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3.21 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire), who speaks on defence matters, especially naval issues, with such skill. I shall write to her about my visit to Rosyth in a few weeks, to which I look forward eagerly. Like her, I pay tribute to the armed forces parliamentary scheme, in which I, too, participated with the senior service, albeit in a different year from her. I was with the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who was present in the Chamber until recently. The scheme is of great benefit to many people.

I join the hon. Lady and the Secretary of State in paying tribute to the late Brigadier Lord Vivian, whom I met when I first entered Parliament. The then Secretary of State was keen to encourage new Back Benchers with defence interests to get involved, and I accompanied Lord Vivian on several trips with the Lords defence study group. I remember the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) and me accompanying Lord Vivian to see warships in a base in the western isles. Lord Vivian was always courteous and generous in sharing his knowledge with members of other parties. He will be greatly missed.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State's comments about the terrible events in Madrid. For all of us, they have reinforced the recognition that the main threat to the United Kingdom is now from international terrorism. We must commit ourselves to the campaign against that. On that issue, the Liberal Democrats concur 100 per cent. with the Government.

I see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence on the Treasury Bench. Yesterday, he and I debated the reserve forces. It seems that defence debates are like London buses: there is none for ages, then two come along at once. The Government have been good, however, in scheduling regular defence debates, and I commend them on that. I also commend the White Paper, which contains much with which we agree.

Britain enjoys a unique position in being able to project power to enhance the security of the United Kingdom and the world in troubled areas. We should guard that ability at all costs. I pay tribute to British forces—and their families—who are undertaking brave work in reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. In recent weeks, we have seen the real threat that our soldiers face in Kosovo.

I pay special tribute to the forces in Afghanistan. We hear little of what they are doing—indeed, a Territorial Army soldier in my constituency who returned from Afghanistan a couple of months ago told me that the forces there sometimes feel like a forgotten army. We should record our thanks for their service in the continued hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists. Such work is crucial to our defence. The threat from terrorism has never been far from our minds in recent days, and

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the armed forces have a significant role to play in tackling that threat. In Afghanistan, where, it is reported, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have enjoyed a resurgence this year, it is important to maintain our commitment.

The international security assistance force now has a much wider mandate in that country, but lacks sufficient troops to stabilise it. Will the Minister tell us whether there is a timetable for the deployment of more UK forces as part of the NATO forces in Afghanistan; and will he give a commitment that those forces will be found if they are required? The Liberal Democrats have an underlying commitment to NATO, and we are grateful for its work in the difficult environment of Afghanistan.

Mr. Dalyell: What number of troops would be sufficient? We are talking about the north-west frontier, whose history suggests that "sufficient troops" means tens of thousands.

Mr. Keetch: The Father of the House is absolutely right. I was suggesting not that such troops be drawn solely from British forces, but that we play our part as part of NATO. I suspect that during the Iraq crisis, he and I were both concerned about the unfinished business of Afghanistan. We know from our own history how difficult that country is to deal with, and I believe—I suspect that he and others do, too—that sorting out Afghanistan ought to be our No. 1 priority. That concern formed part of the arguments that the Liberal Democrats advanced 12 months ago.

Mr. Dai Havard (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, although Afghanistan is a priority, it is part of a picture in which the middle east is also a priority? That picture runs from poppy growing in Afghanistan through to Turkey and Kosovo, where the shipments are split up and sent into the drug distribution networks. That is why the matter is becoming a strategic issue, rather than simply a frictional issue.

Mr. Keetch: The hon. Gentleman is right. Events in Afghanistan—poppy growing and terrorism—have a far more profound impact on the security of the United Kingdom and our constituents than events in other countries in the region with which the Government chose to deal.

Our forces in Iraq continue to perform sterling work. Let me make one thing absolutely clear: although my party and I voted against the war 12 months ago, we do not believe that it would be right now to withdraw British troops unilaterally from Iraq. Yes, we want greater United Nation involvement and greater internationalisation of forces in Iraq, but as the occupying power, we have a responsibility to support the people of Iraq, and pulling our troops out now would be catastrophic.

However, I wish to raise a delicate issue relating to our forces in Iraq. One or two complaints have caused us concern, in particular, those regarding the death of Baha Musa and the alleged abuse of others in UK custody in Iraq. The Government have refused to hold an independent public inquiry into the matter, but holding some sort of inquiry might help to isolate the

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issue and reassure the Iraqis. In the face of continued Ministry of Defence intransigence, perhaps the Minister will at least undertake to make public the findings of any inquiry.

The practice of paying the families of those who suffer death or injury as a result of UK actions is also problematic. Upon receipt of such compensation, families sign a declaration waiving their right to make any future claim relating to the incident. There is a risk that that will not help to enhance the UK's image abroad. If the families have a case, perhaps that case should be heard in a court of law, and if further compensation is due, it should be paid. The MOD must treat the citizens of Iraq as we would treat those of the United Kingdom.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): If I understand the hon. Gentleman's position, it is that he opposed the war in the vote that was held in this House a year or so ago, but that he now supports the work that our forces are doing in Iraq. Does he or does he not believe that Iraq is a better place for the invasion?

Mr. Keetch: Iraqis are certainly better placed after the removal of Saddam Hussein. My party and I never said that we would rule out military action in all circumstances, but we believed that it was inappropriate to take military action before the UN process was complete. We also made it clear that if troops were deployed to the Gulf we would support our forces in the field. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) criticised the kit given to British troops, but before the conflict it was the Liberal Democrats who raised the issue of kit for our servicemen. We, not Conservative Front Benchers, asked important questions about whether boots and equipment were suitable. At the time, it seemed that the Conservatives had signed up to military action long before the Government. They blindly supported President Bush in his endeavours regardless of the effect on our armed forces.

Hugh Robertson: The hon. Gentleman has still not answered the critical question—is Iraq a better place now than it was 18 months ago, yes or no?

Mr. Keetch: Of course, Iraq is a better place now that Saddam Hussein has been removed from power, but Liberal Democrat Members, like Conservative Members, Labour Members, nationalists and others who voted against the war never suggested that we supported his murderous regime. Is that what the hon. Gentleman is implying?

Hugh Robertson indicated dissent.

Mr. Keetch: I am glad that is not.

Clare Short: If one looks carefully at the surveys of opinion in Iraq, one finds that the overwhelming majority of people are glad that Saddam Hussein is gone, but terribly worried about the disorder and chaos that, they say, make their life worse in many ways. A properly planned and organised action through the UN might have made Iraq a very much better place than it is now.

Mr. Keetch: The right hon. Lady is right. I remember the debates that she had with my hon. Friend the

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Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), then a Front-Bench colleague of mine, about planning for the aftermath of the war. Many of us would have liked a full-scale independent inquiry into the war, including the question of whether we were preparing correctly for the aftermath. I certainly remember saying in debates in the House that winning a war would be easy but winning the peace would be much more difficult.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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