq. Let me make it clear that Iraq's disarmament is in our national interest as a responsible member of the international community. It is right to make it the primary purpose of our international efforts.

The hon. Member for North Essex talked about the future of NATO and said how much Saddam Hussein must rejoice at Europe and the US falling out about how to deal with Iraq. The United Nations is clearly there to examine the issue and to try to iron out differences, and not all European countries take the same approach to this issue. Therefore, it is wrong of the hon. Gentleman to lump Europe as a whole together and to say that we have fallen out with the US. Such an assertion is wrong. Europe stood united against Osama bin Laden and international terrorism after 11 September, and Europe stands united on the evil nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. The hon. Gentleman's obsession with—probably more accurately against—Europe distorts his judgment on these important issues.

The hon. Gentleman used the phrase XEuro army", but there is no such thing as a Euro army any more than there is a NATO army or a UN army. Nor indeed is there a European rapid reaction force. National forces will come together for specific EU-led military operations as part of the European security and defence policy.

Mr. Jenkin: Why does the force have to be outside NATO? Why is it not inside NATO, as originally agreed in the Berlin-plus arrangements?

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