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The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): We are continuing to build the capability of the Iraqi security forces so that they are increasingly able to take responsibility for delivering law and order themselves. The Iraqi security forces will provide the immediate security for the planned elections this Thursday and oversee the whole event.
Mrs. Hodgson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that this Thursday's elections will further marginalise the violent forces and increase the prospects of victory and of liberation by Iraqi democrats, especially the new trade unions, which need solidarity from the international community and the British Labour movement, including groups such as Labour Friends of Iraq?
John Reid: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. This Thursday's elections will be a huge step forward for the people of Iraq, the country of Iraq and the middle east as a whole. Despite all of the threats, 8.5 million people turned out in January, 10.5 million people turned out in October and 15 million people are now registered. I only hope that the people of this country pay attention on Thursday to what the overwhelming majority of Iraqis are saying by coming out to use their new-found freedoms in the same way as some commentators in this country continually pay attention to the minority who are attempting to destroy Iraqi democracy and Iraqi lives.
Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): What is the Secretary of State's estimate of the impact of UK-based private companies on the security situation in Iraq? And what plans does he have to sign new contracts with those private companies?
I do not have any estimate of those companies' contribution to the overall security situation, which primarily lies in the hands of the multinational forces, who are handing over to Iraqi forces. Iraqi forces are increasingly becoming trained, capable and able to take over leadership on security, which they will do on Thursday of this week, and they are the people who will ultimately play the major role. The multinational divisions or any private companies who are temporarily providing a degree of security will remove themselves from Iraq as soon as the Iraqi security forces and the democratically elected Government of Iraq want it to happen.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): The defence training review programme will deliver specialist training on a defence rather than single service basis. Our vision is to create national centres of training excellence, giving our people the best opportunities, training and living environment that we can provide. Modern training methods and technology will be introduced, and training will be concentrated on a reduced number of sites to give the Ministry of Defence the flexibility that it needs to match training demand to defence needs.
Mr. McFadden: I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he acknowledge the tremendous strengths of Cosford as the site for future combined defence training, given its ideal transport links to the main areas of armed forces recruitment and its place as part of a critical mass of IT, aerospace and engineering skills, which exist in abundance throughout the west midlands?
Mr. Touhig: I will certainly pay tribute to the work that goes on at Cosford and to the Members of Parliament who represent that area and who look after the interests of its people. The defence training review will have an impact on Defence Estates, but future plans for RAF Cosford will not be decided until a decision has been taken on the defence training review.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): On behalf of all the civilian communities around the defence training areas, notably Salisbury plain, may I say how much we appreciate the increasing professionalism of the management of those training areas? It is important that the permanent staff who maintain them retain their special links with all the parish councils and civilian communities that make up the everyday life of those estates. If they sometimes slip a little over some detail, they will normally put things right as quickly as possible, but use of the training estates has intensified massively and those relationships are very fragile.
Mr. Touhig: I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point. We are determined to have good neighbourly relations with all those with whom we work closely across the country. The creation of centres of training excellence that will be acknowledged and admired globally will not only enable our people to be recognised for their skills while they serve in the front line but make them valuable employees when they later become civilians. That impacts on the work that we are doing on the defence training estates. When a decision is taken and the programme is finally presented, that will benefit us all. I have no doubt that in the new environment we will want to work closely with our very good neighbours.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth)
(Lab): My hon. Friend recognises that the British armed forces are among the best trained in the world and that the qualifications that they gain in training are second to none. The words that he is uttering at the Dispatch Box
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as regards centralising training are music to my ears. However, will he give an assurance that that will involve the best centresthose that have been the most cost-effective and have turned out, consistently and on time, the right numbers of recruits? Will he use that as the basis of building up the centres of excellence that are important for the future of this country?
Mr. Touhig: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those are the criteria on which we must base our decision. The decision that we ultimately take must be taken in the best interests of this country and of the Ministry of Defence.
Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Can the Minister give me an assurance that in the defence training review St. Athan in Wales will not be given a competitive advantage over RAF Cosford in my constituency as a result of Welsh Development Agency money being used to promote it?
Mr. Touhig: I cannot possibly comment on whether WDA money is being used, but I can try to reassure the hon. Gentleman by saying that I have no doubt that all bidders understand the potential of RAF St. Athan as regards the defence training review. I am not in a position to comment on the various sites. However, I assure all right hon. and hon. Members that, based on all the information that we are given at the time, we will take the right decision in the interests of the country and of the Ministry of Defence. That is the only criterion that we can possibly use. No location should be given any special favours.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. McFadden) commented on the excellent location of Cosford, but it is equally important that all the off-balance-sheet and hidden subsidies that may be at play in the competition must be seen in the context of who can provide the very best location for the service. I believe that that means it will come to Cosford.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): We continually monitor the potential threat that long-range missiles present to NATO countries and armies. Iran already has short and medium-range missiles in service, some of which could reach NATO territory, and its potential for developing longer-range missiles has been recognised for some time.
