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Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I strongly endorse the plea that the Minister has been giving to the mass media to show restrain in what they publish at this delicate time, particularly in relation to speculation on what might happen in the employment of special forces. Surely the media should bear in mind that even a newspaper published in London is now accessible worldwide on the internet, and that bin Laden has not been slow to use western technology against the west.
Does the Minister agree, however, that the media have performed a very important role in alerting society as a whole to the nature of the threat that we face by making it clear to world opinion that the horrors we face cannot go unanswered, and by warning us even today that if the Government and our American allies are not successful in our campaign we may even face the threat of nuclear terrorism from bin Laden and his terrible organisation?
Mr. Ingram: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those comments. I think that he is right to say that the media should show restraint and that, equally, they have an important role to play in bringing into the open the enormity of what we face. We are not only dealing with 11 September, as the network's probable intent is to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. The Prime Minister has made it clear that if the network did get its hands on such material its intent would become very clear. I think that the media are able to get that point across, bolstering all the action that we are taking to tackle the menace and evil that currently exist within Afghanistan.
We hold almost daily briefings either in the United Kingdom or in the United States to set out the various developments. This statement is an addition to that process. There is no paucity of information although, for very good reasons, there are some matterson detailed operational activities, or to confirm or deny the presence and actions of special forceson which we will not comment.
Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): My right hon. Friend has referred on a number of occasions to the very special regard in which we hold our armed services. They are of course even more special to their families. I hope that he will agree that, although I note his remarks about being open and transparent in our debate, we should be measured and careful to base our comments on as much factual information as possible. His door and telephone line have always been open to me on a range of defence issues. Will he confirm that he will always be available to hon. Members on those issues? Will he also say something about the importance that he attaches to hon. Membersparticularly those who, like me, come from constituencies containing armed services personnel and families who are in the active arenakeeping him in touch with the concerns of those personnel and families?
Mr. Ingram: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those words. She is right about the special regard in which our armed forces are held, probably even more so as a result of what they are being asked to do. We must be measured and careful in what we say in our debates. My hon. Friend is right about that, too. I am sure that all hon. Members recognise that when they raise issues with the Ministry of Defence, whether through me as the Armed Forces Minister, or with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State as regards his responsibilities, or my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, we try to be as open and as helpful as we can be. We do not operate a closed-door policy. We recognise that many hon. Members have a key interest in these matters, and even those who do not have armed forces personnel in their area may still have an interest. We want to make sure that hon. Members are
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the crews of the Canberras flying out of RAF Marham, who, day in, day out, fly over the target areas in Afghanistan? Often they are the unsung heroes of the campaign. As the deployment will clearly put financial strain on the Ministry of Defence budget, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is vital that when the conflict is over, all our armed forces receive the funding that they deserve?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is trying to widen the debate a little. There will in due course be debates on the wider issues of the armed forces and no doubt he will express his views then, but I hope that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has heard his comments. With regard to the Canberra crews, my father served in the RAF and he does not think that they are unsung heroeshe constantly sings the praises of the RAF. They do a tremendous job, which sometimes puts them at risknot just those in the Canberras, but elsewhere. That applies to all our people, in whichever part of the operational activity they are involved. I fully recognise the very valuable work done by the Canberra crews and the important information that they bring back from those flights.
Bob Spink (Castle Point): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that there is widespread support for his objectives in the campaign and for the deployment of troops on the ground, and that we all send our hopes and prayers with those troops? But does he agree with the adage that a stitch in time can save nine? Will he get on with the job, get the troops in place and finish the job on this occasion? Will he confirm that one of the key rules of engagement in the campaign will remain minimising the risk to civilians?
Mr. Ingram: We are getting on with the job. That is what the announcement is about this morning. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of all the other efforts designed to achieve our wide-ranging objectives. I accept his remarks about the wide support for those. He need not worry too muchwe are getting on with the job. Generals in this place do not match up to the generals, admirals and others who give me advice.
Mr. Ingram: That is an important point. The coalition is increasingly internationalnot just US-led, with substantial UK support. Right across the international community, countries are offering a wide range of support to achieve our objectives. The threat and the problem are international, so the solution must be international as well.
Mr. Ingram: On the last point, about 90 countries are currently considering the resources and assets that they could bring into play to assist the coalition of forces. That is considerable. It would be wrong to go into detail. It is for those countries to set out what they are offering. Some has been offered on a close netprivatelyto the US, which must consider whether the offers would be beneficial. I could list a wide range of countries, but it would be wrong to do so, because the minute one lists some countries, one forgets others. The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that about 90 countries are part of the coalition. I pay tribute to the crews of the aircraft to which he referred. My earlier comments stand. If I had not paid tribute to the RAF, my father would have been very unhappy.
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): The Minister mentioned that the deployment would be carried out on the basis of best intelligence. There have been various newspaper reports over recent days analysing the US Rangers' raids. It has been alleged that not only was resistance by the enemy fiercer than expected, but that, perhaps more worryingly, the intelligence that went into those operations was not up to scratch. Although I do not expect the Minister directly to discuss the intelligence reports, will he comment on whether what he describes as "best intelligence" is adequate intelligence for the purpose, now that our troops are potentially going into action?
Mr. Ingram: The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall not discuss press allegations. When I use the phrase "best intelligence", I mean just that. It is more than adequate. We have put a great deal of effort into it, but there is no such thing as perfect intelligence. The more countries
Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): In his statement, the Minister mentioned press speculation. Much of that centred on 45 Commando based in my constituency, owing to the acknowledged expertise of its members in winter warfare and experience in humanitarian relief efforts. That has caused a great deal of anxiety and concern among service families in my constituency. Although I appreciate that operational decisions must be made quickly, may I have the Minister's assurance that if there is any change in the troops to be deployed in the operation, particularly if any members of 45 Commando are to be deployed, he will keep the families informed and tell them as soon as possible that that will happen? Will he inform the House or advise all hon. Members who have bases in their constituencies of any such changes, so that we may be fully and quickly appraised of changes in troop deployments affecting our constituencies?