HC Deb 26 October 2001 vol 373 cc549-64

11 am

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The House will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is in Oman. Earlier this morning, he spoke to the officers and men of headquarters 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines serving in Oman as part of Exercise Saif Sareea 2. I shall inform the House of what he said to them, but first let me say a word or two about Exercise Saif Sareea 2.

The exercise in Oman is reaching its conclusion. Although a full assessment: has still to be undertaken, it is fair to say that the exercise has been remarkably successful. More than 21,500 service men and women have been involved, and I pay tribute to them. Their response to Exercise Saif Sareea was typical: for many, it was their first deployment in desert conditions, but they rose to the challenge and met the very high standards that we ask of them. Their skills, determination and professionalism place our armed forces among the very best in the world.

Exercise Saif Sareea 2 was the largest single deployment of British service personnel since the Gulf conflict. Our contribution to the exercise included a naval carrier task group, armoured and commando brigades, about 50 combat aircraft, and three of our four new C17 strategic lift aircraft. The exercise has demonstrated our close friendship with Oman and builds on the long-standing and wide-ranging defence relationship that we enjoy with that country.

We are extremely grateful to Oman for its generosity in hosting the exercise and for the tremendous co-operation at all levels that has developed between our respective armed forces. Force integration training has taken place between our respective navies and air forces and a joint live exercise comprising elements of our respective armies is now drawing to its conclusion. The exercise has proved to be an excellent opportunity to test both our personnel and our equipment in the realistic operational environment of the Omani desert.

By deploying, sustaining and exercising a joint taskforce of medium scale at considerable distance, we have demonstrated key elements of the joint rapid reaction forces concept. Moreover, we have demonstrated our ability to conduct joint and combined operations with a friendly nation in an area that is of key strategic importance. When we began planning Exercise Saif Sareea 2 some four years ago, we wanted to send a clear signal of our commitment to peace and stability in the region. I am sure that the whole House agrees that, through the dedication and skill of our armed forces, we have met that objective with enormous success.

There has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks—most of it ill-judged and unhelpful—about diverting our forces taking part in Exercise Saif Sareea 2 to conduct operations in and around Afghanistan. We did reassign two submarines from the exercise but, as I hope I made clear earlier, Saif Sareea 2 went ahead essentially as planned. With the end of the exercise in sight, the time has come to decide what force deployments offer the right balance of capabilities to enable us to continue to play a full part in the coalition's military operations. We have rightly made a commitment to our closest ally, the United States, to stand shoulder to shoulder with that nation, and we are determined to do just that.

The House will know that our armed forces have already made a major contribution to the coalition against international terrorism. When the House last debated this grave subject on 16 October, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence described our campaign aims. They remain as follows: to bring Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to justice; to prevent Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network from posing a continuing terrorist threat; and to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism.

At that time, my right hon. Friend also described the forces that we have deployed so far. They are considerable: three submarines and 10 specialized air-to-air refuelling and reconnaissance aircraft. The roles that those forces have played, both in attacking targets in Afghanistan and in providing vital support functions to coalition strike aircraft, remain crucial. So, too, does our decision to allow the United States to use our air base at Diego Garcia.

We must now look ahead to how else we can help in defeating international terrorism. Our current forces are primarily configured to assist in the coalition's air campaign. That campaign will continue and develop over time and so must the capabilities that we assign to it. We have therefore decided to create a large and rebalanced force in the region.

That force is a concrete demonstration of our resolve to see the campaign against international terrorism through to the end. We have said that we are in this for the long haul, and we mean it. The force has therefore been designed to ensure that we are well placed to deal with a wide range of contingencies and to maintain operational flexibility for as long as necessary. It also allows us to accommodate the inevitable changes in the tempo of our military operations.

As I am sure the House recognises, I cannot go into too much detail about how we envisage the new force operating, but as I have said, it will allow us to retain considerable operational flexibility and will greatly widen the scope for future operations. What I can do is describe the forces that we will reassign to Operation Veritas from Exercise Saif Sareea 2 when the exercise finishes next week.

Those forces will comprise the following: the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious, which will be re-equipped for helicopter operations; the assault ship HMS Fearless: a submarine presence able to launch Tomahawk missiles; the destroyer HMS Southampton; the frigate HMS Cornwall; seven Royal Fleet Auxiliaries—the RFAs Sir Tristram, Sir Percivale, Fort Victoria, Fort Rosalie, Bayleaf, Brambleleaf and Diligence; and four additional support aircraft consisting of Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and Hercules transport planes.

