Previous SectionIndexHome Page

25 Nov 2002 : Column 121—continued

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin: I am just finishing; the right hon. Gentleman will have plenty of opportunity.

At the same time, the Prime Minister is saying that we must be prepared to pay what he rather chillingly calls the Xblood price" of military action against Saddam. As the firemen start their strikes, we finally have it confirmed—the armed forces have been running on empty. There is nothing left in reserve.

The Government have taken on far more military commitments than they are prepared to fund. Overstretch has become a byword for the Government's defence policy. Our armed forces remain a benchmark of excellence; they are the finest in the world. The Government have let them down.

9.34 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I regret the fact that the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) is not prepared to give way during a speech that criticises Her Majesty's armed forces and their consistent success. He cannot give a single example of failure by the armed forces in the five years since the

25 Nov 2002 : Column 122

Government took office. In a fairly typical contribution, the hon. Gentleman simply criticised and carped. He did not give any inkling of the official Opposition's policy, and he did not advocate an approach different from that of the Government. If he wants to criticise the way in which the armed forces operate, he should set out alternatives. He singularly failed to do that. Everyone, especially members of the armed forces, will note the Opposition's lack of a constructive contribution.

History should have taught us the dangers of not dealing effectively with ruthless dictators. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people, but Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction must be destroyed to restore Iraq to its proper place in the international community. Today's debate has reinforced a straightforward position and demonstrated why the Government's approach to Iraq is right.

We have heard a great deal about the threat that Saddam Hussein poses to the international community and about his appalling human rights record. There will always be a range of sincerely held opinions on any international political issue. However, hon. Members are united on the necessity for Saddam Hussein to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, as my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mr. Hendrick) made clear. The Government are fully committed to that goal, as expressed in United Nations Security Council resolution 1441. With the United States and other members of the Security Council, we devoted many weeks of diplomatic effort to its negotiation. That is the answer to the various points that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) made. The unanimous adoption of the resolution is a significant diplomatic achievement. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) will reflect on the fact that Syria voted for it. It is crucial to ensure that the resolution is implemented in full.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): The Secretary of State mentioned history. Does not history show that although it is possible to kill individuals in a movement, that often serves to reinforce the group? The right hon. Gentleman implies that global terrorism and Saddam Hussein are connected. What is his response to those who believe that war could exacerbate the terrorist threat?

Mr. Hoon: As I shall explain shortly, the point of securing the unanimous Security Council resolution is to give the Iraqi regime a last opportunity to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction. The Security Council agreed unanimously on that, and it is consistent with the main Liberal Democrat proposition. However, if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) believes that there are no circumstances in which the Security Council resolution should be supported through resort to force, he should say that more clearly.

Mr. George Howarth: It has been argued that the Government's approach could result in destabilising the middle east. How did that bypass the Syrians' calculations?

Mr. Hoon: I pointed out that Syria voted for the resolution. The recent history of the middle east is also relevant. Attacks on Iran and the invasion of Kuwait

25 Nov 2002 : Column 123

were hardly conducive to stabilisation in the middle east, but that is the sort of regime with which we must deal.

I emphasise that our approach is based on Iraq's disarmament, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) underlined. Neither Britain nor the United States is looking for a pretext for military action, which is always a grave step, and which will certainly be a last resort. No member of the Government will risk British lives unnecessarily.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Govan): In 1967, Israel occupied Palestinian land. In that same year, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 242 unanimously, demanding that Israel withdraw its armed forces from the occupied territories. Any proposal to implement that resolution was vetoed by the United States of America. Israel has defied 32 United Nations resolutions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, without bringing peaceful resolution to the middle east conflict, there can be no peace?

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary dealt with those issues at some length in his opening speech, and I do not intend to repeat all that he said. I want to make it clear, however, that the Government want to see the implementation of United Nations resolutions. We are not discriminating between different resolutions. Those to which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar) refers should indeed be enforced. We want to see them enforced—involving, as they do, obligations on a number of different states.

We expect Saddam Hussein to have the survival instinct, at any rate, to co-operate with UNMOVIC and to comply with resolution 1441, but we cannot exclude the possibility that he will fail to do so. Let us not delude ourselves. All our experience shows that Saddam Hussein has only ever complied with the will of the international community when diplomacy has been backed by a credible threat of force. That point was made extremely well by my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George).

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): My right hon. Friend is rightly outlining the Saddam paradox, in which the more unambiguous the international community becomes in threatening the use of force, the less likely that might be to have to take place. The Foreign Secretary also mentioned that. May I put to my right hon. Friend what I might call the Rumsfeld paradox? That is that the more unambiguous the international community becomes, the greater will be the danger of creating an ambiguity about how far the United Nations should be part of the process. Will he tell the House how that paradox can be resolved?

Mr. Hoon: Like a good lawyer, I am tempted to ask for further and better particulars on that question. The whole point of our approach is to give Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi regime one last opportunity to accept the

25 Nov 2002 : Column 124

will of the international community, as unanimously expressed in the Security Council resolution. That will be far more effective if it is backed up by the use of force.

Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Hoon: I really need to make progress. I cannot take interventions on my replies to interventions at this stage. I will, however, give way to my hon. Friend in a second.

Our only responsible course is to continue with the prudent preparations and planning necessary for military action. This does not mean a commitment to undertake such action in any circumstances, but it does mean that we will continue to take appropriate steps to ensure that British forces are ready, and that they have the training, equipment and support that they need to be able to undertake military action, should it prove necessary. Large numbers of troops are, of course, currently engaged in providing emergency fire cover, and that represents a considerable commitment for our armed forces. They have responded with their customary professionalism and flexibility, but we all hope that the firefighters' dispute will be quickly resolved.

I visited troops providing emergency fire cover on Saturday morning, and I was struck by their enthusiasm for taking part and helping the British people here at home. Having routinely served Britain overseas, they were clearly delighted to play their part in the United Kingdom. But, to deal with one of the questions raised by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), it is important to put this commitment in context. There are 19,000 service men and women, out of a total of some 190,000, committed to firefighting duties. Around 6,000 of their colleagues are currently on overseas deployments, such as those in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and 13,500 are in Northern Ireland. In June 1999, at the height of the Kosovo campaign, 44 per cent. of the Army was committed to operations. In October this year, it was 27 per cent. Now that we are committed to providing firefighting cover, the figure has risen to 35 per cent. I do not underestimate the extent of our commitments at home and world wide. The armed forces are certainly very busy, but they have been busier. I can give the House this assurance: our troops are ready to undertake any task that their country may ask of them.

Next Section

IndexHome Page