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15 Jan 2003 : Column 699—continued

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): I thank the Secretary of State for giving me an advance copy of his statement. However, I start by lamenting the fact that Parliament seems to have been the last to know of this significant and controversial decision. By 5.30 pm yesterday, the Press Association wires were reporting that there would be a statement today and

The way in which the announcement has been dribbled out is all too typical of the way in which the Government treat Parliament.

I welcome next week's opportunity for debate, but rather than a general debate, which will inevitably be taken up by other defence issues such as the preparation for military action against Iraq or the outcome of the NATO Prague summit, should it not be a specific debate on missile defence? Is that not what the House of Commons is truly for?

Her Majesty's Opposition have consistently made the case for missile defence. We therefore welcome the decision as far as it goes, as we believe that it is in the interests of British national security. Many of our European allies—France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece—are already involved in missile defence programmes, particularly theatre missile defence, some of them in co-operation with the United States. Given that some 276 Labour Members have signed an early-day motion against the Secretary of State's policy, does the right hon. Gentleman not recognise that he must now convince those who would prefer to believe that the Government are simply a slave to the United States agenda? After all, it was only on 10 May 1999 that his predecessor Lord Robertson said:

Incidentally, that is a treaty whose demise the Government have now accepted without a hint of protest. It was only on 21 March 2000 that the then Foreign Office Minister, now Secretary of State for Wales, the right hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain) said on the BBC's XNewsnight":

Of course, we are not talking about Xstar wars".

The Secretary of State has spent most of the past year stonewalling on this issue, and I now welcome the refreshing tone that he has adopted towards British participation in missile defence. Does it reflect the fact that the Government are now confident that the technology will be successfully developed to make missile defence a practical reality? What Government control will there be over the use of the facilities at

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Fylingdales and the information gathered there? Is it possible that Menwith Hill will also be included in the programme at some future date?

On the wider issue, the Secretary of State says that the decision does not commit us to deeper involvement in missile defence, but why is it necessary to approach the issue, as he says, in stages? Surely the conclusion from his statement must be that we should be fully committed in principle to global missile defence now. What is the Government's policy on the possibility of having ground-based interceptor missiles on British soil, or sea-based interceptors on British ships?

The Secretary of State has made a clear case for missile defence. He refers to the possibility of North Korea representing potentially an imminent missile threat Xwithin weeks"? What is the benefit of putting off those decisions? Full support for UK partnership with the United States on missile defence will not only enhance the opportunities for the British defence industry but is clearly vital for our national security. We therefore urge the Government to be candid with the House and to state now that a full commitment to missile defence is their real intention.

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the fact that, in a short space of time, the Government are making available a full day for debating defence issues. That will be an opportunity for right hon. and hon. Members to debate this and other issues. If the hon. Gentleman feels so strongly about the issue, it is open to the Opposition to use the time that they have available to debate the question as soon as next Monday, which is the next Opposition day. He and other Opposition Front Benchers can use that time to debate the issue in the way that he suggests is so important. I anticipate that he does not really regard the matter as so important; otherwise, he would use the time as he has advocated—[Interruption.] I look forward to any debate. As I said, the Government have made time available next week, and if the Opposition want an extra debate, I will be delighted to be here to respond to any motion that they care to put down.

On the hon. Gentleman's more detailed points about the process, it is important that he examine carefully the way in which the United States is approaching developing a missile defence system. The United States has taken outline decisions only, and has specifically indicated that it is important that there should be a test bed—for the moment, a Pacific test bed designed to provide emergency protection to the United States against the threat from North Korea. As a result, the United States has not taken specific decisions about the kind of system that it would ultimately like to deploy. Again, I have made the point to the hon. Gentleman and Opposition Front Benchers over many months that it does not make sense to anticipate decisions that have not yet been made in the United States. That remains the position. We are in close consultation with the United States about the development of these systems, but it simply does not make sense to anticipate decisions that it has not yet taken.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement, but I must agree entirely with the view of the Conservative

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spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), that we already knew what he would say today.

The decision, whether one agrees with it or opposes it, has seemingly been made with an astonishing lack of consultation. It is a major strategic decision, and to suggest that it should be debated in an Opposition-day debate is outrageous. The Government issued the public discussion paper only last month, and the request was issued only last month, yet the House of Commons has still not had a proper opportunity to discuss the matter. The costs, the strategic dimensions and the feasibility of the scheme are not well understood by those on either side of the argument. Many questions remain unclear—not least the question of why the Secretary of State chose to announce the decision today.

If Fylingdales is to be upgraded, will Britain be protected by the current US missile defence scheme? If not, why are we participating? How will participation enhance the security of Britain? What is the position of our allies in NATO and our partners in the EU on this programme? Will they be participating? Have the Danes agreed that their site should be used? How much does the UK need to invest to be able to keep the option of participating in the future? What could be achieved by spending that money on other defence issues? Is there a risk of further terrorist attack at Fylingdales? Will extra security be required there? In short, is this a good deal for Britain? [Hon. Members: XYou tell us."] If Conservative Front Benchers will hold their lines, I will.

If the Secretary of State says that his preliminary conclusion is to say yes—that he is minded to agree—what might make him change his mind and say later that he does not agree? At the moment, while the Secretary of State may be minded to say yes, many on the Liberal Democrat Benches would be minded to say no. The reality is that, today, the House of Commons is being presented with a fait accompli.

Mr. Hoon: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he is not noted for the kind of bluster that we have just heard from him—[Hon. Members: XOh!"] No, I think it is important to be charitable to the Liberal Democrats from time to time. But it was not clear from the hon. Gentleman's contribution, if I can call it that, whether he was for or against the proposal. I assure him that there is a very large fence around RAF Fylingdales on which he can sit for as long as he likes, and which will protect him and the occupants of the base against any kind of terrorist threat or rhetoric.

This is a good deal for the United Kingdom. If the hon. Gentleman listened to the explanations that I gave, he will have heard me set out clearly the arrangements as regards support to the United Kingdom and other allies, which would be the key test for our decision.

As regards the protection of the United Kingdom, I made it clear that the test bed that the United States is developing in the Pacific is specifically designed to deal with the threat from North Korea. Clearly, as the system evolves and the United States learns lessons from the operation of the test bed, there will be an opportunity for coverage that includes the United Kingdom, as the

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request from the United States suggests. That is why I said that we were preserving an option to protect United Kingdom citizens.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to my constituency after his visit to the RAF station at Fylingdales on 6 January. He listened to local people, who are perhaps most concerned about the subject. As promised, I kept a record of the exchanges and presented it to the Defence Committee for consideration. On behalf of my constituents, and especially the people of Whitby and the Esk Valley, I welcome the opportunity to put some of the issues on the record in next week's debate.

My right hon. Friend knows of my engineer's scepticism about whether the system will work in the long run. He heard the views of the people who spoke to him at the Inn on the Moor in Goathland, which is two and a half miles away from the RAF station. They clearly expressed concerns, not so much about a ballistic attack on the base and the area but about a terrorist attack. As well as giving help and information to North Yorkshire police, will my right hon. Friend review the status of installations such as the mothballed station at RAF Staxton, for the protection of the area?

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