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Middle East

13. Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): What recent assessments he has received of the availability of UK ground forces for operations in the middle east. [58683]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): We have long recognised that our national interests are directly affected by events right across the middle east. We therefore continue to place high priority on our ability to project and sustain power in the region. As part of its routine planning work, the Ministry of Defence keeps a range of military options under review. Exercise Saif Sareea 2 in Oman towards the end of last year, for example, clearly demonstrated our ability to deploy UK ground forces over long distances and to sustain them there.

Mr. Stunell: May I direct the Secretary of State's attention to Iraq? Is he aware that US officials are now saying that the air strikes in the no-fly zone are no longer primarily aimed at humanitarian objectives, but are directed at opening up the capacity for more widespread bombing in Iraq? Bearing in mind the US President's policy of taking out Saddam Hussein, can the Secretary of State say whether UK forces are to be deployed in pursuit of that policy?

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's premise. The air strikes are self-defence against attacks on our aircraft and on coalition aircraft patrolling the no-fly zone, so their primary purpose is to defend aircrew and their aircraft against those attacks. The humanitarian purpose of having planes patrolling the no-fly zone continues.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): May I direct my right hon. Friend's mind to the situation in the middle east regarding Palestine and Israel? If British troops are to be used in some form of peacekeeping force in that situation, will he give an absolute assurance that they will go in only with a United Nations mandate and to uphold United Nations resolutions?

Mr. Hoon: In order for there to be a peacekeeping force, there has to be peace. I assure my hon. Friend that the United Kingdom Government will continue their efforts to bring about a peaceful situation in that difficult part of the world, but until that situation arises, his question is somewhat premature.

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Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): In the event of a deployment in the middle east, would British troops, like our American allies, enjoy the protection of theatre missile defence systems?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman deliberately keeps his question as vague as possible. He refers to a deployment in the middle east, which is a very large region. Of course, as no theatre missile defence system is readily available to any forces deployed anywhere in that region, I can only say that that would not yet be available to the United Kingdom.

Equal Opportunities

14. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): If he will make a statement on equal opportunities in the armedforces. [58684]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): A new diversity policy has recently been agreed for the armed forces. The policy seeks to build on existing equal opportunities policies and practices. The aim is to create an organisational culture that values individuals from diverse backgrounds, treats all personnel fairly and with respect, and recognises the importance of their contribution to operational capability.

Fiona Mactaggart: Did my right hon. Friend see any black faces during the trooping of the colour ceremony? I am afraid that I did not, which made me anxious that it is possible that the elite regiments of the British Army are failing to recruit from all the communities that make up Great Britain. If that is the case, what action will he take to ensure that every Briton has an equal chance to be a soldier in every regiment of our armed forces?

Mr. Ingram: Unlike my hon. Friend, I did not see the trooping of the colour, but perhaps I should explain why: I was in the Falkland Islands representing Her Majesty's Government at the liberation day commemorative parade in Port Stanley, where the armed forces were given the freedom of the islands. I will try to seek a specific answer to her question and find out whether people from the ethnic communities were in the parade but not shown on television, but I think that the implication of that question is a slur on all the efforts that have been made not only by the Government, but by all armed forces representatives who seek strenuously to encourage an increase in recruitment from the ethnic communities in this country. Indeed, the targets that we have set are very challenging, and although we have not met them, the progress is very encouraging indeed.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): May I assure the Minister that there are black faces in all the regiments of the Foot Guards—or certainly most of them? I know because I have seen them. For the avoidance of doubt, will he reaffirm that the important thing about the armed forces is that they are good at defending this country, and not that somebody is ticking off the number of people with black faces or brown faces, or whatever other sort of people there might be?

Mr. Ingram: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's underlying view. I think that we should view the armed

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forces in a holistic way, in terms of what they are asked to do and the way in which they deliver. We ask a lot of them and they deliver to a very high extent, irrespective of their ethnic background.


15. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Whether the international security assistance force has helped with humanitarian aid missions in Afghanistan; and if he will make a statement. [58685]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The primary role of the international security assistance force—ISAF—is to help the Interim Administration to maintain security in Kabul and its surrounding areas, but national contingents within ISAF have also been involved in a number of humanitarian projects. United Kingdom service personnel, in conjunction with the Department for International Development, have contributed to the rebuilding of Kabul's education system through helping with repairs to its schools. ISAF has also on occasion responded to critical emergencies to help to save lives. There has been no expansion in ISAF's mission as defined in the authorising United Nations Security Council resolutions.

Ann Clwyd: As my right hon. Friend knows, the security situation inside the country is worrying many people, especially as reports from Human Rights Watch and others say that troops attached to the warlords are running wild around the country, creating a climate of fear and instability. As peace is very tenuous in Afghanistan, many people believe that it is important that disarmament take place as soon as possible and that ISAF's capability be expanded. That was the view of the Government, and they argued in favour of it. Is it still possible that ISAF's role can be extended outside Kabul into the rest of the country so that the peace that exists there now, slight though it is, can be strengthened?

Mr. Hoon: It is important to present a balanced picture of what is happening in Afghanistan. Although my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to tensions caused by the continuing existence of well-armed rival factions, it is equally important to put into the balance the fact that there is an extremely successful Loya Jirga process that has built on efforts right across the country—that is, regional meetings ultimately leading to the present meeting in Kabul. Informed observers tell me that that demonstrates the Afghan people's determination to rebuild their country and to take the opportunity that has been provided to them.

I do not particularly recognise my hon. Friend's description of the situation around the country, but she is right to draw attention to the need to continue to have regard to it. I gave examples of where ISAF has, through its national contingents, operated outside Kabul, and I am sure that in such humanitarian circumstances that will continue.


16. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): If he will make a statement on progress on the privatisation of QinetiQ. [58686]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Since the vesting of QinetiQ

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as a company on 1 July last year, work has concentrated on preparing the company for sale, options for which were through flotation or strategic partnership. Although flotation had always been our preferred route, following a comprehensive review of the available options for the transaction route and timing in conjunction with specialist advisers and QinetiQ's senior management, we decided that the strategic partner route offers the best potential for a transaction in 2002, offers value to the taxpayer and meets our objective of a successful public private partnership. I informed the House of that on 6 March.

Mr. Luff: May I seek an assurance from the Minister that in the run-up to privatisation the Government are not seeking to maximise the short-term value of the company's property portfolio? Specifically, will he assure me that he is putting QinetiQ under no pressure whatsoever to sell land at Throckmorton to the Home Office for use as an asylum accommodation centre? That would be likely to prejudice the site's long-term value as it develops into a science park, following the great success of the science park at Malvern.

Dr. Moonie: On the hon. Gentleman's general point, I assure him that a strategic partner such as we envisage would work closely with QinetiQ and contribute significantly to growing the overall value of its business, from which the taxpayer would benefit through the Ministry of Defence's initial retention of a significant financial interest in the company. The MOD will also retain a special share as a means of protecting United Kingdom defence and security interests.

On property, the management of the property portfolio is a matter for QinetiQ. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there has been no pressure from my office, nor, to my knowledge, from any other in the Ministry of Defence, as regards any sale prospect.

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