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31 Oct 2002 : Column 1083—continued

Chris Grayling: My hon. Friend is making some extremely succinct and pertinent points. Could he clarify something? One striking thing about the situation in Moscow was the scale of the attack, which gave rise to the question of how it was possible for so many armed terrorists to be within the confines of the city. Does my hon. Friend think that that was a one-off event or is it possible that large numbers of terrorists could be operating in other places in the developed western world?

Patrick Mercer: I do not want to go too far down the track of dealing with the origins of the attack, whether it was a Chechen Government-inspired attack, a freedom fighter attack and so on. However, the great danger after 11 September is that other terrorist organisations will strive to emulate and improve on what was achieved then. We are vulnerable in other no less serious ways to a similar form of attack. That is the challenge facing the Government. Ultimately, that is what the debate about defending the nation is all about. The Government must achieve a higher level of awareness among the target population—ourselves—without scaring the pants off us.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): Not an easy task.

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to the Minister—I am sure that that is true.

Without undermining our national confidence, we must be made more aware of and alert to what lies around the corner.

Mr. Keetch: I shall not detain the hon. Gentleman long, as I know colleagues wish to speak. The other interesting thing about the Moscow attack is that it underlines the international nature of terrorism. The uncle of Mr. Barayev, the leader of the gang who was killed in the attack, was generally responsible for the kidnap in Chechnya of four British Telecom workers, including someone from my constituency, who were beheaded. It is also the case that Osama bin Laden used Chechen fighters, so there is a link to international terrorism. That is one of the defining differences in dealing with that kind of terrorism and the Irish terrorism to which he referred earlier.

Patrick Mercer: Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Spicer spoke earlier this week, and compared al-Qaeda to

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mercury. To borrow his words, if you strike mercury with a hammer, all it does is splinter and become more dangerous. The problem is tricky—we must make sure that we spread the word without aiding and abetting the terrorist's cause. His aim is to terrify. Any hon. Member who has spent time in Northern Ireland or lived there will understand how difficult it is to tread the tricky path between alerting people to danger and wrecking their quality of life, which is what the terrorist strives to achieve.

I should like to reflect on the forces available to deal with the threat, and shall speak up on behalf of the police. Police forces generally have done a wonderful job of deterring and detecting terrorists, as well as causing their attrition.

I make a plea for the handling and organisation of special branch. I appreciate that it is not the Minister's particular consideration, but I am sure that special branch would benefit from a regional organisation or possibly a national one. Currently its structure is extremely disparate and relies on the patronage of each chief constable. I should be grateful if the Minister would pass on my comments to the Home Office.

The fact remains that it has been announced that the police force will have extra policemen. Perhaps that is for street crime, for everyday detection of ordinary decent crime. However, there will be more policemen under arms, under truncheons and under helmets in the next few months and years.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Thanks to a Labour Government.

Patrick Mercer: I am interested in that comment. Thanks to any Government, one would hope in the circumstances, but credit where credit is due.

Mr. Jones: I am grateful to find a Conservative Member who recognises the valuable contribution that the Government have made to increasing police numbers. I suggest that he reinforce the message to the Leader of the Opposition.

Patrick Mercer: Again, I am grateful for the intervention. Nottingham has yet to see any extra policemen. In my constituency, police are being taken away from us to police the town of the hon. Gentleman's birth.

Mr. Jones: If the hon. Gentleman had been in the constituency in 1984, he would know that the then Conservative Government had no shortage of policemen in Nottingham.

Patrick Mercer: I shall move on.

The armed forces remain deeply stretched. I will not iterate all the eloquent points that have already been made. Currently, however, the armed forces are facing the possibility of having to handle firefighting, to operate an increased number of troops in Northern Ireland against an increased threat and to prepare for a putative war in Iraq. Why will the Government not grasp the nettle and say that there will be more men and women put under arms? Why will they not say about the armed forces what they are saying about the social

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services? We appear to have no difficulty in asking for more nurses, teachers, policemen or firemen. Yet never do we ask for more troops, sailors or airmen.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): Although the decision on whether action will be taken against Iraq must be taken within the next few weeks, I am worried because the Government have to make a choice: whether the firefighters will receive more money or whether the armed forces can be used in a conflict in Iraq. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely worrying for everybody that the armed forces are so finely and tightly stretched that such decisions have to be made at a time when there is no real threat of conflict, apart from one of our own making?

Patrick Mercer: I am not sure that I agree with everything that my hon. Friend says.

Having acted as a strikebreaker in 1977 during the last fire strike, I can assure the House that it was an exceedingly invidious duty. It turned firemen against soldiers and soldiers against firemen, from which the fire services and the armed forces are still trying to recover. I regret that. However, many Members have spoken about our reserve forces. Why should those forces not be used for firefighting duties? What is wrong with that? When we face all these challenges, why cannot our reserves be used for more active and vibrant jobs than at present? I am not criticising the excellent work that is done by the reservists and Territorials. For instance, intelligence cap badge units have been called up.

It is perfectly possible to recruit. Many Members will say that we cannot add more troops, more seamen and more airmen to the order of battle because we cannot recruit. The fact is that we can. It is entirely possible. At the risk of boring the Minister even more than I normally do, there are any number of techniques that have yet to be practised by the Army Training and Recruiting Agency to bring men and women under arms. The commanding officer of 1 Royal Tank Regiment has experimented in Liverpool with schemes that are wholly different from anything that is centrally directed. Ask that commanding officer where he has gone for expertise. The answer is not to the recruiting group. That said, I congratulate the Minister on the recent recruiting successes, I only wish that the training organisation were in a position to accept recruits into training in a rational and sensible fashion.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the success in recruiting regular soldiers. He will be aware that the recruitment of territorial soldiers has been less successful. Does he agree that one of the problems is that employers are increasingly unhappy about releasing soldiers for territorial duty?

Patrick Mercer: There are two points. First, if territorial duties were made more interesting, more exhilarating and more exciting, recruiting would be easier. Secondly, I believe that the Government are already trying hard to square the circle with employers. However, more needs to be done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) touched on the numbers of our special forces. I do not want to labour the point, as it is a

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sensitive matter, but our special forces are being overworked, in the same way as some of our specialist troops. I ask the Minister to examine carefully the selection process for our special forces, the use of special forces reserves, and the present level of overstretch that these precious resources are facing. I have no doubt that with a little more imagination and a few more shibboleths being knocked over, the Special Air Services and the Special Boat Squadron can be expanded considerably through recruitment, despite what some of their own members would say.

If the Minister wants any evidence—I know that he does not, as he keeps a close eye on the situation—he should look at the divorce rate. He should go into the centre of Hereford, as I know at least one other hon. Member frequently does, look at the number of SAS divorcees in that town, and see how many children no longer have fathers. We are putting enormous pressure on those gallant men—I use the word Xgallant" particularly in light of what is happening this week, when the conspicuous gallantry crosses, the military crosses, the George medals and the mention in dispatches will be bestowed upon those brave men by Her Majesty the Queen. The pressure being put on those gentlemen—I can use that word—is almost unbearable.

The challenge before the Government is to prepare the nation not just physically, but emotionally, for what lies ahead. I believe that a substantial attack on this country is inevitable. I hope very much that the casualties that we take are minimised. Perhaps the attack will not develop, but if it does, we must be ready for it, not just in muscle, but in mind.

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