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Mr. Alexander: Hear, hear.

John Reid: My right hon. Friend helpfully shouts "Hear, hear", as he has to pore over papers on, among other things, Uzbekistan—a serious issue, which has been raised in the debate.

The Government—and I am sure the whole House—are very concerned by what has happened in Uzbekistan. As a result, we are reviewing bilateral activities with the Uzbeks. Those are limited in scope and aimed at encouraging reform in the management of defence and at promoting higher professional standards. All export licences are assessed against European Union criteria. In the light of recent events, the Government have revised all licences to Uzbekistan, so that we are assured that they all conform to the criteria. Most are for dual-use equipment. I hope that the House is reassured by that.
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The subject of Iran was raised by spokesmen for both Opposition parties. We will continue our effort to obtain guarantees that Iran's nuclear programme is explicitly for peaceful purposes. We have to continue that. We are committed to trying to make the E3 process a success. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear in talking about Iran that he can envisage

He said that such action would form no part of Government policy.

I hope that I have done justice to most of the points that have been raised—admittedly, at length. I thought that as the new Secretary of State for Defence I should reply as fully as possible in this first debate attempt from the Dispatch Box. Of course, there are wider issues of context in which such questions have been raised.

It is our job in government and in the House to assess and plan for the security challenges that we now face and will face in future. That goes to the heart of some of the points raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes. We believe that in the foreseeable future there is unlikely to be a resurgence of a conventional threat to the territory of the United Kingdom or of our allies. We say that with all the caveats that history places on that in reality, and with all our knowledge of the bland assumptions of the past that there would be no territorial threats of the sort which events—the terrible harbinger of difficulties—have thrown on us from the early years of the last century through to the Falklands in the 1980s.

That does not mean—and we must never be lulled into believing that it means—that the threats out there are any less dangerous or immediate. The threats to international peace and stability that have emerged since the end of the cold war are more asymmetric—in modern coinage—than that of one nation threatening the territorial sovereignty of another. However, they are no less immediate and serious. The threats and challenges posed by international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, particularly when unconstrained by any democratic control, by failed or failing states, or by what are sometimes called rogue states, each have the potential to damage global security and well-being and to threaten our security from afar. But in combination, the whole of the threat is even greater, much greater, than the sum of its parts.

That is not the world in which we have chosen to live, but the world that we inherited—a world that continues to change very rapidly. In 1997, as the hon. Member for Woodspring pointed out, we undertook the strategic defence review. I was privileged and proud to play a main role in directing the course of that review. We did that because of the rapidly changing world after the cold war. Since 1997, under previous Secretaries of State, we have constantly evaluated our ability to meet fast-evolving security challenges. That process began with the SDR, which has been followed by constant—almost permanent—revision and renewal as the world changes at a rate that has accelerated exponentially. Following the atrocities of 11 September 2001, our thinking evolved through the new chapter to the SDR. More recently, in December 2003, we published the defence White Paper, "Delivering Security in a Changing
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World", which broadly confirmed the rationale behind the SDR but suggested the need for even greater reach, speed of deployability and agility of response. The White Paper recognised that the opportunities to act to counter the threats we faced might be fleeting.

Bearing in mind the points made by some of my hon. Friends and by Liberal Democrat Members, let me say that of course we cannot solve all those problems by military means alone. There are some problems to which there are no solutions, and some to which there are no exclusively military solutions. Whatever we think about the efficacy of our armed forces, we recognise that the potential and, if necessary, actual disposition of military fighting power is rarely a sufficient condition to address the challenges that face us. However, it is often a necessary condition, and not only in counter-terrorism: the capabilities of our armed forces are equally important in responding to humanitarian crises. Our ability to put fighting power in the field is both necessary and sufficient to meet some challenges, but it is not sufficient to meet others and we need to deploy the whole gamut of diplomatic, financial and legal mechanisms as well as military means.

In the modern, interdependent world, we can rarely go it alone. We need both better cross-departmental working inside Government in our internal affairs and better international working in our external affairs. That, among other reasons, is why the United Kingdom remains wholly committed to working through international organisations such as the G8, the United Nations, NATO, the EU and—let me reassure the hon. Member for Woodspring—the Commonwealth, which remains a potent vehicle for tackling challenges both specific and general. We are committed to working through all those organisations to develop effective collective responses to global security challenges. We shall use our presidency of the G8 and of the EU to advance our higher priorities, which include tackling poverty in Africa and climate change as well as the other issues mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe when he opened the debate. We do that because it is in our self-interest and because it is our responsibility as citizens of the wider world to promote international stability and development.

