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The Prime Minister: The process of discussion between Britain and Spain has not yet concluded. When it does, the proposals will be announced and people in Gibraltar will be able to see them. I appreciate what political advantage the hon. and learned Gentleman and his colleagues may squeeze out of this issue, but they would be very unwise to try to derail a process that was begun under the previous Conservative Government for a very good reason. In a European Union that is moving closer together, when relations between Britain and Spain are not those between the Britain and Spain of 20 or 30 years ago and when people in Gibraltar desperately need a good relationship with Spain so that they can go about their daily lives, it is important that we try to come to a proper accommodation.

The constitutional guarantees remain: in the end there will be no constitutional change unless people in Gibraltar agree to it. It would be very unfortunate—in fact, it would be misjudged and wrong—if the Conservative party attempted to inflame feelings in Gibraltar in a way that was irresponsible and wrong. In the end it is right for Britain, for Spain and for the people of Gibraltar that we find a sensible way forward.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My right hon. Friend mentioned some of the complex alliances that develop in negotiations such as those in Barcelona. In view of the fact that many of the applicant countries were participating in the negotiations, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of our relationships with those countries, particularly those in central Europe where there seems to be real enthusiasm for joining the European Union and an unstoppable momentum towards that end?

The Prime Minister: All those countries have made huge changes. In the past it would have been impossible to conceive of them entering the European Union in the numbers in which they will enter in 2004. Some of the initiatives that we took before the summit were with applicant countries, not least with the centre-left Government in Poland, and those countries look on Britain as a champion of enlargement. One of the most unfortunate things about the Conservative party's position is how far it seems to be moving away even from enlargement.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): Most people saw Barcelona as a chance to get to grips with deregulation and liberalisation. I appreciate the Prime Minister mentioning the start of the deregulation process and the reports that are part of that, but is he not aware that businesses in this country see this Government as a regulatory Government and that regulations are increasing rather than decreasing? That being the case, will he now

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commit himself to practising in this country what he preached in Barcelona, and cut regulations on our businesses?

The Prime Minister: What business really welcomes is the economic stability that has delivered us the lowest interest rates and the lowest inflation for decades, the lowest unemployment that this country has had for 25 years and the highest employment of any major industrialised country. That is in addition to the measures taken, such as the reduction of corporation tax to boost business. The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. The procedures that we have agreed will allow us to take account of the views of business far better before regulation is made in Europe, and that is a significant step forward.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to press on with enlargement in the EU, not only in the interests of the candidate members who were present in Barcelona but because enlargement will provide an added essential spur to structural reform?

The Prime Minister: I entirely agree. The enlargement process is essential for the future of Europe and for its security. It is one reason why it is so important that this country carries on playing a leading and constructive role in Europe. When the EU enlarges to 25, 27 or 30 members, it would be absolute madness for this country to be on the sidelines of Europe. Our national interest is heavily engaged in Europe, and all our experience teaches us that when we are engaged and we are constructive, we achieve results.

Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare): Will the Prime Minister give the House more information on the consultation with small businesses which he talked about? Will he give us specific information on the implementation of the small business charter, with firm dates and tick boxes? Will he consider the paper produced by Small Business Europe, which I have in my hand? Bearing in mind that that organisation was set up by the Government and has only recently started to operate in Europe, the paper contains important recommendations for small businesses in particular, and we would welcome views on it.

The Prime Minister: Small business co-operation in Europe is far better now, because of the changes that we have been making, as the hon. Gentleman implied. We have agreed a whole series of measures to take forward work with small businesses, but the important point that we have been trying to establish is that the right way forward on jobs, the labour market and enterprise is not for Europe to try to impose uniformity in all circumstances, but for us to agree certain objectives, benchmark that process, and then say that it is up to individual countries to take the measures necessary to get there. That is why a major issue in next month's Budget will be measures to stimulate small business and enterprise. Our belief is that in Europe, this is about getting the right process to judge the impact that regulation is having on small businesses, and the support for small businesses set out in the charter.

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Afghanistan

4.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I would like to bring the House up to date by making a statement about the continuing role of the British armed forces in Afghanistan. It is just over five months since the global coalition, assembled in response to the terrorist attacks in the United States, began military action in Afghanistan. At that time we set out a number of specific short and longer-term campaign aims. Those included preventing Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda from posing a continuing terrorist threat, breaking the links between Afghanistan and international terrorism, and reintegrating Afghanistan as a responsible member of the international community.

Five months later, it is clear that that action has been remarkably successful. Afghanistan is now a very different country. The Taliban Government, who harboured the al-Qaeda terrorists, are no more. Terrorist training camps have been put out of action. The first steps towards creating a functioning state have been taken. Aid agencies operate with increasing freedom. Refugees are beginning to return to their homes.

I am particularly proud of the vital part that British forces have played in this success. I have set out on a number of occasions the contribution that they have made to the international coalition—reconnaissance and air-to-air refuelling flights, troops on the ground engaged in operations against al-Qaeda and Taliban elements, and Royal Navy participation in submarine and interdiction support operations in the Arabian sea.

Britain's armed forces have also played a significant role in leading the international security assistance force in Kabul, with some 1,600 British troops currently deployed with the force. ISAF's full operating capability was achieved on time on 18 February, bringing together more than 4,600 troops from 18 different countries in a harsh and demanding environment at a considerable distance from home. I pay particular tribute to General John McColl for his role in this.

