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Miss McIntosh: May I make a separate point about coded messages, as perhaps I did not express myself as clearly as I might have done earlier? Is the Defence Secretary at liberty to tell the House what action can be taken to prevent such inadvertent activity?

Mr. Hoon: I recognise the extreme difficulty of identifying coded messages. We have no idea of the form that they might take. That concern was raised initially in the United States and obviously we must take account of any continuing anxiety. I do not have specific evidence of any such messages; I simply repeat the points that I made about the meeting that has taken place.

Mr. Salmond: Is the Secretary of State seriously saying that coded messages could be given in edited highlights of an interview broadcast on the BBC or ITN, as opposed to the internet, cable or satellite television or, for that matter, the personal columns of The Times? Is he seriously maintaining that that was the reason for calling in the broadcasters?

Mr. Hoon: I am suggesting that that is a possibility. I am not setting any great store by it, for the precise reasons given by the hon. Gentleman. Clearly we do not know if there is any code in such tapes and where any

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such code might occur, so I recognise that that is not the strongest possibility. Nevertheless, it remains a possibility, and I put it no stronger than that.

Mr. Dismore: If those coded messages are going out, to whom does my right hon. Friend think they are addressed? Earlier tonight, I expressed concerns about certain fundamentalist organisations. Will my right hon. Friend comment on whether or not action can be taken, for example in relation to al-Muhajiroun and the Supporters of Sharia?

Mr. Hoon: Certainly, there is no doubt that the actions of those who spent a considerable time in the United States waiting to commit the atrocities of 11 September were triggered by some event or other. We do not know whether the signal was a coded message contained in a video, or the death of Masood, or whether—I am thinking in terms of what the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) wryly suggested—an advertisement was placed in the personal column of The New York Times. We may never find out about the trigger for the terrorists' actions. The answer to my hon. Friend's question is that we must obviously be concerned about whether people are waiting to take similarly appalling action anywhere in the world. That proper concern was expressed in the course of the meeting to which I referred.

The coalition's actions have widespread international support. The world was shocked and disgusted by what happened on 11 September. Countries around the world have gone far beyond simple expressions of sympathy about what happened. The United Kingdom may have been the first country to deploy its forces alongside those of the United States, but it will not be the only one.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Some hon. Members have just returned from a two-day visit to Brussels by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. We met ambassadors from NATO and other EU member states. First, a huge amount of gratitude was expressed, especially by the Americans, for the fact that article 5 of the treaty was implemented within 24 hours. Secondly, there was concern about the long-term consideration of what will happen if we create large numbers of refugees. I would be especially interested to know whether any action will be taken in the immediate future to support Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Mr. Hoon: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary dealt in his speech with the question of refugees and humanitarian assistance. We have emphasised that that is every bit as important as the military action that we are now undertaking. It is vital for the future of the coalition and its operations, as well as for the future of Afghanistan, that we take action to protect the millions of people who were in very great difficulty even before 11 September. It is obviously important that we deal with that task.

NATO has now deployed the Standing Naval Force Mediterranean, a multinational force that is currently under British command, to the eastern Mediterranean, where it stands ready to engage in force protection of high-value assets. Five NATO airborne early warning aircraft, crewed by air force personnel drawn from across NATO's allies, have been deployed to the eastern United States, thereby permitting that country to deploy its own early warning aircraft abroad for operations over

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Afghanistan. They are piloted not only by British or American personnel, but people from a wide range of nationalities and from different NATO countries. A real and practical contribution is therefore being made both at sea and in the air by NATO and its personnel and equipment.

The countries in the coalition have friends throughout the international community. We are talking frequently to our French and German counterparts. They have offered important capabilities as their contribution to the coalition that was formed in response to the events of 11 September, and so have other allies, including Italy, Spain, Portugal, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Still more nations have contributed intelligence on the terrorists, arrested suspects or permitted basing or overflight rights to coalition forces.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Western Isles (Mr. MacDonald) recognises that that action is part of the collective European effort that he seeks. A very determined effort is being made by European allies and partners to ensure that they play their part in confronting international terrorism. Indeed, I saw much of that support at first hand during my visits last week to Moscow and to an informal meeting of EU Defence Ministers in Brussels on Friday. All these expressions of support are important and valuable. I suspect that the frustration of my ministerial colleagues from other European nations—if I may speak for a moment on their behalf—is that their desire to become involved in military operations has not always so far been fulfilled simply because of the pace of the operations and the nature of the equipment that is currently being used. As I said, however, there are options that may subsequently involve them.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): If British forces are in action, they are likely to be threatened by weapons that were provided by the United States. In view of that fact, and if we are intent upon building a wide coalition, will my right hon. Friend ensure that we involve only those people with whom we want to have relationships in future?

Mr. Hoon: Of course that is the case. The range and breadth of the international community's response is further proof of the sort of commitment that we need. We need to concentrate on building and rebuilding that coalition and on making sure that we can take appropriate action across the range of Government activities to achieve our ends.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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Pensions Clawback

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10 pm

Linda Perham (Ilford, North): I am very pleased to have secured the debate this evening. Although it takes place when the country is rightly focusing on other matters, the subject is most important. The little known issue of clawback reflects on our treatment of our pensioners. Many of them, like my parents, are of the generation that fought in or lived through the second world war.

I was first elected to Parliament a few weeks before my 50th birthday and was promptly approached by Age Concern, which assisted me in drafting my private Member's Bill on age discrimination. Since then, I have been closely involved with issues that affect people in their later years, and I am the secretary of the all-party group on ageing and older people. My constituency has about 18,000 pensioners, who are ably championed by the Redbridge Pensioners Action Association. I therefore have an obvious interest in challenging the inequitable practice of pension clawback.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Pollard), who supports me in the Chamber tonight and has campaigned on the issue for several years. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister, who will reply to the debate. I know that he is aware of the issue, and he has helpfully agreed to meet my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans and a small delegation in the near future.

Pension clawback operates to the detriment of millions of pensioners, yet, as far as I know, it has not been debated in the Chamber before tonight. I want to raise the anxieties that, I believe, the 137 colleagues who signed my early-day motion, tabled on 8 February 2001, wish the Government to consider seriously.

Clawback is officially known as pension integration or abatement. It means a reduction in retired people's company pension simply because they receive a state pension. Employers can—and all too often do—deduct a sum every week up to the amount of a single person's basic state pension from the occupational pension that the former employee receives. Even those who are not entitled to a full state pension can find their company pension reduced by anything up to £72.50 per week.

That means that hundreds of thousands of pensioners lose significant sums every year. How can that be justified? An obscure legal loophole under the National Insurance Act 1946 allows companies to take account of state retirement benefits when paying retired employees a company pension. In most cases, an amount equivalent to the current value of the basic state pension or the lower earnings limit is deducted; in other words £3,770 a year for a single person from April 2001.

I understand that Inland Revenue rules allow retired workers to claim both a state pension and a full occupational pension without any clawback. It is therefore by no means obligatory for companies to operate clawback. Indeed, its existence works against the interests of the Inland Revenue. Pensions, whether provided by the state or occupational schemes, are treated as taxable income. If those pensioners received their full and rightful

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amount, not only they but the Exchequer would be better off. Pensioners would have more income and would therefore pay more tax.

Why should the taxpayer subsidise the pension funds of cash-rich companies that operate pension clawback? Why should the Government be deprived of millions of pounds which could be better spent on health, education and other public services?

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