I look forward to playing my part in the multinational forums in which defence has a prominent profile. In that context, let me restate that NATO is the cornerstone of our collective security—a point recognised in the EU treaty—and that the UK will continue to play a full and, wherever possible, leading role in that alliance. This will include continuing to modernise and transform NATO to face its new 21st century challenges.

I am delighted that one of the decisions that we took in the strategic defence review, which was implemented by my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence, was the purchase of the C-17, or rather the leasing of the C-17 heavy and very large aircraft for strategic lift. [Interruption.] I do not know whether praise is being showered upon me from a sedentary position by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell). However, I am convinced that it is one of the best decisions that we have taken in recent years. That has been confirmed by my recent discussions with servicemen and women in the RAF, who assure me that it was an important and huge step forward in our strategic lift capability.
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In that way we enhanced not only ourselves but also the European powers, by making it possible for us to operate strategic lift where previously we were not able to do so. In the EU, we will work to build up the European security and defence policy as part of the common foreign and security policy.

Our aims during the United Kingdom's presidency of the EU are to continue the agenda that will see the European security and defence policy become more capable, more coherent and more active. All the while we must ensure that the process is compatible with NATO's security structures and thus avoid unnecessary duplication of waste. We must also ensure that we play to the EU's strengths, such as the breadth of non-military tools that it can bring to bear in emerging or continuing international crises.

Our armed forces are making a strong contribution to international stability in conjunction with the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As a force for good, our armed forces are called upon to perform a huge range of tasks around the globe. We have dealt with only the most obvious examples in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on. I am extremely proud, as I am sure we all are, of the part that our armed forces played in bringing about the right conditions for the recent successful elections in Iraq. It was an historic occasion. Despite the threat not only of terrorism but of death, in many cases the turnout was just under 60 per cent. It was not hugely different from the turnout in both of our most recent elections in this country. That is testimony first to the courage of the people of Iraq, and secondly to the role that the multinational forces are playing. As I have met for the first time Iraqi forces in the build-up of their 10th division, I pay tribute to the effective role that they played in protecting the people going to polling booths in Iraq.

The success of those security measures on the day was possible only because of the hard work of the Iraqi security forces and the supporting roles played by coalition forces. The violence of the past few weeks presents us with a huge challenge, but it should not be allowed to overshadow the enormity of the step towards a free and democratic Iraq.

As the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes mentioned, I returned this morning from visiting Iraq. I am refreshed and once again astounded by the commitment of that country's own young men and women in the armed forces. I am pleased that the Iraqis are building up their own strength to enable them gradually to take over leadership in the provinces throughout their country. More than 165,000 Iraqi personnel have now been trained and equipped by the coalition. For the first time, that number is more than the number of personnel trained by the multinational forces.

We are committed to Iraq for as long as the Iraqi Government judge that necessary. Progress towards withdrawal will depend on achieving certain conditions, as the Iraqi forces become more and more able to take on a full range of security tasks. That will be the arbiter and the benchmark of our decision-making process, which will not be confined to a set of preordained time scales.
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I met the 10th division in Basra. I also met the new Iraqi Defence Minister, Mr. al-Dulaimi, who is a Sunni, part of the minority population of Iraq. He was appointed Defence Minister on the same day as I was appointed Secretary of State for Defence. He has probably already suffered just as many attacks and criticisms as I have in that short period. However, I know that he is fully committed to ensuring the peace and stability of his country, and he is a Sunni who is committed to working for all of the people of Iraq who want to offer a better future for all the people there.

I met General Casey, the four-star US general in charge of the strategic direction of the multinational force, who was generous with his praise not only for the British armed forces but for the work of civilian staff in the reconstruction effort and for the leadership role played by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield in that effort.

In Iraq, we remain committed to assisting the new Government in stabilising the country. [Interruption.] The usual complaint from the Opposition is that I do not answer in detail all the points that they have made. It is refreshing, if annoying, to be criticised for doing the opposite today In conjunction with officials from the Department for International Development, British armed forces have supported the reconstruction of the country's dilapidated infrastructure. That is a genuine problem, and it is essential that progress on maintaining security in Iraq is accompanied by political, social and economic development. The Iraqis are making progress in all areas, but they need our help.

In Afghanistan NATO, as well as the international coalition, is playing its part in bringing security to the more remote areas. I have already dealt with issues arising from that, so I shall mention some of the other areas in which our forces are playing a vital role, including the Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Our commitment to the task in the Balkans is demonstrated by the current UK leadership of the EU force that took over command from NATO in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2004.

The House has previously discussed our ambitious modernisation programme, as set out in the future capabilities paper published last year. Given the time available, I shall not go into that programme in detail, and will merely point out that the Opposition's pervasive assumption that bigger is better and smaller is worse is not a working assumption for the chiefs of staff, the military or, indeed, myself. Many changes have been introduced, including new equipment and capability.

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