In addition, some 200 men of 40 Commando Royal Marines, based in Taunton, will be aboard HMS Fearless as the lead elements of an immediately available force to help support operations. The remainder of 40 Commando—about 400 men—will return to the United Kingdom, but will be held at a high readiness to return to the theatre should our operational needs make that necessary. That arrangement will also permit us to rotate companies aboard ship and so guarantee that the whole Commando remains fresh and fully prepared for operations. That powerful force totals some 4,200 personnel in theatre. It represents a major enhancement of the coalition's capabilities.

The threat from an enemy as evil and indiscriminate as international terrorism places everyone in danger. There is no question but that a response to the events of 11 September is necessary. However, we did not take the decision to deploy those forces lightly. No Government ever enter into military operations, with the attendant risks for our service men and women, without the most careful thought.

In the current case, we are especially conscious that the reinforcements are men and women who have already completed a long and demanding exercise, and they have long been separated from their families in this country. I know that that places a great strain on both our service personnel and their families. The knowledge that loved ones are deploying on operations can only increase the anxiety, concern and strain that the service families affected must feel. We will do whatever we can to ensure that those families have the support that they need at this time.

The House will recognise that the deployment of our armed forces is a grave step. We take it in the confident knowledge that by doing so we can depend upon them to make a difference. Our armed forces are special and we are deservedly proud of them. We ask a lot from them and they will not let us down.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I thank the Minister for his statement and his courtesy in supplying a copy in advance.

I fully understand why the Secretary of State cannot be here. His visit to Oman is extremely important and obviously his visit to Saif Sareea is appreciated. Let me first reaffirm the Opposition's support for the Government's continued resolve and determination to change the Taliban Government so that they cease to sustain terrorism, root out their al-Qaeda allies and bring Osama bin Laden to justice. To falter would send a fatal signal of encouragement to the terrorists and those who sustain them, not just in Afghanistan, but around the world.

The Government have taken a serious step. Nevertheless, it is merely a decision to maintain a range of military options. Will the Minister confirm that no decisions about large-scale operational deployments in Afghanistan have been made? Will the Government reassure the House that any such decisions to commit to ground operations in Afghanistan will be based on concrete intelligence and clear and achievable objectives, thereby enabling them to define and maintain clear operational aims?

Her Majesty's Opposition will not compromise the safety of our troops by inviting irresponsible speculation, but will the Minister comment on statements given to The New York Times by the Chief of the Defence Staff about the nature of the operation envisaged, which he said might extend to many weeks at a time?

The Secretary of State for International Development has referred to the possible creation of so-called safe areas to assist the aid effort in Afghanistan. If that is part of the plan, is the Minister aware of the aid agencies' concern about the militarisation of the aid programme and that we must therefore win them over on that point if the strategy is to succeed?

I also welcome the Minister's reassurance that the military personnel concerned will not be left in limbo for a lengthy period, thousands of miles from their families and long after they were due to go home. If the deployment proves to be lengthy, do we have the capacity to provide for leave and will replacement forces be available when needed?

What facilities will be provided for the personnel deployed so that they can have full and regular access to telephone and e-mail contact with their families? Will the Minister confirm that every effort will be made to keep their families fully informed ahead of any announcements in the press? He will be aware of how perplexing it is when it appears that the press knows far more than those whose lives are so directly affected. I understand that families have been contacted in advance of the statement, but it follows a lengthy period of speculation which must have been extremely difficult for them.

I congratulate members of the armed forces who have made Exercise Saif Sareea such a success. Does the Minister agree that there are lessons to be learned that are of particular relevance to the logistics of a possible troop deployment in Afghanistan, and that the exercise has, as he said, also proved both the UK's capability to deploy considerable military force over very long distances and, yet again, the sheer prowess and professionalism of our armed forces? We have faith in them. We admire and are proud of them. They deserve nothing less than the unreserved support of the House.

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments and his closing sentiments. He raised a number of questions, which I shall deal with in turn.

