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3.15 pm

Chris Bryant: With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I rise to reply to the debate.

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It has been interesting to have a debate in which so many Members who have served in the armed forces have participated, and in which everybody has essentially said the same thing: we want to move forward to ratify on the UK's behalf the convention banning cluster munitions. However, the speech of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) implied, "Yes, we want to agree the Bill, but we would really rather like to keep the capability that cluster munitions provide"-

Mr. Simpson indicated dissent.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is not fluttering his eyelids, he is shaking his head, so I presume that I misunderstood him. However, that was the tenor that I thought I caught from his speech.

Mr. Simpson: With respect to the Minister, this happens in so many Committees-it is a good example of new Labour setting dividing lines. There are no dividing lines on the measure. We support the Bill. We have asked legitimate questions that relate not only to the safety of many civilians throughout the world, but to our armed forces. The questions were asked not merely to spin out the time-they are legitimate and put by colleagues, many of whom have much greater experience than the Minister or me.

Chris Bryant: I was not questioning any of the other hon. Members; I was merely commenting on my understanding of the hon. Gentleman's contribution, but he seems now to be much more unambiguously supportive of the Bill- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who comments from a sedentary position, was not in the Chamber when the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk began his speech.

Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I was.

Chris Bryant: If he was, I apologise, but he was certainly not in the same seat.

Mr. Burns: I was.

Chris Bryant: I apologise if-

Mr. Burns rose-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to leave the matter there. We have had a good tempered debate, and that matter should not be taken any further. I think that the Minister should not take the intervention, but proceed with his speech.

Chris Bryant: I hope that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges that I apologise if I have inadvertently misled the House.

Several hon. Members made important contributions and paid tribute, like the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, to our armed forces, who have made valiant efforts-some so valiant as to lose their lives-in clearing mines around the world. Several hon. Members referred to the effort that has had to be made in Bosnia, but there are many other parts of the world where British troops are currently involved in clearing mines, training many others and providing education so that local societies can move on. I also pay tribute to the work of the HALO Trust, to which, again, several hon. Members referred.

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It is also worth bearing in mind that many of those who have taken the most active interest in the issue are Members not of this House but of the other place. They have engaged with the matter directly and pushed for some time for a change in the position. It is worth acknowledging that not only Government Front Benchers-as my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) said-but the Opposition have changed their position in the past five years. As I acknowledged in my opening remarks, the Ministry of Defence has co-operated fully in the process in the past couple of years of trying to reach a position whereby we have a clear understanding of the requirements of British personnel working with other countries that are not signatories.

The first question asked by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) was about whether our capability is being undermined by banning such munitions. For me, it is not so much a matter of whether our capability has changed. Undoubtedly, in some cases, it would be nice to be able to use every weapon available to humanity, but we have always decided that there are moral limits to what should be available to the armed forces. Trying to reach a universal position on that protects not only our forces but our moral integrity.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) pointed to another element of the debate on cluster munitions, which is that they can be profoundly counter-productive. In many of the places where British troops have been engaged in recent years, it has been far more difficult to win over hearts and minds if, day after day, children are losing their legs and their lives because unexploded artillery and ordnance eventually explodes.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) asked about indirect financing and told us that the Swiss Government have legislated on that. If he does not mind my saying so, that is slightly incorrect. The Swiss Parliament has passed a motion on the matter, but the Swiss Government have yet to act on it. If he looks at the written ministerial statement that I made in December, he will see that we are keen to move on indirect financing as fast and effectively as possible. However, as all hon. Members who mentioned such financing this afternoon have said, it is very complex and it is difficult to know where the concept ends. What if a bank that dealt with another bank financed a company whose main business was not providing or manufacturing cluster munitions, but providing insurance for another company that did so? There are complications for which it would be difficult to legislate at this point, but we are keen to work with other countries on the matter.

Article 11 of the convention stipulates that meetings of the states parties will begin later this year, after the August commencement. Obviously, that will be an opportunity for us to monitor the process whereby we move towards a much greater number of countries signing up. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East complained about me rolling my eyes when he asked whether NATO is the body through which to lobby other countries, including NATO members that have not signed up, or the EU. The only reason I rolled my eyes is that I believe the place to lobby other countries is in the meetings of the states parties. We need to act not unilaterally, but with many others, so as to bring the whole of the world community on board. At the moment, if we acted through NATO, we would unfortunately get
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a rather robust reply in return. He should not doubt our determination to secure ratification by countries such as Turkey and the United States of America, but I am not sure that NATO is the right place to do that.

Mr. Ellwood rose-

Chris Bryant: I am conscious that I took an awful lot of interventions in my opening speech, but I will of course give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ellwood: I do not know how much time the Minister spends around soldiers, but that is an important aspect of the question. If he engaged and worked with the senior military and gained an understanding of the array of assets that they have, and then allowed the military to consider how they might replace what is missing from their armoury, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) suggested in his winding-up speech, the political will would be the other way around. That is another angle to come at the matter, but in that way, the military could take the lead.

