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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1090—continued

Mr. Joyce: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Dalyell: No, because of time.

The 12th question was,

I do not expect my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to answer those questions this evening, but they are serious matters, which require reflection.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has asked his questions and I leave it to the Under-Secretary to decide whether to respond. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the title of the debate is XDefence in the UK".

Mr. Dalyell: I would like to add two more points. It is sometimes said that the forces are narrow-minded on these matters, but they certainly are not. There has been serious discussion by Brigadier Patrick Cordingley and many others, and I certainly would not have been invited by narrow-minded people to discuss these issues at the Royal College of Defence Studies. The forces are serious about these matters, and should be commended for that.

Much has been said about the difficulties relating to the toughness of training. National service men went through very tough training indeed. All right, it was more than 50 years ago, but I shall not forget being made, rightly, to crawl up drainpipes at Catterick camp on the North Yorkshire moors. It is not the toughness of training that has led to the recent difficulties.

6.15 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I congratulate the Chairman and members of the Defence Select Committee on their work on civil defence and the defence of the homeland of the United Kingdom. No debate in the House would be complete without a little party political repartee, but the issues underlying the report produced by the Committee, which were discussed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and others, are fundamental and go beyond party politics. It is the duty and responsibility of the Government of the day—with the support and, rightly, the scrutiny, of the Opposition parties—to ensure that we do the right thing to protect the people of this nation against a threat that is undoubtedly present. I share the fear of my hon. Friend that it may become much more of a threat in the years to come.

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I welcome the Minister's comments about the steps that the Government are taking to strengthen the role of our armed services, our reservists, and the Territorial Army in preparing for an eventuality that we all hope will never happen, but which could happen none the less. The culture of cross-cutting, of which the Government make so much, needs to be placed firmly at the heart of the work that the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments are doing to ensure that we are prepared for a threat that I hope will not materialise. In particular, I hope that the Government will consider the possibility of creating a single Minister with cross-cutting responsibilities, who has the right to work within the Ministry of Defence and other Departments to ensure that we have a joined-up approach to civil defence. We must ensure that we have not only a clear point of responsibility but full and properly integrated structures between the civil and military spheres to ensure that we are adequately prepared.

After 11 September, I discussed with the chief executive of my local borough council the work that we do in our area to prepare for a major civil disaster. It became clear to me from that conversation that relatively little work is done. The local authority has a nominal responsibility, and it will do some work, but we all know from experience how hard-pressed local authorities are. It was clear that the actual work being done was far too thin on the ground. It was equally clear that there was relatively little contact between the local authority and other agencies, particularly the armed services. Closer working partnerships between the armed forces and local authorities in preparing for such eventualities will be extremely important in the years ahead, and I hope that the Minister will ensure that that takes place.

The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) talked about the fire strike. It seems ludicrous that modern fire equipment is not accessible to or usable by our armed services, and that the appropriate training does not exist. If we go beyond the short-term issue of the fire strike, it seems possible that a situation may arise in which that training will be required. I hope that the Government will consider delivering proper training on modern fire equipment within the armed forces.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Does my hon. Friend agree that one reason for the difficulty of access is that firefighters attend many road traffic accidents, and the equipment used in dealing with them is highly technical?

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend makes a good point, but the same skills could be needed at a time of disaster.

Will the Minister give some thought to how we can use the older members of our armed services? We let our public servants go far too early in a society that is considering pushing up the retirement age, so the expertise of members of the armed services who retire after 20 or 30 years is lost, even though knowledge of many issues we have discussed today—terrorist threats and how terrorists work as well as weapons of mass destruction and their medical and other implications—resides within them. We should take greater advantage of that expertise and not necessarily let such people leave the armed services in so fixed a fashion.

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I hope that Ministers consider whether there are ways to retain and use that expertise, possibly by keeping people on in the armed services for longer in different roles. If they do, I shall be grateful.

6.21 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): As always, this debate has been extremely well informed and the usual suspects are in their places. I venture to suggest that this occasion has become one on which consenting adults engage in discussion in public— although, looking at the Gallery, it may seem that our proceedings are taking place in private.

Mr. Speaker himself foreshadowed the debate's importance when, in answer to a point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), he pointed out that we live in more dangerous times, which is why the security of the Palace of Westminster has been greatly strengthened in recent years and, indeed, recent weeks.

We have ranged well beyond security and terrorism, however, in discussing retention, boy soldiers, service accommodation, arms exports, reserves, and the sleeping arrangements of the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) on overseas visits with the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of the Defence Committee. So I hope that the debate has been sufficiently interesting and demanding for the Hansard stenographers, ensuring that they have been able to stay awake.

I must single out one contribution, although I do not have time to deal with it in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) made interesting suggestions about the profound difficulties that we face in dealing with international terrorism, particularly that involving an enemy that is, as Colonel Spicer has suggested, like mercury, in that when it is hit, it explodes and atomises, but does not disappear. I am not sure that we have yet found the solution to that problem.