I can confirm that there has been no decision for a large-scale deployment. If there is a change to that, clearly it would be based on best intelligence and what benefits could flow from such a deployment. That is how we have tackled the range of decisions that we have had to take on the campaign as it has developed.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the comments by the Chief of the Defence Staff in an article in The New York Times. He was rightly pointing up the changing nature of the tempo of operations and that those operations could continue for weeks at a time or be brief action. I said in my opening statement that it would be inappropriate to go into any detail on that, and the Chief of the Defence Staff did not do so in his comments to The New York Times. He rightly pointed out the nature of the way in which operations are likely to develop.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the humanitarian problem and comments made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. There is no question but that the humanitarian problem is deep and difficult, especially for those in the area who seek to find answers and for those in the United Nations and the countries that seek to provide aid who work alongside them in the immediate area and elsewhere. The associated problem is the way in which the Taliban are frustrating so much of the movement of humanitarian aid through the country. We must ensure that there is a better environment into which to deliver the aid.

As I have made clear, the military objectives will continue. Those are the main objectives of the coalition and I have set out what we are seeking to achieve, but we are highly conscious of the importance of the humanitarian problem and the very scale of it.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about leaving the military in limbo. I can give him assurances on that. We shall do our best to replace troops, given the tempo of operations as they develop, which is why 400 commandos have been returned. They will be able periodically to replace those on board, which is part of the underlying principle.

The hon. Gentleman also raised a question relating to the full welfare package which will be applied. We have made a great deal of effort to try to improve that welfare package so that those out in theatre, whether on exercise or actively deployed, can remain in close communication with their families. However, there will be times when that is simply not possible. Therefore, there is an onus on commanding officers and those who provide welfare support back home to ensure that the families are aware of what is happening.

I share the hon. Gentleman's sentiments about unhelpful speculation. The Secretary of State, to whom I have spoken this morning, made the same point to me. The press and media speculate about the numbers going in and what they will do, but there seems to be an ignorance of the reality of what happens when such comments are made. They can impact adversely on the families back home. I wish that the media would remember what speculation in the television studios and in print means to those of whom we ask so much.

There are lessons to be learned from Saif Sareea 2. It was a major exercise and it is important to refer to it. Many lessons will be learned and we can build on what we have drawn from the exercise.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I, too, thank the Minister for his courtesy in sending me a copy of his statement in advance.

I returned from Oman in the early hours of yesterday morning and I join the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), and the Minister in paying tribute to our forces there. I can tell the House that they are in good order and aware of the tasks that may be required of them. They and their families will welcome this morning's announcement because it will give them an idea of what their immediate future holds, but I must tell the Minister that they have a number of serious concerns about their equipment and I want to raise those with him.

First, after visiting 3 Commando in the desert, I must tell the House that a number of its members are sadly suffering from trench foot, because they have not been issued with desert boots. They were told that they could buy some, but they would not be issued. Can the Minister give an assurance that if they find themselves going into action in Afghanistan and if they require additional kit and equipment, they will have access to that and it will be given to them?

Secondly, there remains a grave concern about the SA80 rifle. It is well known that it has a problem in dusty and in cold conditions. It may be that both are experienced in action. Given that the Army has acquired a number of modified SA80s, which we understand are better, will they be available to the forces if required?

Finally, there has been a great deal of concern about the use of cluster bombs in the campaign. Given that they can cause a danger not only to civilians but to our own forces, which may occupy areas where they have been used, can the Minister give an assurance that we shall not deploy cluster bombs? Can he assess whether it would be possible for the Americans to use an alternative weapon?

Mr. Ingram

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening comments. He raised a number of issues specifically on equipment. I will give him this assurance: if our troops are being actively deployed in Afghanistan, they will be given the equipment that they need to carry out any action that they take on our behalf. I shall not enter into debate about desert boots. I, too, was in Oman a few weeks ago and I received a slightly different message, so we have lessons to learn. His question deals with the specifics of that particular exercise, which is different from operational deployment.

On the SA80 rifle and the SA80 mark 2, a modified rifle that the hon. Gentleman understands is better, I give him an absolute assurance that the weapon has been tried and tested in all extreme conditions—not by politicians, but by soldiers. They give me the absolute assurance that it is a first-class rifle. It will be made available to those in the field; we have sufficient numbers to do so.

