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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. About six hon. Members still wish to participate in the debate. I calculate that we have about 50 minutes before we must come to the winding-up speeches. If hon. Members will bear that in mind, I am sure that there will be mutual gratitude.

4.44 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Defence is the first duty of any Government but, at the moment, the defence world seems to be in a period of almost perpetual change and uncertainty. One change is the departure of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), my neighbour in Wiltshire, to whom I pay tribute for his unstinting service to our country. I look forward to him being my neighbour in Wiltshire for many years to come.

A huge amount of change is going on all around us. There are difficult questions of procurement. There are strategic questions about whether we procure from the EU, the United States or the UK's 400,000 defence work force with their enormous skill. There are great changes afoot at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, for example, with expansion and relocation from Farnborough and Malvern to Porton Down in my constituency. There is the impact on Boscombe Down airfield of the airfield review that we heard about today, and the impact on companies such as Qinetiq, which were mentioned earlier. There are also smaller issues, such as the reconfiguration of the air squadrons. I shall be very sorry to see Southampton university air squadron leave Boscombe Down. There is massive
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change at Winterbourne Gunner, at the defence nuclear, biological and chemical centre, with its expansion, and at the police nuclear, biological, chemical and radiological centre, also at Winterbourne Gunner. There is concern about the future of Erskine barracks, Wilton, whether it will be relocating and to where. Will it be Solstice park? What about Upavon and Abbey Wood? There is constant change in the world of defence at the moment.

I will take the advice of the Minister of State and talk to my local education authority about the question of presentations to schools. The tri-service presentation teams are underused. They are superb teams of people and it would be a great opportunity if they were more widely used, perhaps in schools and colleges.

We have heard today stories of great pride in our armed forces and I have great pride, as do we all, in those who follow the flag, in the civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence, and in the private sector defence contractors and their staffs. Above all, I always remember those who gave their lives or sustained terrible injury in the service of our country. That is why we have all been so proud of the Royal British Legion in the past few weeks, centring on poppy day, on Remembrance Sunday.

The problems of forces families continue—little problems that they bring to their Members of Parliament. One matter that came to me again recently, as it did a decade ago, was the problem of service families obtaining commercial credit in shops because their lifestyle leads them to two-year postings, which means that they do not qualify for ordinary hire purchase agreements. I thought that we had knocked that on the head in the last Armed Forces Act, but apparently not. That matter will no doubt come up again. I served on the Committees considering the last two Armed Forces Bills, and I hope very much that I might be able to serve on the forthcoming Bill, which will be extremely important.

On Tuesday in Westminster abbey, we had the inauguration of the Church of England General Synod. I am a member of the General Synod and it gave me enormous pride to see the forces synodical council represented in Westminster abbey, because it is part of the Church of England's synodical system, and the chaplain general's department is very important to Her Majesty's forces. I was delighted to see the recent announcement of representation for other faiths, including the Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs. But the synodical council is important. I found the summary of the minutes of its last recorded meeting at Amport house on the Ministry of Defence website, but I regret to say that although it was an hilarious account of a synodical meeting, it was dated 22 and 23 April 2002. I hope that it has met more recently than that. Perhaps it will pay more attention to its website in future.

There is a serious side to my mentioning that because in the Church of England General Synod on Tuesday, the Bishop of Southwark initiated a debate entitled "Facing the Challenge of Terrorism", on which the House of Bishops has produced a report, and part of his motion read:

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We heard during that debate moving accounts from former servicemen and civilians on various aspects, including torture. The Archbishop of Canterbury made a strong intervention, in which he said:

and urged us as a nation always to look for the moral high ground. We heard from a former distinguished soldier, who argued that, whenever the British were tempted to use torture or internment, we lost the moral high ground. He believed that we let ourselves down many years ago in Cyprus and should have learned from our experience of internment in Northern Ireland before considering locking up people without charge for the famous 90 days. He described Guantanamo Bay as a concentration camp. There was little sympathy in the Church of England General Synod for 90-day detainment without charge and less sympathy still for the religious hatred legislation.

