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10.50 am

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I want to follow the important speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett). I hope that, even at this late stage, inquiries can be made into who is behind the failure to grasp the opportunity to do something about an issue that we all want something to be done about.

To establish my credentials, let me quote from Hansard of 27 November 1962. The passage is headed "British Territorial Waters (Undersea Development)". In Question 3 to the Prime Minister, I asked whether he would

Harold Macmillan replied "No, Sir."

Then I asked a very stupid question:

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North): Young puppy!

Mr. Dalyell: Exactly.

I asked the Prime Minister to

26 Oct 2001 : Column 547

I earnestly went on:

Well, I was a young puppy.

Mr. Pound: Insolent, too.

Mr. Dalyell: Insolent—cheeky.

Mr. Pound: No change, then.

Mr. Dalyell: I was put in my place. Harold Macmillan got up and said—in an accent that I cannot imitate—

The House erupted at my expense.

The Prime Minister went on to give a serious answer. He said:

Sir James Duncan—now departed—asked:

Macmillan replied:

To complete the tale, I should say that the leader of the Labour party, Hugh Gaitskell, was not at all pleased. He said that that would teach me not to ask silly questions. It was the last silly question I asked in the House.

There is, however, a serious aspect to this. May I echo the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish—although I shall express them less eloquently than he did? We naturally understand what the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), to whom a great deal of credit is due, has tried to do, and it is clear that a great many people have worked hard on this, not least the Department. If the Department is prepared to work hard and we all agree that something must be done, surely something should be done. It may not be perfect, but what on earth are House of Commons Committee stages for? Their purpose is to iron out, to allow negotiation, and to get it right.

Given the shortage of parliamentary time, I do not know whether there will ever be another opportunity in the foreseeable future for us to do what we think has to be done very soon. Following what was said by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I beg those in charge, before 2.30 pm, to go to those who are objecting and say "Do you really know all the facts? Even if you think you do, are you entitled to put a stop to parliamentary discussion on a Bill proposed by the person who has come top of the so-called lottery?"

Responsible Bills should not be snuffed out if they are in the top five. That makes a mockery of private Members' time. I plead with those in charge to go back to Downing street, or wherever it is, and say, "For

26 Oct 2001 : Column 548

heaven's sake, change your mind. Let the House of Commons have discussions." If, at the end of the day, the position is not satisfactory, that is an entirely different matter; but the Bill should certainly not be snuffed out at this stage.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish said that he and I, Lord Hardy of Wath—as he now is—and Ted Graham, led by Denis Howell, had spent hours in Committee speaking at enormous length about Halvergate marshes and a number of other important subjects in order to wring out of Hector Monro and Tom King the principle of marine nature reserves. I do not think that Tom King would recall it any differently. Those in charge became exasperated. They did not want a closure on the Floor of the House, or a guillotine. Eventually, they gave way—quite honourably, but they gave way.

As my hon. Friend said, MNRs have been a terrible disappointment. Earlier I interrupted the hon. Member for Uxbridge, and I will tell him why. An MNR was proposed at Loch Sween, a beautiful loch in Argyllshire. It was ideal, almost top of the list, for an MNR.

Some years after the debate to which I have referred, I went to Loch Sween as a paying spouse with an annual visitation from the Historic Buildings Council of Scotland, of which my wife was a member. Late at night we had a reception, and after a good deal of conviviality it became clear why the MNR at Loch Sween had not gone ahead. In their cups, the locals said "Of course we do not want a marine nature reserve here. If we have one, inspectors will come." I asked "Which inspectors?" They said "The inspectors from the Inland Revenue." They did not want the tax men messing around Loch Sween, poking their noses into their business and asking awkward questions.

There are all sorts of extraneous reasons why MNRs may not have gone ahead. I hope that, following the introduction of the Bill, sense will prevail, and a great deal of trouble will be taken in proceeding with this worthwhile concept. It is vital for fish stocks, and for a number of other reasons eloquently deployed by the hon. Gentleman.

10.59 am

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): It is always a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). I was delighted to hear his Macmillanesque comments of 39 years ago.

I want to speak briefly—I realise that my speech will soon be interrupted—to support my hon. Friend the Member for landlocked Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on his excellent Bill, the purpose of which, to put it simply, is to establish, protect and manage nationally important marine areas.

Of the 6,500 SSSIs, only about 300 border seas or estuarial levels, and even they do not go beyond the low tide. I believe that there is an urgent need for marine sites of special interest to be protected. I appreciate that the Bill is confined to England and Wales.

It being Eleven o'clock, Mr. Speaker interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

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26 Oct 2001 : Column 549

Armed Forces (Deployment)

11 am

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The House will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is in Oman. Earlier this morning, he spoke to the officers and men of headquarters 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines serving in Oman as part of Exercise Saif Sareea 2. I shall inform the House of what he said to them, but first let me say a word or two about Exercise Saif Sareea 2.

The exercise in Oman is reaching its conclusion. Although a full assessment has still to be undertaken, it is fair to say that the exercise has been remarkably successful. More than 21,500 service men and women have been involved, and I pay tribute to them. Their response to Exercise Saif Sareea was typical: for many, it was their first deployment in desert conditions, but they rose to the challenge and met the very high standards that we ask of them. Their skills, determination and professionalism place our armed forces among the very best in the world.