Chris Bryant: My experience of the armed forces is nowhere near as extensive as the hon. Gentleman's-mine relates only to the work of the armed forces parliamentary scheme-but he is right that our military obviously have a key role to play in changing the world view of other militaries around the world. Many such discussions take place, which is why I referred earlier to the significant role played by our defence attach├ęs in other countries.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Will it be possible for the MOD and Foreign Office to produce a paper before the Committee stage explaining the reasons why the Government's decision has changed? That would be very helpful to hon. Members.

Chris Bryant: I am not sure that that is the right way forward. I am quite happy to argue the case in Committee-it is the Government's job to defend the arguments we advance-but the primary issue is not only ensuring that our defence personnel have the capability they require to do the job, but ensuring that our moral peril and the physical peril to others, including the collateral damage that others sustain, is proportionate to the weaponry we use. That is an important part of the doctrine that has been around in different forms from 1868, through to the Geneva protocol of 1925 and the Landmines Act 1998.

Mr. Lidington: In his proposal for a joint departmental paper in time for Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) was seeking to enable the House to understand the military's judgment on whether the loss of capability, which we all accept will happen, is of serious or relatively minor significance. How do we measure that loss of capability when it comes to making the judgment to take the moral standard that the Minister has described?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman will have to tease that out in Committee. The specific question he asked earlier was whether the Chief of the Defence Staff is happy with the situation, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he is.

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The hon. Member for Aylesbury raised the question of whether we would be advancing the measure in the overseas territories. The answer is that we will; that will be our standard procedure. The hon. Gentleman and several hon. Members asked about stockpiles in the UK. The American stockpiles will be gone from the UK itself by the end of this year, and they will be gone from other UK territories, including Diego Garcia, by the end of 2013. I hope that that clarifies things.

Jo Swinson rose-

Chris Bryant: I am very hesitant to give way now, because I did so some 45 times in my first contribution, but I will cluster interventions.

Jo Swinson: I thank the Minister for his generosity in giving way to me for what I believe is the first time in this debate. He said that weapons would be removed from Diego Garcia by 2013, but I want to press him on verification, which I raised in my speech. How will we have certainty and transparency? Presumably, we are not going to rely on the Americans' say-so.

Chris Bryant: The transparency clauses in the Bill clearly enable us to do that-it is pretty straightforward, and in any case, it stems originally from the convention.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Caton), because he has kept up his campaign for a good number of years. He has been an assiduous Member and we could not have this legislation without his contribution. He tabled early-day motion 1101 in the previous Session, which congratulated the US Congress on its move to prohibit the export of cluster munitions that failed in more than 1 per cent. of cases. There is a possibility of change in other states around the world, and we need to move forward on that.

My hon. Friend asked whether the destruction of stockpiles will be permanent, which it will, and what we are doing to ensure universal application. Mainly, we are trying to talk to every country where we have a key relationship, especially a key military relationship, such as Turkey, Russia and the United States, to move that forward.

The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) referred to the issue of Diego Garcia and I hope that I have answered her point. She also asked about transit through the UK. That would not in itself be prohibited, but a direct application would have to be made to the Secretary of State who would have to grant permission before it could happen. We would be reluctant to grant such permission. The hon. Lady also asked about the US stockpiles and I hope that I have answered those questions.

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) made a wonderful speech. I hope that I unite all hon. Members this afternoon if I say that he is one of our most decent Members, which I am sure is why the Anglican Church has made him an honorary canon. Fortunately, he did not go off this afternoon. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] He told us a moving story and I will write to the relevant Department-although I am not sure which it would be-to check up on the missing mines of Swanage beach. He also mentioned white phosphorus and depleted uranium. At the end of "The Woodlanders", it is said of Giles Winterbourne:

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The hon. Gentleman is a good man and he makes good speeches.

The hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway) made an interesting contribution based on his own experiences. I disagreed with him only on his point that we should retain or seek to retain the permission to have cluster weapons in extremis. This is the line we are drawing, and it is an end to cluster munitions.

Mr. Holloway: We are talking about war. If we are going to fight wars, we have to equip our troops with every possible thing that they might need to do so.

Chris Bryant: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) raised several questions and I hope that I have already dealt with most of them. He asked about whether we would be in breach of article 1, but we would not, because of article 21 which makes specific provision on that point.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East referred to all the countries that are non-signatories. He can stand in no doubt that we will do everything that we can to try to bring as many countries on board as possible. He asked about the Argentine ordnance in the Falklands and whether it would be a good idea to get the Argentines to deal with that. At this particular moment in time, it would not be a good idea to encourage Argentines to travel to the Falklands.

I am glad that hon. Members have supported the broad principles of the Bill and I hope that we will have unanimous support for its Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill [ Lords] (Programme)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

Question agreed to.

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Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Bill [ Lords] (Money)

Queen's recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

Question agreed to.

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