On cluster bombs, I remind the House that this is a military campaign. Cluster bombs are part of the targeting approach being adopted by the coalition forces. The United States is dropping material that contains submunitions. They are targeted specifically: the particular weapons being used are optimised for use against armour and vehicles, usually in very concentrated numbers. That is the purpose. There is a threat on the ground, and that is how it has been judged best to tackle that.

I understand the sensitivity of the matter, but I again remind all right hon. and hon. Members that this is a military campaign. We are seeking to achieve a military objective. I know that people keep saying it, but we must never forget what happened on 11 September and what could have happened on that day: many more people—tens of thousands—could have lost their lives. The intent of that particular terrorist organisation is to carry forward their attacks on our people.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

My right hon. Friend is right to say that the deployment of British troops at any time is a grave step. Therefore, the House should reflect that and be in a sombre mood.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his statement has the massive support of my constituents in Middlesbrough, of the people of Teesside and of the people in our country, and that the Government's approach and determination to eradicate and eliminate global-reach, state-sponsored terrorism is right and proper? Is it not right to communicate that majority view, that massive view, in our country to those in our armed forces who are serving now and who may serve in future? Although there may be dissident and siren voices who are entitled to be heard, they should be washed out in the clamour of support for our armed services.

Mr. Ingram

I know that my hon. Friend will accept that I deeply hold the sentiments that he has expressed, and I have expressed them over recent days. It is a grave step to deploy our armed forces, whether for this country alone or as part of a coalition.

There is massive support within this country and internationally for our objectives. Everyone has realised the enormity of what we are facing. If some have not understood that, they should just examine what happened on 11 September and what flows from that. There is a need for all of us who recognise the very valuable role played by our armed forces to keep repeating that point, not just for those who are on the front line and who may be asked to make the ultimate sacrifice, but for the families in and around the areas from where the troops are deployed. They need our support; they need our genuine comfort at this time. That is why I mentioned in my statement the need to ensure that we give maximum support to families, too.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

While we all welcome the Minister's statement, does he agree that what he has announced is nothing more than a rebalancing of an existing force, when most of us had hoped that he might be coming to the House to announce a significant stepping-up in the tempo of operations and, indeed, the deployment of forces on the ground?

What has happened to HMS Ocean, the new commando carrier, which one would have expected to play a significant role? Why is it necessary to convert HMS Illustrious to a helicopter-carrying as well as Harrier-carrying ship? What possible military use could 200 men in a lead force in HMS Fearless be when the main component of the Commando is back at its home base? While I see that it is more desirable to keep troops on a long lead than a short lead, surely that is not evidence of any great desire to step up the campaign, which is what needs to be done.

Mr. Ingram

I do not want to start trading operational decision-making processes. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has considerable knowledge from both his military background and his time in the Ministry of Defence. I am sure that he will recognise that the tempo of demand can rise and fall. It is probably different from anything that we have ever faced before—what has happened in other theatres does not necessarily apply in this theatre. It is why the Chief of the Defence Staff has talked about the varying nature of the type of action that we could take and why I mention the probability of the tempo rising and falling as needs demand.

There are no plans to put large-scale troops on the ground at the present time. That is a military judgment. Obviously, that is in line with any political objectives we may also have, but these matters have to be carefully balanced.

The hon. Gentleman asked about HMS Ocean. That ship is coming back for refit, which is why it has not been retained in theatre. [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman wants to write to me about the matter, we can get all the details to him. We do not need to get into a squabble about a particular ship. We have put a very large component of ships in the area, and we believe that that will meet our needs.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the 200 men and the total complement. I have explained that those returning home would be available for immediate deployment if the tempo increased sufficiently to require their presence there. Indeed, that will apply to any other resources we need to put into theatre if needs change.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In his opening statement, my right hon. Friend stressed our friendship with the Government of Oman. Would he care to speculate on why it appears that the Government of Oman are not prepared to allow their territory to be used as a base for operations in Afghanistan?

My right hon. Friend says that we should be conscious of certain things. I ask whether Ministers are conscious of the fact that, on Saturday 17 November, Ramadan begins. Do we have the clear, categorical assurance that there will be no military action during Ramadan? It would be absolute folly in terms of the Islamic and Arab world if we were to conduct military operations during Ramadan.

My right hon. Friend comes back on bin Laden. May it not be, as the BBC World Service seminar, which a number of us attended, suggested, that bin Laden is an elusive venture capitalist of fundamentalist beliefs? If that is the case, what about the intelligence work that should be done in Germany, Britain and America? There are a lot of people who think that the atrocity in Washington and New York was honed and finalised not in Afghanistan, but rather nearer home.

