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17 Oct 2002 : Column 504—continued

Mr. Hoon: I do not recall saying that. I am sure, however, that if my hon. Friend has the opportunity to read carefully what I said, he will see that there was no code but a clear statement of the Government's current position.

Mr. Prisk: As the Secretary of State will recall, I have asked him about this issue repeatedly over the last year, and I am pleased that we are finally achieving a little parity. May I tease out a little more from him on what he described as the close access that the Government have enjoyed? Over the last year, in answering questions from me and others, he has said that there has been no direct involvement. Is he now saying that there have been links? Can he confirm that a Royal Air Force officer who is already operating and working at NATO is participating in the programme there? I welcome the progress, but I hope that he can be clear on the matter.

Mr. Hoon: I assure the hon. Gentleman that at no stage have I misled the House on these matters. In answer to parliamentary questions, we have made it clear that a research programme has been continuing in the Ministry of Defence for some time on the technical matters to which I have just referred. The material to which I have referred and the co-operation that is enjoyed by the United Kingdom with the United States is about basic research principles. That has been disclosed to the House on many previous occasions.

Mr. Keetch: I am glad that the Government will, effectively, produce a dossier on Britain's potential involvement in national missile defence, and that there might be a debate. Can the Secretary of State tell us

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when it might be? Will he assure the House that, if there is to be a dossier and a debate, we will have more time to look at it than we did in relation to the dossier on Iraq?

Mr. Hoon: The fair answer to that is that it will take place when we are ready.

Jim Knight: I have yet to make up my mind on missile defence. Does the Secretary of State agree that, when we have the debate, it is important to move away from the nonsense about star wars—with every respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn)—and recognise that there are three phases to a missile? Only one of those phases would involve interception in space, and I understand that that is the most difficult and the most unlikely to be developed. If we want a sensible debate so that people can make up their minds, let us do that, and not get wrapped up in strange media myths such as star wars.

Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his common-sense approach. Perhaps he might assist in advising some of my other colleagues on the circumstances in question.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Will the Secretary of State at least agree that those of his Back-Bench colleagues who are so opposed to taking action against Saddam Hussein, and who feel that Saddam should be left at liberty to go on developing ballistic missiles, should at least experience a belated conversion to ballistic missile defence? That might make their other recommendations a little more credible.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that my hon. Friends heard the hon. Gentleman's observations.

Patrick Mercer (Newark): Ballistic missiles apart, can the Secretary of State guarantee that, as, when and if our troops are deployed into harm's way—from people such as Saddam Hussein—theatre missile defence will be in place to protect them in the same way that American, Italian, French and German troops have that protection?

Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman and I have debated the matter before. I have answered that question on several previous occasions, and I am not sure that we will take the matter further. I will not give guarantees of anything, as, clearly, it would not be appropriate at this stage to make the kind of assumptions that he is making. I want to make progress, because I have detained the House longer than I should have done.

Away from the policy issues, our armed forces are involved in a considerable number of active deployments around the world. The Ministry of Defence has been extremely busy over the past year. However, given the draw-down in Afghanistan, and with major reductions in prospect in the Balkans, there is now a healthier balance between our standing commitments and the resources available. Our armed forces have done, and are doing, excellent work. Afghanistan is now a significantly different nation from the one that existed a year ago. Freedom of expression

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and education has replaced the arbitrary authority of the Taliban regime. None the less, there is much work still to do in that country and, as the Prime Minister recently said, we will not abandon our newest ally until that work is completed. I am pleased to say that the Defence Minister of Afghanistan, Marshal Fahim Khan, will pay a visit to the United Kingdom shortly.

In the Balkans, we continue to support the international community's efforts to create new European states from the ruins of Yugoslavia. Our work in Sierra Leone has been a model of how the determination and professionalism of our forces can change lives. When we arrived there, the elected Government were close to collapse, rebels were carrying out terrible atrocities almost at will, and the nation faced a bleak future. Today, Sierra Leone is rebuilding. We have put a great deal of effort into security sector reform, together with the Department for International Development, to reinforce democratic control of the armed forces. Similar efforts have been made with the Sierra Leonean police. There is now peace, increasing economic success, elections and real hope for the future.

David Winnick: Does my right hon. Friend recall the ferocious opposition to military intervention in Kosovo and Afghanistan? Is it not the case that, had we listened to the critics, Milosevic would not be in the dock but would have continued in power in Belgrade—ethnic cleansing would have continued to a worse degree than had already happened—and the Taliban would still be in power in Afghanistan? Have the critics, to my right hon. Friend's knowledge, apologised and explained that they were wrong at the time?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It is clear that, in all of the examples that he has given, the international community initially sought a diplomatic and political route to achieve those ends. Clearly, there have been occasions when a diplomatic and political route has been successful in avoiding conflict and bringing about a peaceful and sensible resolution. Equally, he rightly points out the occasions on which it has been necessary to back that diplomacy with a threat, or, ultimately, with the use of force. On occasions, that has also proved successful.

Mrs. Mahon rose—

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire) rose—

Mr. Hoon: To be fair to the House, I should make progress, but I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes).

Mr. Barnes: Is my right hon. Friend aware that some Labour Members who gave support in connection with Kosovo in particular, and also in relation to Afghanistan—although there was criticism of how the action took place—do not support in any set of circumstances the planned military action in connection with Iraq? Different arguments operate in different cases.

Mr. Hoon: I accept that proposition entirely. It is for each and every Member of the House to reach his or her conclusion on these questions. I accept that, in different circumstances, there will be different approaches.

Mrs. Mahon: Having recently visited Kosovo, not for the first time, may I ask my right hon. Friend, who claims

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that the action there was a success, when nearly 250,000 people from ethnic minorities who were expelled from Kosovo will be able to return there? The report that we received was not very positive. When will there be a report to the House on what happened to the 1,300 people who have disappeared since the NATO bombing?

Mr. Hoon: I, too, have been regular visitor to Kosovo since British troops first went there. All that I would say to my hon. Friend is that clearly there are problems. No one pretends that it is easy to move from a situation in which tens of thousands of people were losing their lives or were threatened with losing their lives and in which the most appalling atrocities were committed. I accept that there are still significant difficulties. The Government and I have argued consistently that we would like the Serbs to return to their homes and work in Kosovo.

Mrs. Mahon: Not just the Serbs.

Mr. Hoon: Indeed; and the other minorities, many of whom have left Kosovo. However, that aim will not be achieved without the restoration of confidence in the political structures available in that part of the world. As my hon. Friend knows, that process takes time, but it is not helped by running down the efforts that the international community has made so far to avert the type of humanitarian catastrophe that was so long a feature of Kosovo at the hands Milosevic.

Against the successes, we must not forget the many continuing challenges around the world, not least the tension between India and Pakistan. I visited both countries at the beginning of July in an effort to maintain the diplomatic momentum. There are issues on both sides, which must be resolved. Full and substantive dialogue between the two countries must be the ultimate goal. Defence diplomacy, an initiative launched in the strategic defence review, has an important part to play therefore.

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