We need to remember in these defence debates that the expectation of many of our citizens is that the Government will take the moral high ground in controlling carefully, for example, our arms exports, especially considering the worldwide trade in small arms. We can do precious little about that. There are issues of extraterritoriality that are difficult to address, but we should do what we can and we will never regret sticking to the moral high ground.

I congratulate the Army in particular on the way in which it looks after its training estate. It is a remarkable fact that the training estate, which covers about 125,000 hectares, is some of the best managed land in the country. Relations between the Army and civilian population are crucial. I particularly commend the work of Headquarters Army Training Estate at Westdown camp on Salisbury plain, which goes to considerable lengths to ensure that all the parish councils are told exactly what is happening. In the excellent monthly newsletter that is sent to all the parishes and to me, there are accounts of when training in live firing and artillery firing will take place in Salisbury plain west, north and east, when there will be late firing, non-firing days, air activities, helicopter night flying, aircraft trials and parachuting. I always love the monthly conservation report. This month, it includes a welcome to Rachel Crees, who works as an environmental adviser for Defence Estates. She describes touchingly how the plain is one of the most amazing landscapes in the British Isles, and it is.

Another aspect of that work has been the extraordinary lengths to which the military have gone with the European Union life project on Salisbury plain, which ended in September. That was a £2 million scheme to look after the extensive chalk grasslands, some of the most precious in Europe. They would not be precious if it were not for the presence of the British Army for 100 years, which has kept the landscapes, flora and fauna in good order. Therefore, I congratulate all those who look after the Army lands in estates the length and breadth of the land.

I turn to a first-order issue. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) reminded us about the Deepcut experience and how secretive and unwilling the MOD is to release information. On
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18 October 2003, while he was addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum, the then United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, warned that

than man-portable air defence systems. They are easy to use, readily available on the black market and pose an imminent and acute threat to military aircraft and civil airlines.

There is a huge issue of principle between the British approach to secrecy and the American approach. The United States Department of Homeland Security produces an enormous amount of material, all available on the web. It tells people exactly what the United States is doing about MANPADS, counter-MANPADS operations and what the priorities are. It gives examples of commercial responses, including from BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman. It believes that those details point out to anyone of ill intent that the United States is ahead of the game. It gives confidence to the American people and acts as a deterrent by making plain what the US Government are doing about that threat. We face real problems with MANPADS. Their proliferation is a problem, with at least 500,000 around the world. They are lethal, highly portable, concealable and cheap—some are only $500. They are easy to use, so airport perimeter security needs to be improved. Different air traffic procedures are needed, such as spiral descents. I have been in one of those and it is not something that I would like to do every day. Technical countermeasures are also available, such as infrared decoy flares, direct infrared energy and missile warning systems.

A huge effort has been made towards non-proliferation and the Government have played their part. The effort has included the Wassenaar arrangements in January 2004, the G8 action plan agreed on 2 June 2003 at Evian, the Bangkok declaration in 2003 and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe conference in July 2003. Tracing discussion of those issues in Hansard in both Houses has been an interesting experience. The trail goes cold after 1 March this year, when there was a question tabled in the other place. Two years ago, the Science and Technology Committee produced a report on the scientific response to terrorism. It came at a time when a lot else was happening and did not receive much of the spotlight.

I was a member of the Committee at the time and we visited appropriate organisations in the United States, from the White House to the National Institutes of Health, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The message we got wherever we went—military or civilian, medical or scientific—was that the more people are told, the better they are defended and the better the deterrent effect. It is time that our Government started to place more trust in the British people. The effect on those who wish to harm us would be very positive. It would mean a tremendous change in the whole tone of secrecy in this country and I invite Ministers to consider that in partnership with other Government Departments. Part of our trouble is that the lead Department is the Home Office, which has to co-ordinate our efforts. I would not wish to go as far as the United States and set up a separate Department, but I do wish to see a Minister for homeland defence.
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The greatest strength of our democratic system is that soaring way above party politics must be leadership by democratically elected Governments. We have government by consent, which confers moral authority on the Government and involves trust between the Government and the governed. In these days of raised security thresholds, our Government must change the habit of centuries. The Government believe that it is necessary progressively to erode our fundamental rights in respect of habeas corpus, free speech and religious liberty. If we agree to lend them some of our personal freedom for the common good, the Government will have to trust the people.

4.58 pm

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