Rather like the vicar, I shall, if I may, take as my text the words of General Sir Michael Rose, writing in the Daily Mail on 8 October:

which, of course, is very much the issue facing Ministers—

That encapsulates the problems faced by Ministers and Members of the House in dealing with those complex and difficult matters.

Two issues have emerged from this afternoon's proceedings—the Select Committee report and the Territorial Army. I remind the House of one of the report's conclusions:

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The report has been saluted all round, and senior officers recently retired, and some not so retired, have praised it as a comprehensive piece of work. The right hon. Member for Walsall, South said that other Committees had been invited to contribute to discussion of what was clearly an overarching issue that ranged well beyond defence; but it was the Defence Select Committee that produced the report. It has been extremely well received by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), and, on behalf of the Committee, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his praises.

In their response to the Committee's report, the Government say that they have been

It is true that so far we have been spared a serious terrorist attack, and the vigilance of our armed forces and other agencies has undoubtedly been an important contributory factor, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said. Terrorists—as he also said—need to be lucky only once. We know that, and we also know that the chances are that some day they may well succeed. Unlike the United States, we have been fighting a war against terrorism for the last 30 years, and we have not always managed to prevent the damage that that causes. This country has more experience of dealing with such a war than many others; but we cannot be complacent.

Responding to the Committee's suggestion that the Government were complacent, the Minister said that they are not. We accept that Ministers are trying to grapple with the complexities, and they have clearly taken some practical steps. The decision to upgrade quick-reaction alert facilities at RAF Marham, St. Mawgan and RNAS Yeovilton is welcome, notwithstanding the contradictory message sent by the disbanding of 5 Squadron Royal Air Force equipped with Tornadoes. We also welcome the appointment of Sir David Omand to head the civil contingencies secretariat, although I am disappointed by the Government's failure to accede to the Defence Committee's suggestion that it should have a different name. XCivil contingency secretariat" is hardly a sexy title that trips off the tongue. We felt that, for the purpose of reassuring the public, a name suggesting the handling of emergencies would better convey the function of the secretariat.

Having welcomed some of the Government's steps, I regret to say that little progress has been made in other areas. As both the right hon. Member for Walsall, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said, there is as yet no civil contingencies Bill to give local authorities a framework within which to organise their civil-emergency plans. Obviously the Minister cannot undertake today to include such a Bill in the Queen's Speech, but local authorities are eager to be given the framework that they need.

A year after 11 September, the Government have failed to give local authorities updated guidance to replace the weak guidance that was issued a year ago. I am told by Hampshire county council's emergency planning officer that the MOD at Winterbourne Gunner in Dorset is training police officers to handle nuclear,

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biological or chemical attacks, but I understand that so far only 14 officers in Hampshire have been trained. There is clearly more to be done. I also understand that no decontamination kit is yet available to enable disaster-handling organisations at local authority level to deal with an NBC attack, and that no such equipment is likely to be available before next Easter. If the Minister could tell us something about the extent to which preparations are being made, he would reassure not just us but the local authorities whose job it is to deal with emergencies on the front line.

We all understand that Ministers do not want to give too much information about their detailed plans, but the public need reassurance that those plans are underway. We all saw what happened in Moscow—my hon. Friend the Member for Newark mentioned it—and we know about the chemicals that were used, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen). We all know how leaky the Russian system is. There is always the possibility that some of the chemicals will fall into the hands of terrorist organisations. We could find that chemical being used against us. I heard on the radio—I do not know whether it is true—that the establishment at Porton Down is looking at the clothing of the two British hostages who were released to try to identify what the chemical was. The public need to be reassured. It is a question of striking a balance and not causing undue concern among the public. They want to be reassured that if there is an attack on the United Kingdom, the Government have taken steps to deal with it.

I do not know whether the Minister has had an opportunity to see the article in the Financial Times headlined

It said:

The Home Office has said in reply:

The House, or perhaps some of its Committees, needs to be briefed that the Government are alive to the risks and are positively dealing with it.

I turn to the Territorial Army. We welcome the Government's belated recognition that they made a serious mistake in slashing the numbers of the Territorial Army: from 56,000 to about 41,000. I hope that Ministers will accept that it was the official Opposition who warned the Government that their reductions in the TA were a big mistake, and that we were right and they were wrong. The effect of their decision was to close TA centres throughout the country, robbing valuable back-up and support for the regular armed forces, and many hon. Members of the only military facility in their constituencies. Many Labour Members have complained about the withdrawal of TA facilities in their constituencies. It was an appalling assault on an organisation whose members offer complete loyalty, give up their spare time and sometimes even risk damaging their careers to provide an essential service to their country.

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At the time, the Defence Committee, on which I did not then sit but which was still under the able stewardship of the right hon. Member for Walsall, South said of the cuts in the TA:

Territorial Army volunteer reserve associations—

Now the Government have been forced to heap a raft of new responsibilities on to the TA when it has reached its lowest ebb.

We welcome what the Minister announced earlier today, but it is a bit unfortunate that my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) did not know that the statement was being made. The letter from the Secretary of State went on the board, but my hon. Friend did not see it in time for this debate. I do not want to be too quibbling about the point but it would have been helpful to have a bit more notice.

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