Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): The Secretary of State has said that cluster bombs are not land mines, but they are in effect airborne land mines. [Interruption.] I ask hon. Members to listen. The cluster bombs used during the Kosovo war contained on average 147 bomblets. The failure rate for each cluster bomb was between 5 and 10 per cent., so for any cluster bomb dropped there are bomblets lying in the soil for months to come, ready to be picked up and to kill or maim civilians.

Mr. Hoon: These weapons are used against deployed military vehicles in areas where we are conducting a military campaign. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but we must take the action necessary to defend our own deployed forces, should that eventuality arise. I could not stand here as Secretary of State for Defence and not take appropriate action to defend our forces going about what is ultimately a humanitarian operation.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Hoon: I must make further progress. I have given way a considerable number of times.

I am aware that right hon. and hon. Members are concerned about the risk of causing civilian casualties. Military action is, of course, never without risk, but we do everything we possibly can to avoid risks to innocent civilians. The claims of the Taliban regime must be treated with considerable scepticism. They have been completely unreliable in the past and there is no reason to believe what the Taliban are saying today.

We do not take lightly the decision to deploy forces. No Government would want to put United Kingdom military personnel in harm's way. But we must not forget why we are engaged in this campaign. We must not forget what happened on 11 September. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] We must not forget that if we do not act, Osama bin Laden and his supporters will continue to pose a threat to global stability and the lives of innocent people all over the world. We have no choice but to act, and to act decisively.

1.39 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): First, I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the Secretary of State and the House for failing to be present for the Secretary of State's opening remarks. I understand that he addressed issues that I wish to address, so he must forgive me if he has to go over the ground again. I apologise for that.

There may be any number of questions in our minds about the conduct of the Government's response to 11 September, but let there be no doubts whatever about what the principal response should be. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition spelled out in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, we share the Government's

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1026

objectives and continue to support the military campaign to deliver them, because that is the right thing for everyone to do.

As the weeks since 11 September go by and those terrible events begin to recede in our minds, there can be no excuse for forgetfulness or wishful thinking. We must be absolutely clear on the need for continued resolve. We must face reality. Airline hijackings and death on such a scale cannot be treated as a one-off. Terrorism is not a chance event like a lightning strike. Those events were planned and executed to the finest detail for a purpose.

The enormity of the crimes is matched only by the enormity of their strategic significance. The most powerful country in the world—the United States—was subjected to a deliberate and calculated attack. It was a strategic strike. It was a military operation backed by people with strategic objectives, who not only killed thousands of people but created fear and paralysis far beyond the events themselves. They have caused massive economic dislocation. Now that they have seen the effects of their evil, and given that they still possess the means and the motivation, what is to prevent them from striking again and again unless we act?

On 29 October, United States Attorney-General John Ashcroft announced that there may be additional terrorist attacks in the United States and against its interests elsewhere over the next week. I understand that that announcement was based on very strong intelligence indications. The risk remains, not just in America but here in our country, against our citizens in our cities. What is more, if we fail to act, there will be yet more serious consequences.

The United States has been the ultimate guarantor of global security and stability since the end of the second world war. That guarantee has depended on the absolute certainty that the United States, backed by its allies, would defend itself. We in Europe have been the most obvious beneficiaries of that guarantee.

As Henry Kissinger pointed out in his lecture to the Centre for Policy Studies in London last night, if the United States fails the test now, after the most devastating attack on its territory in its history, the whole structure of post-war global security will collapse. That is what is at stake.

All around the world, there are tensions and potential flashpoints where ethnic and border disputes can flare up and where the slenderest threads of deterrence hold the forces of chaos in check. Unless the United States and its allies prevail over the terrorist aggressors in Afghanistan, aggressors everywhere will be given a green light, and they will be aggressors who care nothing for civilian casualties or whether they use cluster bombs.

Western democracies do not like fighting wars. We find it grotesque to weigh the balance of argument on the basis of that awful phrase "collateral damage". We grieve for every death among innocent people caught in a war that is not of their choosing, but we must be prepared to face that choice.

Our enemies are people without scruple who hope to exploit civilised values as a key weakness. Now is the time to stand up for our values, not to be weak and surrender them. That is why we welcome the Prime Minister's speech to the Welsh Assembly on Tuesday, in which he unambiguously reiterated the fundamental purpose of the military campaign in Afghanistan. It is

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1027

crucial that we keep explaining, as the right hon. Gentleman has done, the absolute and vital connection between the security of people leading their daily lives and the continued prosecution of the military campaign. The Government have clearly found some difficulties with that in recent days.

Our constituents and their children appreciate the real threat of terrorism. We can trust them to understand that reality. Since 11 September, which of us has not imagined how the worst could happen? We think of our families and our children. It is far harder to watch the bombing on television every night and make a rational connection with the safety and security of our lives—indeed, unless they are properly explained, the war planes and the mushroom clouds of smoke from bombs exploding in deserts and on hillsides thousands of miles away can reinforce a growing sense of unease.

In leading our people through that, I urge Ministers not to flannel them. People naturally want to see that the bombing will lead to progress, but we should not give false reassurance when there is as yet none to give. Attempts to sweeten or dilute the message lead to confusion. People want the facts of the situation. They do not want spin. The debate about whether the Royal Marines are ready was not helpful. Ministers cannot complain about press speculation when all the briefings and public statements about a possible deployment of thousands of troops leading up to last Friday's announcement seemed designed to create that speculation.

Once again, I urge the Secretary of State to question the wisdom of using field commanders for the political task of backing up what he says and reassuring the public back home about the direction of the campaign. I urge the Government to reconsider their media strategy.

Mr. Hoon: Where is the evidence for the hon. Gentleman's assertion?

Mr. Jenkin: My assertion about what?

Mr. Hoon: About the use of field commanders to back some political campaign. Quite simply, that has never been done, and I should be grateful to know why the hon. Gentleman makes that allegation.

Mr. Jenkin: I have nothing against Brigadier Lane or Admiral Burnell-Nugent, but it is clear that they have been authorised to give briefings. Brigadier Lane was interviewed on the "Today" programme. Those political messages would be better put across by Ministers, not military commanders in the field.

Mr. Hoon: Given that the admiral, in particular, was briefing in the context of an exercise, is the hon. Gentleman saying that the Government should forbid senior military commanders from appearing on the radio or giving interviews?

Mr. Jenkin: They do not appear without the Secretary of State's permission, and I certainly do not think that Brigadier Lane would have appeared on the "Today" programme without the Secretary of State knowing about it. If that is part of the right hon. Gentleman's campaign

1 Nov 2001 : Column 1028

to reassure the British public, it should not be: he should ensure that the primary objective is that the public are not confused by conflicting messages. I shall not tire the House by going through those again.

Mr. Kaufman: May I give the hon. Gentleman a piece of advice? During the Gulf crisis and the Gulf war, when I led for the Opposition, as a supporter of the rule of law, I looked for points of agreement with the Government. I did not niggle over points of disagreement. My advice is this: if he and his leader continue in that way, they will not win support in the country. They will arouse contempt.

Next Section

IndexHome Page