ISAF is helping the Afghan Interim Administration to provide a secure and stable environment in Kabul. Life in the city is at last beginning to return to some kind of normality, as I was recently able to see for myself. ISAF is already training the first battalion of an Afghan national guard about 600 strong, with an ethnic make-up that reflects that of Afghanistan itself. It is also providing advice to the Afghan police. Where it can, ISAF has helped with much needed-physical reconstruction work—projects that range from repairs to schools to getting the city's dustcarts back on the road.

British forces deployed with ISAF include troops from the second battalion of the Parachute Regiment. It was always planned that they would return to the United Kingdom at the end of March to prepare for their deployment to Northern Ireland later this year. They are now in the process of handing over their responsibilities to the first battalion of the Royal Anglian Regiment.

Germany has agreed to provide a new headquarters for the Kabul multinational brigade—ISAF's subordinate headquarters—which has until now been provided by the headquarters of 16 Air Assault Brigade. A Bundeswehr brigadier will formally assume command tomorrow.

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That will enable us to withdraw a number of British troops from theatre, and is a demonstration of genuine international co-operation. So, too, is the Czech Republic's offer of a field hospital for ISAF. Following my discussions with my Czech counterpart earlier this month, the Czechs signed the ISAF memorandum of understanding last Thursday. Their contribution is very welcome.

The House will also be interested in the handover of the United Kingdom's responsibilities as lead nation for ISAF. Our talks with Turkey, which has expressed an interest in taking on the role, continue. It would not be appropriate to say too much before the talks are concluded, but the atmosphere in the high-level discussions between the United Kingdom, the United States and the Turks in Ankara last week was extremely positive.

We are therefore still working to transfer the leadership of ISAF. We are working hard to tie down the details, with the reassurance that Prime Minister Ecevit of Turkey has told my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he strongly supports his country taking on the role.

However, for all the progress that we have made in Afghanistan, the threat of attack from al-Qaeda and Taliban-related groupings and individuals across the country remains very high. The recent Operation Anaconda in the Paktia province, led by the United States, tackled one group of al-Qaeda terrorists and Taliban fighters. That showed that those people are still in Afghanistan in large numbers and that they are heavily armed. Left alone, those groups would threaten all that the Afghan people and their supporters in the international community have achieved so far and would strive to retain Afghanistan as a base for training and organising terrorism. They do not recognise the Afghan Interim Administration and will work to destabilise the situation across Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda and its supporters continue to pose a direct threat to states outside Afghanistan, including the United Kingdom.

I know that the House will join me in offering its sympathies to the families of the Afghan and American soldiers who died during Operation Anaconda and in paying tribute to all the coalition forces that were involved, including the crews of the RAF Tristar tankers and Sentry AWACS aircraft that supported coalition air strikes during the operation.

The United States has now formally requested that the UK provides forces to join in future military operations against other remnants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban elsewhere in Afghanistan. I have therefore authorised the deployment to Afghanistan of a full United Kingdom infantry battle group, built around 45 Commando, Royal Marines. That group will join a US-led brigade, forming a potent force ready to undertake such operations.

We have held 45 Commando ready for offensive operations in Afghanistan for precisely that purpose. The lead elements of 45 Commando—its headquarters company and "Whisky" and "Zulu" companies—are already in theatre, embarked aboard HMS Ocean. Arrangements are now in hand to deploy those elements to Afghanistan, where they will be joined by the remaining companies of 45 Commando—held at high readiness in Arbroath—and also the combat support and services support elements integral to the Commando Group. Those include: 7 Battery of 29 Commando

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Regiment Royal Artillery, equipped with 105 mm light guns, from Plymouth; 59 Independent Commando Squadron, Royal Engineers; and elements of the Commando Logistics Regiment. There is already a versatile range of helicopters aboard HMS Ocean to support 45 Commando Group. To increase the Commando Group's operational capabilities still further, we are also deploying a further three Chinook helicopters of 27 Squadron, RAF.

That is a powerful force, in total up to 1,700 strong. We will ensure that it is ready to take part in operations as quickly as possible. The force will go initially to Bagram, with the first members of 45 Commando Group on the ground within days, and ready to commence offensive operations by mid-April.

The deployment of 45 Commando Group is not a decision that has been taken lightly. It is our largest military deployment for combat operations since the Gulf conflict. It is important that the House is under no illusions about what this might involve. These troops are being deployed to Afghanistan to take part in war-fighting operations. We will be asking them to risk their lives. Their missions will be conducted in unforgiving and hostile terrain against a dangerous enemy. They may suffer casualties.

No Government take such decisions without reaching the absolute conviction that it is something that must be done. The appalling events of 11 September demonstrated very clearly that these al-Qaeda and Taliban elements have the ability and the desire to launch attacks right into the heart of nations such as ours. Both the deployment of the Commando Group and our deployment to Kabul as part of ISAF contribute to our overall objectives of ending the threat posed by international terrorism and restoring Afghanistan. Both are entirely consistent with the campaign objectives that we set out last October. However, the troops with ISAF in Afghanistan have their own difficult and demanding job to do; 45 Commando Group will have theirs.

By deploying 45 Commando Group we shall make a new and important contribution to defeating finally al-Qaeda and the Taliban. By our continued commitment to ISAF, we are helping Afghanistan regain her place as a stable and prosperous nation. I have no doubt that our armed forces will succeed in both tasks.


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