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Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes several good points, on which I am sure Opposition Members will carefully and maturely reflect. I hope that both sides of the House agree that in the immediate aftermath of the first launch of the military operations, no one would have thought that before Christmas we would be talking about a peace support operation, given the considerable dangers and difficulties involved in the offensive operations. That is a remarkable tribute to the leadership of the US and the support that several nations, including the UK and its armed forces, have been able to give.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Could the Secretary of State clear up the confusion between his statement, in which he mentioned a three-month deployment, and the letter from the Foreign Secretary to the UN Secretary- General, which has just been placed in the Library, which says that the deployment will end

That is four months. Is it three months or four months, and why did he not mention the 30 April date?

Mr. Hoon: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has had time for a close textual analysis of the letter and I am equally delighted that that is the only problem that he has been able to identify. The answer is straightforward and if he had listened carefully to what I said—perhaps he was too busy reading the letter—he would have noticed that I mentioned the difficulty of getting the force into Afghanistan and that the three months will run from the point at which the force is ready and doing its job.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): Anything done to ameliorate the Afghan tragedy is to be welcomed

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and, in that context, the Secretary of State's statement is welcome today. Given the comments made by Sir Michael Boyce, the Chief of the Defence Staff, to the Royal United Services Institute and given the intention of the US Administration to extend the present campaign to other countries in the mid-east and the horn of Africa, does he envisage British forces being further involved in similar situations in countries attacked by the US in pursuance of its anti-terrorist strategy, or does he rule that out?

Mr. Hoon: The US and British Governments have worked together extremely closely during these offensive operations. We have had detailed consultations at every level of Government and of the military, and I anticipate that that will continue. I am sure, therefore, that, in appropriate circumstances, the UK will want to support the US in its continuing operations against international terrorism.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I welcome the deployment, but I return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). Air cover is an important element of these operations, and when I was with the UN operation in Bosnia, the UN—and the IFOR and SFOR follow-up forces—all used it. In his reply, the Secretary of State said that air cover would not be available and that it was merely used for insertion and extraction purposes. Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify that point?

Mr. Hoon: I assure the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) that I did not suggest that air cover was not available or that it was not required. I said that I did not see any immediate threat from the air. There may be a need for air cover, but that will certainly depend on judgments made by the military. The force generation conference will obviously make a military judgment about the requirement for air cover. If air cover is judged to be necessary, the relevant assets will be made available.

Roger Casale (Wimbledon): I add my appreciation of the work of our armed services and intelligence services. They have performed remarkable work throughout the conflict. They have shown that they well deserve the confidence not just of the British people but of the whole international community.

Is it not the case, as many hon. Members have seen at first hand in Kosovo and the Balkans, that troops may need to be deployed for some time if urgent humanitarian relief is now to be delivered by the non-governmental organisations, the UN, the EU and many other national

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Governments and international organisations? That relief is needed urgently if Afghanistan is to be set on the road to sustainable development in the longer term.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right to urge caution about what is a highly dangerous mission. Does he agree that there is no doubt that Britain is well qualified to lead its initial stages? Does he agree that, without such a mission, there is no chance of a better future for the men, women and children of Afghanistan?

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, especially for those in connection with the armed forces, which will be deeply appreciated.

As for humanitarian relief, it is vital that there is a greater degree of security in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. I know that NGOs are working around the clock to deliver aid, especially given the onset of some pretty brutal weather in Afghanistan. We have had a considerable number of offers from other nations in the international community regarding the deployment of troops. They are willing to play their part, but not all will do so in the early stages of the process. I look forward to being able to tell the House in future of the contributions that other nations will be able to make.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am full of admiration for the troops who are about to deploy, but will the Secretary of State say whether 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, and 40 Commando Royal Marines will be deploying at peace establishment or war establishment? In either event, which units have been stripped of manpower to make them deployable?

Mr. Hoon: As the hon. Gentleman probably knows better than I, those are matters for the military command chain. That is why such questions are left to the military leadership. Those officers provide advice to Ministers, who are ultimately responsible and accountable to this House.

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): The Secretary of State said that the mission for this force does not include the pursuit of al-Qaeda. However, it is possible that the pursuit elsewhere in Afghanistan might switch suddenly to the Kabul area. What preparations has the Secretary of State made to deal with that contingency?

Mr. Hoon: That is a fair question, and one that has been the subject of detailed discussions. It has been agreed with the US that there must be clear co-ordination on any deconfliction of operations involving American forces engaged in pursuing al-Qaeda and the peace support operation. I assure the hon. Gentleman, and the House, that absolute priority will be given to the pursuit of the remaining elements of al-Qaeda.