John Reid: We continually keep that under review. It is not possible, by the very nature of intelligence matters, to be definite about these things. However, we know, for instance, that Iran has made no secret of its aspirations to develop a satellite launch capability, which of course has a very close relationship with the technology required for longer-range missile systems. We also know that Iran is proclaiming its desire to develop civil nuclear capacity in the context of the International Atomic Energy Agency's revelations that it has been trying to deceive the international community by developing a nuclear weapons facility. There are also the public statements by the President of Iran, threatening to wipe off the map another member of the United Nations. Taken together, those matters alert us to a serious problem, which is not only ours but that of the international community.
Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I listened to what my right hon. Friend said with great interest. He knows that countries in the South Caucasus such as Azerbaijan, Armenia and Kazakhstan have close relations with NATOthey are members of the partnership for peace programmebut they also have good relations with Iran. Does he believe that we could encourage those countries to build better relationships with Iran that might lead to a better understanding of NATO's role?
John Reid: Undoubtedly, we would all, including the United Kingdom Government, like better relationships with Iran. We would much prefer problems to be tackled in a civilised, diplomatic and fraternal fashion. That is why the United Kingdom has led the European three with France and Germany, and I pay tribute to the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on that. We want to try to resolve the problem through diplomatic means.
However, that is not helped by statements such as those by the President of Iran, revelations of a secret development or attempt to develop nuclear weapons, or a breach by Iran of its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. That is a challenge not only to us but to the international community and the United Nations. However, we are doing what we can to resolve the matter diplomatically and I hope that the Iranians will respond and go back to their original actionto stop the unwelcome restarting of the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan and suspend those activities while we try to resolve the problems diplomatically.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Does the Secretary of State recall the powerful speech that the Prime Minister made in March 2003, when he described the nightmare scenario of a rogue regime with nuclear or WMD technology and the means to deliver it coming together with fundamentalist extremists who would want to use such weapons? Is not that combination ready made in Iran? Is he as worried as I am by the statement over the weekend that Israel is actively planning military action, and can he inject his sorrowful and concerned tone, with which we all concur, with greater urgency? The matter should be at the top of the international agenda.
Yes, I believe that it should be at the top of the international agenda. I am sorry if my tone today
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is emollient and sorrowful rather than aggressive. I am trying to find my sorrowful side on the matter after advice from so many Conservative colleagues.
Notwithstanding that, the problem is serious for the reasons that I outlined. They include not only our concern about the link with the attempts to kill our troops in Iraq but the statements threatening to wipe Israel off the map, the history of clandestine attempts to develop nuclear weapons and the possibility of long-range missile delivery systems. All that is difficult, but solving the problem diplomatically would serve the world better. I therefore assure the hon. Gentleman that the greatest urgency and priority has been given to the matter and I simply ask him to witness the efforts, energies and time-consuming dedication that the Foreign Secretary has shown on it. It is our profound wish that this matter be solved quickly and diplomatically, and the way for that to happen expeditiously is for Iran to return to the suspension of the facilities and the conversion, as it promised to do earlier, and to enter into serious negotiations in an attempt to resolve the issue.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my right hon. Friend says about diplomacy. Does he agree, however, that the role of Pakistan is important in this regard, particularly the role that A.Q. Khan played in supposedly giving information on nuclear weaponry to the Government of Iran? Would it not be a good idea if that information were shared more widely, and if, rather than keeping A.Q. Khan under house arrest in Islamabad, he were made available to those who know what has happened, so that we can really see what information the Iranians have?
John Reid: It certainly seems to meas it presumably does to most objective observers of these eventsthat the proliferation of information, advice, tuition and details from the A.Q. Khan network has been one of the most dangerous examples of proliferation in recent years. If my hon. Friend's comment was an implicit criticism of President Musharraf, however, I will not join him in that. The President of Pakistan is making a serious effort in attempting to resolve the crisis with India in Kashmir, to restrain the excesses of the madrassahs, and to ensure a diminution of the entry of terrorism into Afghanistan. However, Iran itself has now declared that it has received offers of information on developing nuclear weaponry, and the proliferation of such information is very worrying indeed. As I said, the way to resolve this issue is for Iran to come back to the negotiating table and to respond to the efforts being made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and by France and Germany to engage diplomatically on these matters.
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