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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Time is up.

4 Oct 2001 : Column 750

2.53 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I extend my thanks to the Secretary of State for Defence and his officials for the way they have kept me and the shadow defence team informed of events over the past few weeks. It has been most welcome.

On 11 September, we witnessed a ghastly symptom of the old disease of terrorism. Seven thousand people are dead with no warning, no demands and no mercy. For me and I am sure for many other hon. Members, the sight of jets flying low over London to Heathrow will be a permanent reminder of the people who died in those tragic events. Nothing can justify such a savage attack on freedom and such a disgusting assault on innocent lives. It was outside the bounds of international law and showed no regard for human rights. Our response should remain always within international law. We must respect the human rights that the terrorists seek to destroy.

It is probable that in the next few days or weeks, British troops will be involved in military action. Hon. Members must always remember that the members of the armed forces and their families are our constituents and our friends. I and many of my Liberal Democrat colleagues have members of the armed forces based in our constituencies. At such a time it is right to praise the professionalism of the people who may go to war. I know that there are individuals from my constituency who are already out there. If they are deployed, we will pray for their safe return home.

I support proportionate military action against terrorism, but I understand that military force is a tool, not a policy. The aim of any action must be clearly stated and the scale of operations must be directed towards achieving that aim. In short, such action must be targeted, based on sound intelligence and fall within the boundaries of international law. I am confident that that will be the case in this instance.

I join other hon. Members in praising President Bush for the measured way in which he has responded to the crisis. He is a credit to his nation. He understands that any disproportionate action would achieve nothing, except to create anger and discontent, split the coalition and make those bent on committing acts of terror all the more aggressive and desperate. We should never respond to terror with terror; we should respond with justice and humanity.

There have been those who have criticised my party's position and say that we should have offered unequivocal support. Indeed, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Barker) did so a few moments ago. It is sad that in a debate where members of all political parties have tried to speak for Britain, at least one Back-Bench Opposition Member criticised another party. I should tell that hon. Gentleman that, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) and others, I met the United States ambassador when he came to our party conference two weeks ago. We explained our position to him and he said that he supported and understood it.

If one says "We support everything that you do", there can be no debate, no questioning and no scrutiny. Throughout the extraordinary and strong relationship that has existed between the United Kingdom and the United States since the second world war, there has never been a blank cheque between Britain and America. During the

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war in Vietnam, the Americans pleaded with us to send troops but we, quite rightly, said no. During the Falklands campaign, the Americans supplied us with important intelligence, but they never deployed troops. During the Suez crisis, they rightly said no to our requests.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): In that case, can the hon. Gentleman explain why so much fuss was made about a blank cheque when nobody was ever suggesting such a thing?

Mr. Keetch: I am sorry, but just such a suggestion was clearly made by Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen. They said that they would support any action. One does not start a military campaign by saying to a close ally—however close that ally may be—that one will do whatever it wants. I am not suggesting that the Government are adopting that course. We have never given such a blank cheque to America, and America has never given such a blank cheque to us.

Mr. Barker: The hon. Gentleman is right—there have been no blank cheques. Perhaps he will explain why the leader of the Liberal Democrats was addressing remarks to the Conservative party, when everybody else thought that he should be addressing his remarks to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Keetch: The point of my right hon. Friend's comments, which I support and which have widespread support across the country, was to ensure that any action should be within international law as well as being appropriate and responsible. Nothing that we have said has suggested anything else. I was saddened that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle chose to raise this issue during this well-natured debate.

Several hon. Members have said that our military campaign should be based on sound intelligence, and that is right. We should remember that a bomb is only as smart as the intelligence that targets it—we all remember the events surrounding the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. We possess some of the finest intelligence services in the world. We must develop our intelligence to try to track down the perpetrators of the events in New York and Washington and to ensure that such events never happen again. To that end, I must add my voice to the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) who in the past has raised concerns about the cuts at GCHQ. Surely, sound intelligence must be the basis on which we fight this conflict.

At the Labour party conference, the Secretary of State for Defence announced a review of our forces. No doubt we will see more details of that in due course. I hope that this new chapter of the strategic defence review will not be used as an excuse to merge and scrap regiments, as has been rumoured since the beginning of this year. We must recognise that any review of our armed forces without looking at finances would be a wasted opportunity. We must address the imbalance between commitments, capability and resources if we are to stop the inordinate strain on our armed forces. If we do not, before long we will be driven once more into a wholesale, strategic defence review.

We in this House should not think that we are so important that every sentence we utter is listened to in the United States. On Monday this week I had the privilege

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of meeting Bob McNamara who served with distinction as the Secretary of Defence under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. He was Secretary of Defence during the Cuban missile crisis. It was his view that we should never underestimate the power that allies could have in US politics and that Britain, as America's closest ally, could have a vital role in shaping US policy. That is why our words do matter. We must make the right noises and talk of justice, not revenge.

The Prime Minister's speech in Brighton earlier this week has been described by many as Gladstonian, so I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to remember the words of William Gladstone, when he talked about the life of a person in Afghanistan and about justice, not revenge. He said:

We should remember that when we go into action because those words, spoken in 1879, are as true today as they were then.

3 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Staying on the reference of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) to winter snows, may I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), a very direct question? What assessment has been made of the consequences both for humanitarian aid and for military action of the indubitable fact that, within seven or eight weeks from now at the latest, the passes of Afghanistan will become impassable? That is my first question.

In a carefully considered comment, the Leader of the Opposition asked about action against Iraq and, bluntly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's response was somewhat ambiguous. Unpalatable though it may be and although some hon. Members may think that I am away with the fairies, I shall ask this question: is this not an opportunity at least to start talking to the Government of Iraq? The fact is that anyone who knows anything about the Baath party knows that it is highly secular and that the Iraqi Government loathe the Taliban. That is the fact of the matter. The Iraqi Government have no time for what the Taliban represent. Might not this be the opportunity at least to start a dialogue and to find out what Baghdad has to say?

Bluntly, it is my opinion that the Government of Iraq had nothing to do with this. That may be right or it may be wrong, but it is my opinion, for what it is worth. It is also true that anyone—Saudis, Yemenis or Iraqis—may well have been recruited to the evil organisation of bin Laden because the bombing and sanctions have gone on for 10 years. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made an interesting speech and asked similar questions from the other side of the House. I hope that that issue will be addressed in the wind-up speech.

3.2 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): First, I join other hon. Members in congratulating the United States on the restraint that it has shown in the face of the terrorist attack. My thoughts and prayers—indeed, those of the

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House generally—are with the American people at this time and, indeed, with all those who have suffered loss, not least those in my constituency.

Tensions are running high in the middle east at the moment, and it is essential that any action—and action there will be—must be focused, thought through and considered. In bringing bin Laden and his terrorist accomplices to justice, a primary aim must also be to minimise the loss of innocent life, for we all know that two wrongs do not make a right.

I congratulate the Prime Minister and the Government on the handling of this affair so far, and especially the part that they have played in forging an international alliance against terrorism. We all agree with the Prime Minister's and the Foreign Secretary's confirmation today that we will fight all forms of terrorism anywhere in the world. However, I have one concern—does the Government agree that if the new globally co-ordinated fight against terrorism is to have legitimacy and credibility, there must be consistency of approach in its application? Yet the fact remains that, despite bending over backwards to appease terrorists in Northern Ireland, we have not managed to ensure any decommissioning of weapons, and I agree with the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and others who have made that point. That is clearly wrong. We send troops to Macedonia to decommission warring factions there, but we cannot disarm terrorists in our own backyard. That contradiction in our approach will not help us in the eyes of the international community when it comes to fighting terrorism.

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