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend raised a number of questions. I shall not speculate on our relationship with Oman, because I have already set out our very close relationship with it, and I do not recognise the way in which he presented the matter.

On Ramadan, my direct answer is no, I will not state what my hon. Friend is asking. The military campaign will continue. On the nature of bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organisation, I am surprised that my hon. Friend asked that question because we have made it clear that every effort is being made to close the economic and financial aspects of that particular organisation.

To undermine an organisation's ability to raise money and use it for nefarious ends is an effective way to deal with terrorism. Every effort is being made in this country and internationally to use the best intelligence available, not just in terms of military intelligence, but also that connected with the financial institutions, to close down that aspect of the terrorist network.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

May I say to the Minster that I am sure that all right-thinking people will wish success to our armed forces in this most challenging and crucial enterprise on behalf of our freedom and our ultimate democracy? It is much better to employ more troops quickly now than to have a build up later because the mission has not been accomplished as swiftly or as successfully as desired. I hope that he is also bearing in mind the crucial importance of Pakistan's interests. This operation should therefore be concluded by the winter and a relief and reconstruction programme undertaken in Afghanistan to accompany our military operations.

Mr. Ingram

I cannot agree or accept what the hon. Gentleman has said about the nature of the deployment of troops and their use. We say consistently that we have taken the best advice on this and we can get no better advice than that from the chiefs of the defence staff. I would rather accept their judgment than the expression set out by the hon. Gentleman. He is right, however, about our overall objectives in Afghanistan: it is not about the destruction of that country, but about its reconstruction. That remains one of our objectives, not just from a UK or coalition perspective, but from the perspective of the international community. That is why the UN is putting in so much effort to achieve that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

We are all concerned about the well-being of our forces. Does the greater deployment of our troops mean that bombing may not be as necessary as it was previously and that it might now be limited to the protection of those troops?

Mr. Ingram

I will not set out in detail our future intentions in that respect. I said in my statement that the bombing campaign would continue, that it would be proportionate, targeted and for the specific purposes laid down to achieve the military objectives that we have been discussing this morning. My hon. Friend should take on board that we should not be setting out in detail the nature of this operation. The bombing has achieved major objectives, but if there are still targets required to be taken out by such a bombing campaign that will also be our objective.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Defence returned yesterday from a two-day visit to Operation Saif Sareea. I hope that he has already heard that we were hugely impressed, as he was, by the success of that operation, particularly the close working relationship between Oman and United Kingdom forces, which has undoubtedly done much to strengthen the ties between our two countries.

While it is unfortunate that certain deficiencies in our forces have already been exposed by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch)—and I do not believe that to be helpful to our forces—if we are to be engaged in operations in Afghanistan, it is important that any deficiency in spares must be remedied at the earliest opportunity. In the light of the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), can he tell the House whether the Government have plans to bring other units to a state of high readiness and not just a small contingent of commandos?

Mr. Ingram

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the valuable lessons that we have learned from Saif Sareea 2. He rightly drew attention to the close relationship between this country and Oman. It is a long and deep relationship and we benefit greatly from it. As for any deficiencies in spares, I do not know specifically what he is referring to, but clearly if we go into operational mode we have to make sure that our troops have the best equipment we can give them and that there are no deficiencies anywhere. I hope that that will assist the hon. Gentleman in understanding that we are learning lessons and making progress. I do not want to speculate on the deployment of other troops, but we have a wide range of troops available in a state of high readiness. That is the purpose of the training and deployment cycle that we apply, so if there is a requirement, we can meet it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Can the Minister take us a bit further in describing the exact military and political objectives of this operation? Are they to occupy Afghanistan and impose a new Government or are they merely concentrated on an attempt to find bin Laden and his group and then withdraw? What immediate assistance will be given by this increased troop deployment to ensure that food and aid gets through to people who are desperately hungry and starving and that those refugees who are currently trapped behind barbed wire entanglements, unable to escape into Pakistan, will be given some relief? Does he not think that such matters are equally important?

