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17 Oct 2002 : Column 524—continued

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

3.54 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): I associate Liberal Democrat Members with the Secretary of State's words about members of the armed forces and the civil servants who work at the Ministry of Defence. I have been privileged to get to know them in recent years and they are a fine bunch of people.

The events of recent days add a timely significance to today's debate. International terrorism has touched our lives again and continues to threaten world security. As we remember those who died last weekend from this country and elsewhere, and the appalling events of 11 September, we must redouble our efforts to root out the scourge of international terrorism.

As the Secretary of State rightly said, we can effectively combat international terrorism only if we co-operate with other nations. The coalition that the Prime Minister and President Bush assembled so successfully last year remains our strongest weapon for defeating that threat. We live in an interconnected world where intelligence and police co-operation in third countries can save lives at home. No single nation can prevent all attacks against its citizens, but together we can isolate and defeat terrorist networks.

The nature of the international terrorist threat has added to the tasks of our armed forces, not changed them. Deterrence, coercion or find-and-strike operations have not replaced the existing roles of the

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armed forces but simply added to them. The major defence tasks identified by the strategic defence review remain valid. Stabilisation, peace enforcement, defence diplomacy and commitments in the Balkans, Afghanistan and elsewhere demand our continued engagement.

The Secretary of State said outside the House that prioritisation of capabilities will be necessary. That process clearly began with the series of cuts that were announced over the summer. We were told that the new chapter was supposed to rebalance, not replace the SDR in the light of a growing terrorist threat. However, I fear that it is being replaced.

A steady stream of leaked documents and unannounced Government publications revealed a picture of cuts, revised targets and shortfalls. Many SDR requirements now appear unrealistic. The revision of the SDR seems to have been forced on the Government. Less than five months ago in May, we were assured that HMS Sheffield would be held in extended readiness until September 2004.

Moreover, the SDR commits the Government to maintaining 32 warships until 2007. With HMS Nottingham probably beyond repair, and HMS Sheffield due to be withdrawn in two weeks, the number is down to 30. I know HMS Sheffield well; I spent 10 days on her as part of my time with the armed forces parliamentary scheme, with which many hon. Members have been involved. The ship was in the Caribbean carrying out anti-drug-running activities. It is neither the first nor the last ship to do that.Only 10 days ago, HMS Grafton seized $100 million of high-grade cocaine. That ship plays an important role in the defence of the United Kingdom. Yet the Government have cut our West Indies guardships.

Is the Secretary of State prepared to take a hard look at items that no longer add to our capability and prioritise in favour of critical capabilities? What exactly does he consider to be critical capabilities?

The Liberal Democrats welcomed the announcement that confirmed the designs of the future aircraft carrier and the joint strike fighter aircraft. It was a wise decision to choose a design that offers greater operational flexibility for the future. However, it is less encouraging that the decision may have been made to meet an in-service date of 2012. Procurement policy should not be made in that way.

If the Government had not been in such a hurry to retire the Sea Harriers, the urgency of the capability gap would have been less pressing. Are there other imminent cuts about which the Secretary of State would like to inform the House? Is there anything else up his sleeve?

We view Britain's defence role in the world as undiminished. The responsibilities are many, at home and abroad. If we are to fulfil the role outlined by the SDR, we must commit the necessary resources to our military. If we cannot provide the armed forces with the equipment, pay and conditions that they need to do the job that we ask of them, the UK must accept greater limitations on the defence tasks that we undertake.

We must improve recruitment and retention rates in our armed forces. We must stem the loss of critical staff from organisations such as the defence medical services.

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We must reach a position where we no longer need to waste money on temporary housing or temporary doctors. We must ensure that our armed forces and their families are well looked after, with fair pay and equitable pension rights. Failure to fix the nuts and bolts of our armed forces will put future operations in jeopardy.

What role should Britain play in the world? The SDR acknowledged the consensus that has been supported by Opposition parties in recent years. It envisaged a role for Britain as a major military power with a duty to contribute to NATO, UN and EU tasks, commensurate with our position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. That role has grown in ways anticipated by the SDR, which emphasised the global nature of Britain's interests, of the 10 million British citizens living abroad as well as Britain's overseas territories. The SDR said that a global capability remained necessary. We believe that it is necessary. We believe also that the SDR represents a broad consensus. It set targets for policies and the implementation of objectives. However, if the foundations of the SDR remain valid, the policies in place to implement it need to be revised.

With procurement dates continuing to slip, with retention rates dropping and with what appears to be an ad hoc announcement of cuts in aircraft and warship numbers, the SDR is parting from our armed forces in terms of day-to-day reality. We must be assured that the commitments made by the Government at the time of the SDR—they were broadly supported by both sides of the House—can be sustained.

