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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1079—continued

Annabelle Ewing rose—

Mr. Joyce: Before I give way to the hon. Lady, I should say that I have noticed the Scottish National party's presence on the Opposition Benches—it is wonderful to see someone there—but I have also noticed that, although she wants to take part in this important debate, she has done so very asymmetrically, so that she cannot be challenged. However, I am happy to deal with whatever opportunistic point she wants to make.

Annabelle Ewing: In fact, the hon. Gentleman invited any lawyer in the Chamber to intervene on the specific point that he made about the position and status of international law. I wonder therefore whether he can share his thoughts on the role of the International Court of Justice, which is located, in case he is not aware, in The Hague, in the Netherlands.

Mr. Joyce: The hon. Lady—I say this with great surprise—raises an interesting point. There is a place for that to which she refers, and the International Criminal Court is still embryonic, in a sense, as the United States has not yet signed up to it—for reasons with which I slightly sympathise—although I hope that it signs up in due course. It is in exactly those cases that one can have a little more confidence in a proper judiciary that can make objective judgments. Most of the international law cases that we see or hear about at the moment, especially in view of the international situation, refer to UN charters, resolutions and so forth, which are much less concrete matters than those dealt with by the International Court of Justice or the International Criminal Court.

To return to my point about how we interpret the UN, its will and international law, it seems to me that a number of countries are prepared to say, XThese are the values inherent in our system, which we think are quite good—democracy being one of them—and they can be universalised. Those values must be an important aspect of how international law is interpreted." At the same time, however, it must be recognised that no law stays in place for ever, and that all laws should be challengeable and changing. When we make judgments about what we should do, and whether we should deploy our forces in a particular context, we should be cautious about legitimising those decisions according to what is international law at present. Sometimes, it is a slightly ethereal concept, and while we must maintain general respect for international law, a particular role exists for countries such as ours, which have a democratic system, a set of values that we respect and that we would like to see across the world, and which are prepared to take

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action to spread those values. I urge hon. Members to develop ideas about how we might make changes to aspects of international law in a way that reflects that general trend, rather than accept the questionable idea that all members of the UN should have an equal input into how we interpret that international law.

Before I conclude, I want to refer to the laws of armed conflict. The Geneva conventions are a good case in point. We need to update the way in which we determine what it is acceptable for our armed forces to do. The Geneva conventions are very close to the heart of anyone who is interested in defence issues, and rightly so. Increasingly, however, the UN is deployed not so much in peacekeeping operations but in a potentially warlike context. The UN is not clearly covered by the Geneva conventions, however, as, effectively, it would be policing itself, which raises certain issues. In addition, peacekeeping troops are not technically covered by the laws of armed conflict when, in effect, they are involved in a warlike situation. There are difficulties in that respect. Can the Minister, who is not in his place at present, say whether the Ministry has given thought to those issues? Sometimes, it is difficult to raise issues about the Geneva conventions or international law without seeming as though one is challenging the whole concept, which I am certainly not doing. It is important, however, that the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office should consider those issues to see whether changes can be made.

This has been an interesting debate, and I could talk at greater length about some of the other contributions, although I will not do so. I look forward to the next defence debate, however, when the hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) will be able to make a speech, and perhaps we will be able to intervene on her.

5.34 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Joyce), who makes his normal trenchant points so clearly. In response to the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), her husband's gain was certainly the Royal Navy's loss. If I may, however, I shall expand for a moment on the comments of the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown).

I regret that the Minister is not in his place, as, for once, I was going to be complimentary about the way in which junior recruiting has been handled over the past four or five years. The hon. and gallant Member for Falkirk, West understands the issue in great detail and I am sure would make the point better than I can. The fact remains, however, that another Administration wrongly ensured that juniors were no longer recruited into the services. That was a great error. A number of regiments, in particular the highland regiments, suffered egregiously as a result. Only now, with the interjection of money and forethought, are the Scottish regiments beginning to recover and the lifeblood of our technical arms beginning to come out of the Army Apprentices College and the Army Foundation College.

Were the hon. Member for South Swindon in the Chamber, I would reiterate the hon. Gentleman's words. There can be no similarity between the infants—I use the phrase advisedly—that he saw in Sierra Leone and with whom I served in Uganda, and the juniors who

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serve in the British armed forces. The training is carefully organised. It is deeply paternal and protective. The instructors rightly understand that they are in loco parentis.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): HMS Raleigh, through which all Navy recruits pass, is in my constituency. It holds passing out parades almost every week. Parents and families see their relatives go through six, seven or eight weeks of training and are extremely proud of their achievements. They also remark on the incredible change in them. That is much to the benefit of the individual who goes through the training, but it also means that the Navy is held in high regard. There is tremendous affection for the way in which the recruits have been carefully nurtured and trained, which makes a fantastic difference to their lives. We should recognise that the families and parents who see that happen to their children know what is happening.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that and underline those points. A recruiting initiative among families of juniors when they attend such parades is encouraging and welcome.

