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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I approach the Dispatch Box this evening with a combination of pleasure and humility. I feel pleasure at being back at the Ministry of Defence and at being able to work with such fantastic people. I feel humility because I know that any contribution that I or any other Member of the House makes is nothing compared with the commitment, sacrifices, courage and occasional heroism of the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who serve in this country's armed forces. I am therefore greatly privileged to be in this position, and I intend to enjoy it—even the abuse from Members on the other side.

I started with a tribute because the respect and admiration for the British armed forces is an area on which we can all agree. It never ceases to amaze me that Her Majesty's armed forces can carry out such acts of determination, sacrifice and heroism in so many spheres of the world. That they can record hit videos at the same time is a measure of the quality of the British armed forces, and we welcome that.

I shall say more about the armed forces later. First, let me make it clear that any responsibility for the controversies, difficulties, differences, disputes and arguments that we experience in foreign policy should be laid where it is proper to lay it: on the Floor of the House, at the feet of the Government or on the desk of this Minister, and never on the backs of the young men and women in our armed forces. Given that they deny themselves the opportunity of participating publicly in such debates, it is our responsibility to ensure that whatever differences people may have with our armed forces, we make it absolutely plain that the responsibility for decisions to dispatch them to foreign
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fields, and occasionally to foreign wars, lies with this Government and this Minister—and I will fully accept that responsibility.

Let me now pay tribute to some who are present today, and to some who are not. First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr.    Hoon), whose lengthy tenure displayed increasingly a degree of expertise, always a degree of commitment, and a huge degree of steadfastness under fire, almost to the extent of stoicism. I think that his example provides a lesson for us all. I congratulate him on his new post as Leader of the House, as opposed to leader of our defence effort, although I fear that he may not enjoy the period of rest and recreation to which he is fully entitled.

I also pay tribute to our dear departed hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), whose contribution as Opposition defence spokesman was enormous in every sense of the word. Obviously, taking over from him presents a voluminous challenge to the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), whose appointment I greatly welcome. I thank him for his generous offer not to share the remaining time with me—which has, however, deprived me of the common ministerial excuse that were it not for the shortage of time, all Members' points would be dealt with. I must also tell him, in the spirit of comradeship that normally marks these debates, that I do not think it is getting off to a good start, on the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, to suggest that the French Navy is more capable than the Royal Navy—but perhaps that was a slip of the mind rather than an intentional statement from the Dispatch Box.

Although he is not present now—dealing, no doubt, with other weighty issues related to foreign affairs—I welcome the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) to his post as Opposition foreign affairs spokesman. It will be known in the House that he and I share an origin and background in Lanarkshire, and although he is not the first Fox to come out of the west of Scotland, he is by far the most celebrated.

I welcome the Minister for Europe, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), to his new position and to his status as a Cabinet colleague. I also welcome the new Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore). I was amazed to learn today that one of his predecessors was the Conservative defence spokesman, the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes. I did not know that he had spent some time representing that constituency. The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk is thus a classic case of downward social mobility in terms of the representation of those in the area, but of course that does not detract from his status.

I was pleased to note that, in his first speech as foreign affairs spokesman, the hon. Gentleman seemed to have made—intentionally or otherwise—a very significant and sensible change in Liberal Democrat policy in Iraq. As the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes pointed out, the hon. Gentleman changed Liberal policy tonight—I notice that he is not taking the opportunity to deny it—from calling for the withdrawal of all British troops from Iraq by Christmas to calling for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq from Christmas
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onwards, which seems to bring him into line with the policy of the Government. I congratulate him on his courage in overturning the position that was adopted by the person who is sitting two yards from him and who was until 30 seconds ago a close colleague of his in the Liberal party.

I turn to the debate, having carried out the courtesies and formalities; the fact that they are conventions does not mean that they are any less well meant. Debates on defence, to which I have returned after some years, are normally marked by a degree of quality, breadth and expertise on defence and foreign affairs matters that is not always matched in the other debates in the House. Today was no exception. The maiden speeches were of considerable merit and they certainly prefigure a continuation of substantial debates in the House.

We had maiden speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby) and for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) and the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies). All showed that, although new to the House, they were not new to logic, thought or argument. They were of a sterling quality. I welcome those who made those contributions, some at the second attempt, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, South. I am pleased that he has joined us.

In North Cornwall, we have a change of person but not of regime. In welcoming the new Member, we will want to remember the contribution of his predecessor, Paul Tyler. It will in no way diminish the hon. Member for East Antrim, whom I know, respect and like very much, which always helps in these matters, if I say that we will miss his predecessor. I know how close they were—a stone's throw apart, I think he said earlier, which just about sums it up. I spent many happy hours with Roy Beggs in my previous incarnation. I welcome, too, the hon. Member for Monmouth and his contribution, although of course I regret that Huw Edwards is not with us. He was a very good Member of the House whom all of us respected.

In welcoming our new colleague from Halifax, I pay tribute to her predecessor. I cannot say that we agreed on everything in defence matters—

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Or on anything.

John Reid: We agreed on some things, which may come as a surprise, not least to those on the Labour Benches. She was a fantastic advocate for her constituency and her beliefs and principles. Therefore, it is with respect that we remember the contribution that she made.

Substantial contributions have been made, too, by many returning Members. I will try to deal with some of the points that they raised out of respect for their passion and their insights. May I start with Kosovo, which was of considerable interest to Alice Mahon and which was raised by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), among others? The international community has made it clear continually and again recently that Kosovo has to demonstrate its ability to meet expected standards of a civilised society across a range of areas before we can begin to address the issue of status. It is hoped that the United Nations review of standards in
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Kosovo will take place this summer. It is imminent and preparations are under way. A successful review of standards in Kosovo would enable the international community to address Kosovo's future status, so the first and most immediate issue on the agenda is to make that assessment of standards.

The remainder of 2005 will therefore be a challenging time in Kosovo and NATO must and will stand ready to meet any security challenges that arise out of that. The United Kingdom will play its full part in that, as normal, and through the provision of a small but effective UK contribution we can play a larger role in ensuring a safe and secure environment in Kosovo.

Mr. Ancram: I ask this very seriously. Today there was a report in an American newspaper that the State Department wants to make an announcement that negotiations are going to open with Serbia on the granting of independence to Kosovo. I wondered whether the right hon. Gentleman had anything to impart to us on that.

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