I shall say a few words about arms exports. Our troops are deployed abroad to control instability and to contribute to peace. We must ensure that our actions in other spheres—for example, arms exports—do not undermine our troops' efforts. I agree with the Secretary of State's recent comments that competition over time should be a consideration in defence procurement decisions. However, in his exhortation to the defence industry to export more and in committing the taxpayer to facilitating market access, the Government may be focusing on domestic concerns that are related to global security. Even today, we have seen Lord Bach and Prince Andrew promoting British arms exports with taxpayers' money in the middle east. That was at a fair attended by Iraq. Am I alone in feeling a need for caution?

Arms exports are a major source of global instability when they are diverted from their intended destination and use. Therefore, rigorous end-use monitoring of British exports is vital. I believe that the only true way to minimise the damaging consequences of irresponsible arms transfers, such as the arms-to-Iraq issue, which was discussed earlier, is to have prior parliamentary scrutiny on a case-by-case basis.

Mr. Wilkinson : The hon. Gentleman is making a most important point. Does he not agree that it is infinitely better for British interests and for the promotion of the values that our armed forces have sustained that British companies should sell weapons to states that require them for their self-defence, rather than that those states should turn to other suppliers such as Belarus, Iraq and rogue regimes? The training and support that our

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personnel provide in the continued collaboration that follows an arms agreement is most useful in the longer term.

Mr. Keetch: I agree entirely. However, the hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that in the past the problem has been that we have sold arms to regimes that have come back to bite us. We know, for example, that arms were sold to Argentina and were used against the taskforce. We actually supported and supplied arms to Saddam Hussein. We even supplied in the past to Osama bin Laden. We must be careful about the company that we keep. We need to continue to examine carefully the issue of arms exports.

Let me move on to alliances. We maintain our forces for the defence of the nation. However, we also have commitments to our allies in NATO, the EU and the Commonwealth. The SDR acknowledged that Britain's

and that

I agree. However, the integration of European defence capabilities has not been progressed far enough. The UK has indeed led the way in raising defence expenditure, and we have been told that France followed suit. However, progress on meeting the Helsinki headline goals has been painfully slow. Co-operation within Europe on research, procurement, logistics support and even on intelligence could promise increased effectiveness and cost savings. It is long overdue.

Next month's NATO summit in Prague will discuss precisely the same issues that face Europe: a NATO response to terrorism, the creation of a rapid response force and the standardisation of equipment for interoperability. Those are sensible goals for NATO and for the EU under the framework of the European security and defence policy.

During my recent trip to NATO headquarters, all the officials whom I met, including the Secretary General, stressed the importance of the ESDP to NATO. Lord Robertson also stressed the importance of resolving the dispute between Greece and Turkey over the European use of NATO assets. What does the Secretary of State have in mind? Will he ensure that the disagreement does not lead to progress on the ESDP faltering?

I turn to Iraq and the comments of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin). We must accept that there is a diverging range of opinions among all parties in the House. Indeed, many former senior Conservative Members—for example, Lord Hurd, Sir Malcolm Rifkind and John Major—have said that they disagree with, or have some concerns about, the current Conservative party leadership on Iraq. It is not only those people, who the present leadership of the Conservative party have tried to airbrush out of history; in the debate that took place on 24 September, many Conservative Back-Benchers made eloquent speeches that did not fully echo the approach taken by those on their Front Bench. I have in mind the hon. Members for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), and there were others.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin), who sadly is not in his place, criticises Liberal Democrat Members for asking questions at a time when British

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troops might be committed. I say to him that it is exactly at the time when our troops are committed that we should be asking questions. That is what opposition is. Had Opposition parties in 1940 blindly followed the Government of the day in military expeditions, the House would not have challenged Neville Chamberlain in the way that it did and his Government would not have been replaced by the coalition Government who were led so wonderfully by Winston Churchill. Now is the time to ask important questions.

If the UN or the international community request British help in neutralising threats to global security, we must be there. However, to be consistent with international law, every other reasonable political and diplomatic option must be exhausted before military action commences. It is not correct to posit a choice between dealing with Iraq and dealing with al-Qaeda. They are linked. Any action in Iraq must be seen in the context of a wider campaign against terrorism.

The question that we must ask, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) did so eloquently on Wednesday, is whether possible action in Iraq will increase or decrease the likelihood of further terrorist attacks throughout the world. Whether to use force in the absence of an immediate terrorist attack is one of the most difficult decisions that this country may be asked to make for a generation. We must be sure that any decisions reflect the will of the people.

Let us have a new constitutional innovation. Let us have, perhaps, a new war powers Act. Let us abolish the Prime Minister's power to use the Royal Prerogative to send Britain's forces to war without having to seek parliamentary approval. The President of the United States has sought and gained a mandate—

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