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Treason Felony, Act of Settlement and Parliamentary Oath

5.15 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I beg to move,

As The Guardian said this morning, this is a modest measure. In July 2000, my noble Friend Lord Parekh presented a sadly neglected report from the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. He concluded that we are at a turning point in our history and can become inward looking or develop as

He called for politicians to show the courage of leadership.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has also called for leadership. He said that what Northern Ireland needs from its politicians, perhaps now more than ever before, is a common vision of a new inclusive society. A good starting point, he continued, would be a determination to tackle sectarianism. He described sectarianism as

Sectarianism taints every aspect of life that it touches.

The Bill would strike at discrimination and intolerance in our society. I am looking to assist the process of inclusion—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's big tent. Some of the laws that I seek to amend are very old but that does not mean that they cease to have effect.

The Bill is about putting our own House in order and recognising where tradition may directly or indirectly exclude a section of the community. It is about recognising those aspects of our traditions that may inadvertently cause offence and those that are in conflict with our commitment to a multi-ethnic future.

Agreement to proceed with the Bill will have a dramatic effect. It will demonstrate the will of the House to modernise the constitution and all its workings. It will bring the foundations of our democracy into line with our obligations to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. It was a proud moment when this Parliament put into legislation the European convention on human rights.

The first part of my Bill concerns the Treason Felony Act 1848. At the end of the last millennium, The Guardian wished to publish a series of articles advocating a republican Government in the United Kingdom. It was, however, prevented from doing so because section 3 of the 1848 Act makes it a felony not only—in this case very properly—to levy war against Her Majesty but to

her. Persons found guilty of such imaginings or of expressing their intention to abolish the monarchy, even by exclusively democratic and peaceful means, would be committing an offence punishable by life imprisonment.

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Anyone who is familiar with article 10 of the European convention on human rights knows that under the terms of the convention:

So the publishers and proprietors of The Guardian wrote to the then Attorney-General seeking permission to publish such articles. Failing that, they would seek a declaration in the High Court that section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848 should be interpreted in accordance with the Human Rights Act 1998 and, consequently, that existing law would not criminalise the author of a newspaper article advocating peaceful change to a republic.

On 8 December 2000, the then Attorney-General wrote:

With this Bill, I intend to address the shortcomings of the 1848 Act; to make clear that it is no longer an offence to seek a change in the nature of government by democratic and peaceful means; and to give the House the opportunity to start disapplying.

The second part of the Bill would amend those aspects of sections 2 and 3 of the Act of Settlement 1701 dealing with succession to the throne, in order to remove discrimination against Roman Catholics. The Act is extremely offensive in that regard. It stipulates that

can neither be monarchs nor marry into the royal family.

In December 1999, Members of the Scottish Parliament unanimously adopted the following motion:

However, the repeal of such legislation is a matter reserved for the United Kingdom Parliament, so we should address it.

I am not persuaded by those who say that to enshrine sectarianism in legislation is unimportant or by those who argue that such a move would require legislation in all the 15 Commonwealth countries that recognise the Queen as their head of state. It is important, and we can act without reference to those other kingdoms.

Article 9.2 of the European convention on human rights provides:

Our European partners in Luxembourg, Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands all maintain a constitutional monarchy. None requires the restriction of access to the throne on the ground of religious belief.

The Prime Minister is on record on this issue. He shares my belief that the anti-Catholic aspects of the Act of Settlement are plainly discriminatory. I was happy to note that he promised to re-examine the issue during his second term. This is his second term and my Bill would permit the House to offer him the opportunity to conduct that re-examination.

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The final aspect of my Bill relates to amendment of the Oaths Act 1978. Such amendment would address from a different angle matters raised in the Chamber yesterday. It would remove the requirement that an elected Member of Parliament take the present Oath of loyalty to the monarch and would provide an alternative—a modern oath of affirmation. The Oath could take the form suggested by my right hon. Friend, the former Member for Chesterfield, Tony Benn:

Such an alternative—it would not be mandatory—would cover the point and would get rid of many of our current problems.

Since I last argued this matter, I have had the benefit of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Buscarini and Others v. San Marino. In that case, three individuals elected to the Parliament of the Republic of San Marino challenged the requirement that they take the oath as prescribed by law. They submitted that the exercise of a fundamental political right such as holding parliamentary office should not be subject to publicly professing a particular faith—in breach of article 9 of the European convention.

The Government of San Marino maintained that the wording of the oath was not religious but

and that the form of words at issue had

The European judges stated that the freedom of thought, conscience and religion enshrined in article 9 constitutes one of the foundations of a "democratic society" within the meaning of the convention. The Court's comments regarding article 9 are important for us. It explained that

to the taking of a particular oath.

I believe that we can get rid of the indignity and absurdity that have characterised the taking of the Oath. We can return to a situation where the occasion is treated with solemnity, because people will return to a position where they are doing something voluntarily, not because it is insisted on or directed, and they can do it with a free conscience.

These three measures—the right to argue, without fear of punishment, for a republic or to replace the monarchy; the right to marry a Catholic or be a Catholic and still be able to be the head of state, and the right of the Oath—

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