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Mr. Brazier: Although I strongly welcome what the Secretary of State has just said, does he not accept that the threat that has now been identified to the home base means that, in one important respect, we are departing from a central strand of the strategic defence review's overseas elements? It is much more likely that we will have to participate in operations without having any choice about it. The thrust of the SDR was that most of our expeditionary operations would be the result of choice, but we may find ourselves committed to operations on the very edge of our capabilities and we will have no choice about that if there is a threat to our home base.
Mr. Hoon: I certainly think that the key change that the events of 11 September have brought about is an end to the assumption that we face no direct challenge to our territory here in the United Kingdom. Successive Governments have made that assumption and it underpinned a number of the reviews that they carried out. However, that assumption no longer applies and, as I will say in due course, we need to think through the implications of that for the future organisation of our armed forces.
Jeremy Corbyn: The Secretary of State will appreciate that many of us are disturbed by the statement that he has just made, which did not include any reference to causes of conflicts, to legal solutions to conflicts or to the role of the United Nations. He appears to be looking at a military solution to most problems. Will he assure the House that there are no plans to increase military activity against Iraq or, indeed, to engage in any military activity in Somalia or Sudan? Many people around the world now feel that Britain and the United States make their own decisions to take whatever military action they think is appropriate wherever they think it is appropriate.
On Iraq, my hon. Friend knows that British forces are engaged in operations over the no-fly zones where they regularly come under fire and where they regularly respond. However, there are no plans that I am aware of for any substantial action against Iraq at the present time. The matter is obviously kept under review, not least because of the way in which our aircraft come under attack on a regular basis from the armed forces of Iraq.
I want to turn to some of the key areas that we are considering and in relation to which we are seeking views. In the United Kingdom, the Home Office is, of course, responsible for counter-terrorism and is in the lead for domestic security, particularly in relation to the police. There is an important constitutional principle involved and it is one that can quickly be forgotten in the wake of events such as the attacks of 11 September. Any support provided by the armed forcesespecially the use of forcemust be at the specific request of the civil authorities.
That said, the armed forces have always played an important part in the defence of the homeland. The Royal Navy ensures the integrity of our territorial waters and the Royal Air Force defends our airspace. Immediately following 11 September, elements of the armed forces, including air defence aircraft, were placed at increased readiness. They have been scrambled to monitor suspect aircraft on more than one occasion since. Command and control arrangements have been enhanced to allow more rapid decisions about how to respond to potential threats. We are considering with the relevant civil Departments and international bodies whether permanent changes in the posture and capabilities of such forces are required.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): Will the Secretary of State explain why in the present circumstances Her Majesty's Government have decided to stand down 5 Air Defence Squadron at RAF Coningsby?
Mr. Hoon: From his long interest in the RAF the hon. Gentleman will be aware of the shortfall in the number of pilots, which is a direct consequence of decisions taken many years ago by a Government whom he from time to time supported. In the circumstances, it has been necessary for us significantly to increase the number of pilots in training, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the effect of that will take some time to filter through the system. However, I assure him that there will be no reduction in the number of aircraft patrolling, and therefore no less protection for the United Kingdom.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): A few short years ago, I witnessed a superfluity of officers under training in the RAFso many were there that they were sent on infantry courses to pass their time. Now, at RAF Cranwell, RAF
Mr. Hoon: I was referring specifically to pilots. There has been a long-term problem with the number of pilots available for our aircraft, which was caused specifically by the fact that it takes several years to train a pilot to fly a fast jet, and not enough people were entering training to produce the number that we ideally require today. That is a problem of long standing, and not one that the hon. Gentleman can blame on the current Government.
Beyond the specific roles that I have outlined, there are well-founded and tested procedures whereby the armed forces assist the civil authorities. We saw what an important role they had to play when members of the Royal Marines boarded a suspected rogue ship in the English channel just before Christmas. But such support is about more than responding to the threat of terror. In the past 18 months, the armed forces have responded to requests from the civil authorities for assistance with fuel strikes, major floods, and, of course, the foot and mouth crisis.
We have good reason to be grateful to the armed forces. They have unique capabilities on which the civil authorities can callan obvious example is dealing with explosive devices. The Ministry of Defence is therefore working with other Departments to review the arrangements and degree of co-ordination between the civil authorities and the armed forces to maximise the armed forces' ability to respond to any future requests. That work is to build on the forces' particular strengths in planning and co-ordinating operations, command and control, their nationwide footprint of people, infrastructure and communications, and their specialist capabilities.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham): Does my right hon. Friend agree that post-11 September it is important to reassure the public? In the United States, President Bush's appointment of Governor Ridge clearly demonstrates that there is someone in charge of homeland defence with wide-ranging powers to co-ordinate state-wide activities. I am comparing that with what the Select Committee on Defence has heard so far, which suggests that our response is to hold committee meetings of civil servants. What can my right hon. Friend do to reassure the public and members of the Defence Committee that our response does not reflect the typical stiff-upper-lip approach of the civil service, and to curb the apparent lack of co-ordination and excessive departmentalism?
Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend is right that reassurance is important, andI am sure that this is what he was driving atthat there should be effective action if necessary. It is perhaps a little unfair to talk about committees meeting: those committees reflect a wide range of effort throughout Government to ensure that we are in a position to act should we face a threat similar to the one faced by the United States on 11 September.
One matter that we are considering in detail is the potential further contribution that the reserves can makeperhaps by building on their wide geographical spread across the country and their associated local knowledge. Our reserve forces are integrated with the Regular armed forces. When deployed, they carry out many of the same
With the Home Office and other Departments, we are looking at whether any new tasks required by the new scenarios can be encompassed within the existing role and capability of the reserves. We will also consider the volunteer ethos of the reserves, as well as their availability and their training. Any changes that we decide are needed will involve supporting the civil agencies that have primary responsibility for these matters. Should we decide that changes to the role of the reserves may be necessary, we will naturally consult existing members of the reserve forces and their civilian employers first. We are scheduling this for the coming weeks and will then make public more detailed proposals.
Turning to what we can do overseas, it is a tenet of British military doctrine that it is usually better to seek to engage an enemy at longer rangebefore they are able to mount an attack against our interests. Our preference will therefore be to continue to place our emphasis on deployed operations, so we must continue to be ready and willing to deploy significant forces overseas to act against terrorists and those who harbour them. Our determination to do that, where necessary, should be absolutely clear from the actions that we have taken to date.
It is in the very nature of terrorist groups and those posing asymmetric threats that they will be hard to find and may be vulnerable to attack for only fleeting moments. So in many circumstances we will need to be able to strike very rapidly, and we need adequate reach. The strategic defence review set in hand a range of measures to give our armed forces the right posture and capabilities, which have stood us in good stead since 11 September.