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17 Oct 2002 : Column 562—continued

6.27 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): We have heard a series of powerful speeches from Members on both sides of the House, representing different opinions and mainly focusing on the threat from Iraq and from international terrorism. As a former Whip, I can say that, without exception, all speakers have been volunteers; no speakers have been dragged in to fill up the debate.

We should distinguish between those colleagues who, despite the evidence produced by the British or American Governments, remain unconvinced of the threat from Iraq, and many other colleagues—who I suspect reflect public opinion—who are still not convinced but would like to be. This debate is not the end of the matter and we will see it continue over the next two or three weeks.

I was disturbed that some Members tried to make a distinction between President Bush and members of his Cabinet, and the American people. They suggested that President Bush is some form of demented lunatic who is about to lead the world into world war. I remember similar accusations being made in the 1980s about President Reagan. Whatever President Reagan's faults and whatever issues he got wrong, he was broadly correct in his assessment of the international scene.

The United States of America is a superpower, a large and powerful one that ultimately underpins the United Nations. If we want the will of the United Nations to be enforced, it is the United States, for all its many faults, to which we look to deliver the UN's security principles. I therefore caution colleagues who merely wish to make devils out of the present American Administration: we have the ability to talk to them and to influence them.

I suspect that historians will look back on the 1990s as a decade in which we in Britain felt generally safe. I exclude from that statement the people of Northern Ireland and the terrorist threat within the United Kingdom. However, we would probably have to go back 100 years to look for a direct external threat. Most of us who are over 40 know only too well what it is like to live in decades in which we have felt the possibility of

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direct threat against the United Kingdom. The 1990s was a decade in which, under successive Governments, we were able to think about reducing the amount of defence expenditure and changing what we expected of the military. I believe that that decade is now seen as a period of political transition with, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, increased political instability in every region and proliferation in weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. That was highlighted very eloquently by my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) and for East Devon (Mr. Swire).

The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that the strategic defence review was designed to establish a framework for United Kingdom defence and security over the next 10 to 15 years, including an expeditionary force capability, power projection, working within coalitions and a new generation of equipment. I remember the debates that we had on that from my time as a Front Bench defence spokesman. In some respects I see that the arguments have not changed, but in others they have changed quite dramatically.

The Secretary of State and Ministers will disagree with me, but there is no doubt that most people in the Ministry of Defence, while welcoming and actively participating in establishing the SDR, believe that it was underfunded. I welcome the increased money that has been given to the Ministry of Defence, although I think that many people in it believe that it amounts to little more than a standstill budget. Before Ministers say that this is merely party politics, I should point out that I think that this is a challenge for all the political parties. The nature of the threat that has been laid out by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Defence and others is on such a scale that it will be challenging, to say the least, to meet our defence requirements, even with our current budget. That will pose many political problems for all the parties.

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State effectively said that, under the old SDR, the cut in our volunteer reservists was too great. Colleagues on both sides conducted a great campaign, as a result of which there was a reverse by the Ministry of Defence. There is now a greater requirement than ever before for our reservists.

The debate on defence in the world includes not only power projection and expeditionary force capability but is directly linked with defending the UK against weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. One of the bases of the strategic defence review of three years ago, which most defence opinion believed, was that there was very little direct threat to what the Americans would call the homeland. That has changed quite dramatically. One of the awful ironies of the world in which we live today—the new strategic environment—is that civilians are more likely to be casualties than the military and are certainly more vulnerable, as the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) said.

This debate has shown four key areas where we need to think ahead and, I hope, have future debates. A number of colleagues flagged up the assumption that we are now in an era of pre-emptive strategy and regime change, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), who did so very eloquently. We seem almost to have drifted into that. In

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the time available, I will not enter into a theological military debate on that subject, but it is an important step change. There are arguments for and against, but I look forward to hearing either the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence enunciating that strategy and why they believe that it is the strategy for the future.

Who am I to gainsay Professor Sir Michael Howard, who, as retiring president of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, challenged the IISS to do some serious thinking on the subject? That is, first and foremost, a major strategic debate that we need to have. It is not only an academic debate; from it will flow many issues connected with policy, budgets and defence organisation.

A number of hon. Members commented on the second area, which is the development by the United States of a technological war-fighting capability on a mind-boggling scale. The hon. Members for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) and for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) and my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and others touched on this matter, not only in terms of a pre-emptive strategy but also the development of a ballistic missile defence.

Like my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, I warmly welcome the statement made by the Secretary of State. However, the House will recognise that once again the development of a ballistic missile defence has enormous strategic connotations and will be challenging for the defence budget. It also means that we in Britain are just about keeping up with the United States of America in its military technological advances. Most of our European neighbours are way behind, with the exception of France. Unless we are very careful, we are likely to see a two-tier NATO, with the USA on one tier, Britain somewhere in the middle, and the rest of Europe on the other. Within the next two or three years, the difference will be like that between an old horse-drawn, foot-mounted infantry division and a mechanised armoured division. That will mean that the ability of the European members of NATO, including us, to participate in American-style operations will be extremely limited.

The third area, on which once again there was considerable consensus, was the business of reforming NATO. My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State and my hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) and for Newark (Patrick Mercer) pointed out the major problems that NATO has in dealing with the new strategic environment and, in particular, the failure of a number of European countries to reverse the cuts in defence budgets, which the Secretary of State flagged up. We have enormous military potential in NATO to meet the sort of threats that we now face, but we really have to do more in that area.

Finally, I shall say a brief word on homeland security. Following 11 September, the Government have begun to take steps to co-ordinate the response to threats against the United Kingdom. I warmly welcome the appointment of Sir David Omand as the security and intelligence co-ordinator in the Cabinet Office. He is a man of tremendous experience of the defence and security world. As far as the Ministry of Defence is

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concerned, the military are in support of the civil power and in most areas the Home Office appears to be the lead Ministry.

In the new chapter of the SDR, we learn that the MOD is establishing a reaction force of reservists—some 6,000-strong—to be capable of a rapid response. May I ask the Minister what progress has been made in establishing this rapid reaction force? What is its organisation? Is it being newly equipped? How is it trained, and to whom is it responsible?

In commenting on the Government's response to the threat of terrorist attack in the UK, the Defence Select Committee's report, XDefence and Security in the UK", stated that the Government were Xconfusing activity with achievement". That may be unfair as only a year has gone by, but the thesis that I am advancing is that defence in the world is not just about facing threats overseas; as many hon. Members have said, it is about the direct threat to the United Kingdom. That threat will involve deterring terrorists in the belief that, if they try to get weapons of mass destruction or to carry out terrorist acts within the UK, we stand a fair chance of preventing them through intelligence, through our armed forces abroad, and with our allies. Secondly—this is very important in terms of public confidence—if something like that were to occur, we must have the ability and the resources to cope with the aftermath.

Our armed forces bring immense experience to everything from war fighting to humanitarian operations. They are one area of the public sector by which, on every occasion, the Prime Minister knows that he will not be let down. They expect not only our general support, but the resources to enable them to achieve the objectives we set them. In the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism, the distinction between military and civilian has become blurred. There are no quick fixes in this area; as both President Bush and the Prime Minister said, we are in for a long haul. I believe that what the Government are doing is correct, and that they are doing it for the right reasons. In addition, they are doing it because they believe that the threat is so serious that, if we do not take action now, we will bear the consequences on a most horrific scale.

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