Exercise Saif Sareea 2 was the largest single deployment of British service personnel since the Gulf conflict. Our contribution to the exercise included a naval carrier task group, armoured and commando brigades, about 50 combat aircraft, and three of our four new C17 strategic lift aircraft. The exercise has demonstrated our close friendship with Oman and builds on the long-standing and wide-ranging defence relationship that we enjoy with that country.

We are extremely grateful to Oman for its generosity in hosting the exercise and for the tremendous co-operation at all levels that has developed between our respective armed forces. Force integration training has taken place between our respective navies and air forces and a joint live exercise comprising elements of our respective armies is now drawing to its conclusion. The exercise has proved to be an excellent opportunity to test both our personnel and our equipment in the realistic operational environment of the Omani desert.

By deploying, sustaining and exercising a joint taskforce of medium scale at considerable distance, we have demonstrated key elements of the joint rapid reaction forces concept. Moreover, we have demonstrated our ability to conduct joint and combined operations with a friendly nation in an area that is of key strategic importance. When we began planning Exercise Saif Sareea 2 some four years ago, we wanted to send a clear signal of our commitment to peace and stability in the region. I am sure that the whole House agrees that, through the dedication and skill of our armed forces, we have met that objective with enormous success.

There has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks—most of it ill-judged and unhelpful—about diverting our forces taking part in Exercise Saif Sareea 2 to conduct operations in and around Afghanistan. We did reassign two submarines from the exercise but, as I hope I made clear earlier, Saif Sareea 2 went ahead essentially as planned. With the end of the exercise in sight, the time has come to decide what force deployments offer the right balance of capabilities to enable us to continue to play a full part in the coalition's military operations. We have rightly made a commitment to our closest ally, the United States, to stand shoulder to shoulder with that nation, and we are determined to do just that.

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The House will know that our armed forces have already made a major contribution to the coalition against international terrorism. When the House last debated this grave subject on 16 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence described our campaign aims. They remain as follows: to bring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice; to prevent Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network from posing a continuing terrorist threat; and to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism.

At that time, my right hon. Friend also described the forces that we have deployed so far. They are considerable: three submarines and 10 specialized air-to-air refuelling and reconnaissance aircraft. The roles that those forces have played, both in attacking targets in Afghanistan and in providing vital support functions to coalition strike aircraft, remain crucial. So, too, does our decision to allow the United States to use our air base at Diego Garcia.

We must now look ahead to how else we can help in defeating international terrorism. Our current forces are primarily configured to assist in the coalition's air campaign. That campaign will continue and develop over time and so must the capabilities that we assign to it. We have therefore decided to create a large and rebalanced force in the region.

That force is a concrete demonstration of our resolve to see the campaign against international terrorism through to the end. We have said that we are in this for the long haul, and we mean it. The force has therefore been designed to ensure that we are well placed to deal with a wide range of contingencies and to maintain operational flexibility for as long as necessary. It also allows us to accommodate the inevitable changes in the tempo of our military operations.

As I am sure the House recognises, I cannot go into too much detail about how we envisage the new force operating, but as I have said, it will allow us to retain considerable operational flexibility and will greatly widen the scope for future operations. What I can do is describe the forces that we will reassign to Operation Veritas from Exercise Saif Sareea 2 when the exercise finishes next week.

Those forces will comprise the following: the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which will be re-equipped for helicopter operations; the assault ship HMS Fearless; a submarine presence able to launch Tomahawk missiles; the destroyer HMS Southampton; the frigate HMS Cornwall; seven Royal Fleet Auxiliaries—the RFAs Sir Tristram, Sir Percivale, Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie, Bayleaf, Brambleleaf and Diligence; and four additional support aircraft consisting of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Hercules transport planes.

In addition, some 200 men of 40 Commando Royal Marines, based in Taunton, will be aboard HMS Fearless as the lead elements of an immediately available force to help support operations. The remainder of 40 Commando—about 400 men—will return to the United Kingdom, but will be held at a high readiness to return to the theatre should our operational needs make that necessary. That arrangement will also permit us to rotate companies aboard ship and so guarantee that the whole Commando remains fresh and fully prepared for operations. That powerful force totals some 4,200 personnel in theatre. It represents a major enhancement of the coalition's capabilities.

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The threat from an enemy as evil and indiscriminate as international terrorism places everyone in danger. There is no question but that a response to the events of 11 September is necessary. However, we did not take the decision to deploy those forces lightly. No Government ever enter into military operations, with the attendant risks for our service men and women, without the most careful thought.

In the current case, we are especially conscious that the reinforcements are men and women who have already completed a long and demanding exercise, and they have long been separated from their families in this country. I know that that places a great strain on both our service personnel and their families. The knowledge that loved ones are deploying on operations can only increase the anxiety, concern and strain that the service families affected must feel. We will do whatever we can to ensure that those families have the support that they need at this time.

The House will recognise that the deployment of our armed forces is a grave step. We take it in the confident knowledge that by doing so we can depend upon them to make a difference. Our armed forces are special and we are deservedly proud of them. We ask a lot from them and they will not let us down.

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