The hon. Member for South Swindon got it terribly wrong. Those young men and women are the lifeblood of our three services, especially the non-commissioned officers' and the petty officers' messes. To categorise those young soldiers, sailors and airmen as children is wrong.

Laura Moffatt: I want to drive home that point. I might have agreed with my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon until I met two young people who were school-phobic. They were difficult young men who were not attending school and were being naughty on the streets. They joined the foundation and are transformed. They are now enjoying a fantastic experience. That completely changed my mind.

Patrick Mercer: The hon. Lady is right. I can give many examples from Newark and Retford of young men and women who have been changed wholly by the scheme.

The young soldiers are not usually allowed into action. There is no question of that happening in Northern Ireland. In other circumstances, it is considered carefully in light of the campaigns to which under-age soldiers, sailors and airmen might be deployed. In general, youngsters—I use the phrase advisedly—are not allowed or expected to fight.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the armed forces provide great opportunities to many youngsters in former mining communities, such as my constituency and Nottinghamshire where I grew up? Without those, they would not have the chance to get the skills and expertise offered at an apprentice level, to see the rest of the world or to get well-paid and fulfilling, meaningful jobs and careers.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and, I might add, for his normal sensible point of view. I could not agree more. The armed forces provide a wonderful opportunity, particularly for young men and women from depressed

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areas such as the hon. Gentleman's constituency and my own. I am not slow to make that point in trying to create jobs for young people in my constituency and, I hope, others. I know from my regiment that junior soldiers continue to provide the vast majority of the non-commissioned officers and the sergeants' mess. If we tinker with that system, as has been done in the past, we tinker with our lifeblood.

There is no point in my talking about 11 September because everybody knows what it meant to America, but it is interesting that two other nations now claim that they have experienced their 11 September. The first is Australia, after the appalling attack in Bali, and the second is Russia, following the so-called siege last week in Moscow. That nation has suffered grievously at the hands of terrorists or freedom fighters—take your pick—and is well used to terrorism, war and suffering.

The Government have an extremely difficult task ahead in preparing this country, not only physically but mentally and ideologically, for our 11 September, which must surely be coming. There is an inevitability about this event. We are very aware of the Nisha incident, to which hon. Members have referred, which happened at about this time last year. I do not know the details, but I believe that it was an attempt to detonate a weapon of mass destruction on the shores of this country. I believe also that one of Her Majesty's warships was about to be attacked in the straits of Gibraltar and that a number of other attacks have been seen off, foiled or nipped in the bud. I pay tribute to the men and women of the intelligence services, which make interdiction of these events possible. One day, however, and in my opinion it will not be long in coming, one of these attacks will succeed. Hon. Members must forgive me for using a cliché, but the terrorist needs to get lucky only once and we so-called civilised societies need to be lucky all the time—a trite old saw, I know, but it is true.

We have had a reasonable amount of experience of such attacks at the hands of the Provisional IRA, but it is interesting to consider the mentality of the two countries that have been struck recently. I am sure that other hon. Members were as shocked as I was to see, after the Bali bombing, how the press took every mawkish advantage of the Australian relatives and the survivors; how the western press wrung every little bit of pathos out of those unfortunate individuals; how Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen were seen to cry on television, and how the Prime Minister of Australia, clearly affected by the event, had every ounce of grief and passion wrung out of him.

Last week, as I have already mentioned, I was in Sebastopol, a Russian city, albeit in the Ukraine, watching the events in Moscow unfold on the television. Many of the people in Sebastopol had relatives in Moscow or serving in the Russian armed forces, and the city was badly affected when the Kursk went down some time ago. There is no doubt that the reaction of the Russian people was wholly different from anything that we could expect in this country.

There was a certain amount of celebration at the killing of the terrorists and blind acceptance of whatever the security forces did. A certain number of casualties were acceptable, as long as mass casualties were prevented. As I have said, when the television crews unveiled their ghastly shots of gunshot head wounds of terrorists killed in the centre of Moscow, the people with

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whom I was watching were up on their feet, clapping their hands and shouting their approval. I am neither approving nor disapproving; I am merely saying that that nation is coming to terms with an event that we too are likely to face.

It is interesting that the so-called liberal western press went to town—XMassacre in Moscow". Massacre of whom—terrorists or their own people? I would ask the people who penned that line, XThat's fine, criticise as much as you like, but what was the alternative?" It was 1,000 dead—700 civilians and terrorists and 300 security forces. That is what Mr. Putin was talking about—those were the stakes. We must come to terms with the fact that we are going to have to deal with that sort of problem—that is the challenge facing the Government.

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