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5.22 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) and his Committee colleagues on the excellent contribution that their report of last year makes to our deliberations. I shall endeavour to follow his lead by being brief so that others can speak.

It is clear from the context of the atrocious terrorist outrage on 11 September that we could vastly increase our defence expenditure on military forces and still not protect ourselves from similar terrorist attacks. It is notable that that attack took place in a country that spends a greater proportion of its gross national product on the military than any other. It is clear that in the United States and the United Kingdom alone there are thousands of high-profile targets, including public buildings, military establishments and individuals, all of which could be the

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target of a terrorist attack. It would be impossible to provide an increase in military presence that would afford them all protection, even if we could find the resources.

The Committee's report puts the problems in context. It asks how we can tackle the causes of terrorism, disrupt terrorist networks in the short term and ensure that they cannot carry on their work, and, in particular, avoid running the risk of a catastrophic terrorist event as highlighted in the report. I should like to draw out a couple of points from the Select Committee report and raise a number of issues with the Minister on those specific subjects.

Following 11 September, how is the Ministry of Defence working with other parts of government with security responsibilities, particularly MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, to identify terrorist threats worldwide and disrupt such activities? I know that that is not the Minister's direct responsibility but we understand from the newspapers that there has been an increase in their resourcing since 11 September, and it would be interesting to know how the MOD is working with those agencies to disrupt terrorist networks. If those agencies are to be increasingly important in dealing with the threat of terrorism, there should be more visibility and more accountability to this place for their expenditure.

The right hon. Member for Walsall, South mentioned the catastrophic threats identified in the Select Committee report. Although it would be impossible to defend ourselves against the wealth of risks to our country by increasing protection of all our key sites, it is clear that investment in protection of the UK and our allies from nuclear, biological and chemical attacks is immensely important. We would be grateful to hear from the Government today what action they are taking to remove from circulation the stockpiles of such weapons around the world and reduce the risk that terrorists might use such deadly weapons against civilian and military populations, with catastrophic effects.

On those specific threats, the Committee report considers how the MOD integrates with the civil contingency agencies that have a prime role in leading our response to certain events. It is understandable, as the Committee said, that civil agencies should lead the response to flooding, foot and mouth and riots, for example, but, importantly, it noted that it might be appropriate for the MOD to play a clearer role in responding to the more serious threats—nuclear, chemical and biological—that we might face from terrorist organisations.

It would be inappropriate to end without saying something about Iraq, which is very much on the agenda at the moment and which the US Administration have portrayed as part of their continuing battle against the threat of international terrorism. I shall not repeat, particularly in this short debate, the comments that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) made yesterday in the Westminster Hall debate that attracted considerable public and press attention. Suffice it to say that he laid down clearly and precisely our party's concern about the noises coming out of the US Administration.

The Government must be well aware of the risks of mounting a serious attack on Iraq, especially the risk to the coalition against terrorism. Although I understand why they are keen to continue the close alliance with the United

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States, which has existed not just since 11 September but, fortunately, over many decades, they have a responsibility to use their special position to convey to the US Administration some of the concerns expressed in this place, and no doubt among members of the Government as well as on the Government Benches. In that way, we may avoid the worst excesses that could be possible if some of those in the US Administration get their way.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the speech of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). It should be read. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there are great qualms in the United States itself about the proposed course of action?

Mr. Laws: The Father of the House is right to point out that there is concern in the United States as well as in Parliament. Let us hope that the time available before serious military activity is contemplated is sufficient to enable wise heads to prevail. The Government have an important part to play in that respect.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that Saddam Hussein has for some years defied the requirements of the international community that he open his territory for inspection, and that the reason for those requirements is the belief that he is trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction? Is he saying that it is Liberal Democrat policy that if adequate evidence emerges that Saddam Hussein is acquiring weapons of mass destruction, we should do nothing to stop it?

Mr. Laws: On terrorism, the hon. Gentleman is well aware that no information available so far links Iraq to the 11 September events. My party takes extremely seriously the prospects of all countries that do not currently have nuclear weapons acquiring them, and we hope that the current situation can be used to give us the leverage necessary to get inspectors back into Iraq, so that we can find out whether such weapons are being accumulated. That would be our preference over short-term measures that use military action without first going down those paths.

Because of the short time available, I shall not speak much longer, but let me say that although it would be naive in the extreme to pretend that the short-term threat from terrorism can be dealt with through longer-term measures to deal with poverty and injustice throughout the world, or that such measures would have any great effect in the short term, I hope that in the spirit of that appalling and overused phrase "joined-up government" the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development will work far more closely together to deal with the sources of discontent that lie in poverty and injustice. That, in the longer term, offers us the hope of dealing with international terrorism at source.

Although the Government are to be praised for the progress made since their election in 1997 to put overseas development assistance back on the political agenda, I ask the Minister, even though it is not his responsibility, to pay heed to the large number of Members of Parliament

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who now want the Government to set a time scale on the delivery of the United Nations target of 0.7 per cent. of gross national product going to overseas aid. I hope that that and some of the other measures in the Select Committee report will enable us to tackle the causes of international terrorism, and remove and destroy the seeds of future terrorism.

5.32 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh): The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) will understand why I do not take time to respond to his remarks.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss how we deploy our resources in the light of the threat of international terrorism. Our requirements of our armed forces since the end of the cold war have changed immeasurably. On taking office, the Government launched the strategic defence review, the conclusions of which were published in 1998. It made it clear that the Government wanted this country to be a force for good in the world.

The Government are to be congratulated on recognising the need for a strategic overhaul of our defence capabilities to ensure that we could meet the challenges of the new environment following the end of the cold war. However, no one could have predicted our armed forces becoming involved in the many and diverse actions in which they have become involved, including those in East Timor, Sierra Leone and Kosovo. It is a long time since our armed forces conducted so many concurrent activities abroad.

The events of 11 September mean that we need to refocus our military policies and capabilities. The Government are right to draw up what they call "The Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter". I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has launched a public discussion paper to influence the work and the final conclusions.

The world changed on 11 September 2001. The attacks raise important issues, such as weapons of mass destruction, a subject touched on by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) I pay tribute to the work done by him and his Committee. There is no doubt in my mind that if the terrorists responsible for those atrocities had had the capability to use weapons of mass destruction, they would have done so. I have no doubt that they will do so if they ever acquire the materials and the skills necessary. We must urgently address the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

As I have said before, it is no secret that the international measures to contain the development of weapons of mass destruction leave a lot to be desired. Indeed, the Select Committee report identifies some of the weaknesses in that regard. We must step up our efforts to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction. We do not want to regret not having done so.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Ministry of Defence on the discussion paper, which is open for public responses until the end of next week, and the proposed new chapter.

There are additional or enhanced roles for our reserve forces, both in home defence and security and in overseas operations, but because of the pressure of time, I shall not set out the arguments for them.

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Equally briefly, I welcome the announcement—there is one press report to this effect, which I trust is accurate—that the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, DERA, will not be floated on the stock market. I hope that the Government will put the privatisation option behind them and that we can move forward. We can discuss that later, on the basis of defence research being carried out in the public sector.

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