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Defence Policy

[Relevant documents: Delivering Security in a Changing World: Defence White Paper (Cm6041–I); Delivering Security in a Changing World: Supporting Essays (Cm6041–II); Uncorrected Oral Evidence taken before the Defence Committee on 24th March 2004, from General Sir Michael Walker GCB CMG CBE ADC Gen, Chief of Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Alan West GCB DSC ADC, First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson KCB CBE DSO ADC Gen, Chief of the General Staff and Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup KCB AFC ADC, Chief of the Air Staff, on the Defence White Paper (HC465–i)]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

1.50 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): At the start of the debate, may I extend my condolences to the family of Brigadier Lord Vivian, who died recently? I had the privilege of meeting him on several occasions, and he was both knowledgeable and thoughtful, certainly when discussing defence issues.

The publication last December of the Defence White Paper, "Delivering Security in a Changing World", generated significant interest, so I welcome this opportunity for the House to debate the issues with which it dealt.

First of all, however, I would like to take this opportunity to condemn the appalling terrorist attacks in Madrid two weeks ago. I am sure that the House will join me in extending our sympathies to those who have lost loved ones—and, indeed, to the Spanish people. The appalling scale of those co-ordinated attacks, using devices deliberately set to detonate simultaneously on crowded trains at the height of rush hour, once again demonstrates the callous and barbarous nature of international terrorists. The attack was calculated to take as many innocent lives as possible. It was the latest in a series of such atrocities, going back well before 11 September to the bombings of the United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. The fanatics who are responsible will stop at nothing to cause death and destruction on a massive scale.

It is therefore inevitable that there is increased anxiety about the prospect of similar attacks occurring here. I want to emphasise to the House that the threat of attack has been recognised across government. Since 11 September, in particular, a huge amount of work has been undertaken to prepare contingency plans. In the UK the civil authorities are responsible for crisis and consequence management, with the Home Office taking the lead for counter-terrorism policy at home. The Civil Contingencies Bill will provide an important and necessary enhancement to the civil authorities' ability to respond to emergencies and rightly places emphasis on civil resilience.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State share the view of the head of the Metropolitan police, Sir John Stevens, that an attack on London is inevitable?

Mr. Hoon: I regret that, given the evidence that we have seen from elsewhere, the Government have consistently had to take that view and we obviously have to prepare and plan for it.

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I was outlining where the civil responsibilities lie, but the armed forces clearly have the skills, training, command and control to provide valuable assistance to civilian capabilities when necessary. They will frequently have a role to play. Most recently, they were deployed to Heathrow airport in support of the police to act as a deterrent when intelligence warned of a potential attack.

Following the strategic defence review new chapter, the Ministry of Defence introduced a number of measures to enhance our ability to respond to a crisis at home. Those measures include the development of command and control arrangements, the establishment of a network of joint regional liaison officers, and the introduction of communications equipment compatible with that used by the police.

Across the country, we have also established 14 civil contingency reaction forces, which are now fully operational. They provide a pool of volunteer reserves available to deploy at short notice to assist the civil authorities at the scene of an incident—whether it is a terrorist attack, accident or natural disaster. But while we must be prepared to support the civil authorities here in the United Kingdom, it is vital that we address the threats to us before they even reach our shores.

The White Paper sets out the requirement for this country to be ready, willing and able to deploy overseas to act against terrorists and the states that harbour them. It also sets out the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the consequence of failed and failing states. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is perhaps at its most chilling when it coincides with the desire of international terrorist groups to acquire and to use them. The law and order vacuum in failed states provides opportunities for those groups to flourish and a safe haven from which to operate.

In addition, where possible, we will work together with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development to tackle the root causes of terrorism. The Government's conflict prevention pool is made available to provide funding for measures such as security sector reform and post-conflict recovery, which help to tackle the underlying causes of instability in many of the world's potential flashpoints. In recent years, the armed forces have made a significant contribution to peace and support operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More widely, the Ministry of Defence has undertaken defence diplomacy activities to encourage the responsible development of military capabilities. Those commitments have been crucial in support of stability in numerous countries.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Secretary of State mentioned various operations around the world. The last theatre of conflict was a very large operation, namely our contribution to the invasion of Iraq, which Conservative Members supported. If we had to launch another such large-scale operation—perhaps next year or the following year—would we be able to do so?

Mr. Hoon: As the Chief of the Defence Staff made clear in his evidence to the Defence Committee

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yesterday, it will take a number of years to recover properly in respect of exercises and the sort of training that is required. Obviously, however, if there were an immediate national reason for conducting a large-scale operation in a much shorter time scale, I know from my knowledge and experience of our armed forces that they would be able to mount it. It would necessarily mean that some of our existing commitments would have to be qualified in order to achieve that, but such operations would be undertaken, not least if this country were threatened.

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The Secretary of State for Defence has rightly drawn attention to the excellent peacekeeping work that members of Her Majesty's armed forces are undertaking in various parts of the world—including in southern Iraq, where 500 troops from the Colchester garrison are based. Will he accept, however, that continued overseas commitments are putting a strain on our Army, and that the armed forces are still under strength? Although recruitment is going well, does he accept that there is a need for greater emphasis on retention; otherwise, the overstretch will become unbearable?

Mr. Hoon: In fact, both recruitment and retention rates are extremely good at present, but I accept the hon. Gentleman's observation that we need to continue to augment the size of our armed forces and, indeed, to develop particular skills—a matter that I shall deal with in more detail later. It is clear that there are some strains on particular people in the armed forces—those in support and enabling positions, for example. That is inevitable if, as is the case, we are engaged in several different operations simultaneously.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I was very surprised to hear the Chief of the Defence Staff say yesterday that it would be another four years before we would be capable of carrying out a large-scale operation again. That seems an extremely long time, so could the Secretary of State offer the House some guidance about the precise thinking of the Chief of the Defence Staff in reaching that judgment about the four years that it would take for a large operation to be mounted again?

Mr. Hoon: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's use of the term "capable" is fair in respect of what the Chief of the Defence Staff actually said. I have already answered the point in detail, but I am perfectly willing to repeat it: to prepare for a large-scale operation, it would be necessary to train, exercise and develop the necessary skills in the time frame set out by the Chief of the Defence Staff, but our forces would be "capable" of conducting a large operation before that, if it were necessary. As the Chief of the Defence Staff explained, however, that would necessarily have some implications for our existing commitments. The Minister of State has explained that position on previous occasions. I know from the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the Department that none of that will come as a great surprise to him.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South) (Lab): I would like some reassurance from my right hon. Friend. When I visited our troops in Bosnia in 1998, I was astounded by

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the fact that they had to use mobile phones to ensure effective communication between each other. Mobile phones are, of course, easy to track and to listen into. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that that arrangement is not still the case today?

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