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend does not have a monopoly on compassion or concern about humanitarian aid. If he has not understood our military objectives after all the weeks of discussion, I really am surprised. Let me set them out again. They are to bring Osama bin Laden and the other al-Qaeda leaders to justice. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees with that. They are to prevent Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network from posing a continuing terrorist threat. I hope that he agrees with that. They are to ensure that Afghanistan ceases to harbour and sustain international terrorism. I hope that he agrees with that. I also hope that he will give full credit to all the efforts that have been made by this and other Governments in trying to deal with the difficult and deep humanitarian problems in Afghanistan. He should point the finger at those who are causing the problem. International Governments are seeking to pour in millions of pounds in aid—tonnes of food and supplies—and the Taliban are frustrating our objectives in that as well. I would like to hear my hon. Friend criticising those who are stopping aid getting through rather than the Governments who are delivering it.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

I thank the Minister for the advance copy of his statement. Can he confirm that a sizeable proportion of the deployment is made up of Scottish service personnel? Does he agree that service men, service women and their families receive a high level of support across Scotland, including that from the Scottish National party? What plans, if any, are there for the deployed troops to assist in the humanitarian effort to help the millions of displaced and starving Afghans, as there was no mention of the humanitarian dimension in his statement?

Mr. Ingram

I do not think that we should set out the nationalities or the particular towns and villages from which each of the troops come. To be honest, that was rather a silly point. They are representing the United Kingdom as part of a coalition and if the hon. Gentleman is supporting its objective, I welcome the support of the SNP, mindful of its policy position on NATO and elsewhere.

I have mentioned the humanitarian effort and its objectives in my responses. I had anticipated that the subject would be raised. Every effort is being made to move forward on the humanitarian front. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development made a major statement in the House the other day. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present. If he was, he will be aware of the totality of the operation. I hope that he takes on board my point about who is frustrating that effort and joins me, the Government and others who are trying to make progress on that front.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

Does the Minister accept that he need not fret overmuch about the niggling from a tiny minority of Labour Back Benchers when, as the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) pointed out, the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry have the absolute, wholehearted support of the majority of the House and undoubtedly of the nation? He referred earlier to the Government's concerns about some of the speculation in the media. I think that what will concern many hon. Members is the effect upon the families of those who are deployed when particularly television producers get a quick thrill from shots that do not help the objectives of the alliance and most certainly worry those at home. Service families understand the risks that their family members face, but it does not follow that they are any less concerned about them.

Will the Government therefore take the opportunity not to bully the news media, but to point out to them frankly but firmly that their actions are watched by those who consider themselves to be the enemies of this nation, jeopardise the armed forces who are deployed on our behalf and most certainly worry and indeed frighten their loved ones who are left back at home?

Mr. Ingram

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I do not worry about niggles from any source, whether they are from the Government Back Benches or elsewhere. The Government genuinely welcome debate. I think that it is right in a democracy that people should express all the dimensions that we need to examine, and that that should be done in an open, honest and upfront manner. There is, however, a purpose to debate which is usually to reach a conclusion. When the issues have been examined, they have then to be weighed in the balance. As I said, I ask those who continue to raise some of those issues to question their own judgment, as they have asked us to do. The Government question our own judgment, and they should question theirs.

I do not think that we are guilty of bullying the press; if we were, I think that there would be screaming from the high heavens about it. Nevertheless, I take on board and echo the sentiments that the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) has expressed about the weight that may be imparted to some comments and about the uncertainty and destabilisation that those comments can cause in the minds not only of those who are on the front lines but of their families. We owe it to everyone at this time to try to be as accurate as possible in imparting information. That is what we are seeking to do in this statement, and what we shall seek to do in further debates and examination as we move forward in this campaign.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

May I may draw my right hon. Friend's attention to yesterday's edition of the Arab language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat which reports that five British fundamentalists were killed at an al-Qaeda base? They were recruited by al-Muhajiroun in the United Kingdom, and, four weeks ago, one of them, Muhammed Omar, travelled to join bin Laden. Is it not about time that we clamped down on the activities of al-Muhajiroun, which is recruiting British Muslims in that way, and of Omar Bakri Muhammad, both to save the lives of those British Muslims and to prevent them from being a threat to British troops who may still be fighting there?

Mr. Ingram

I compliment my hon. Friend on his very close interest in that very detailed sphere of interest.

I know that he studies that aspect of the subject, and he makes very valuable contributions to our understanding of it. It would be wrong for me to comment on press speculation regardless of whether it appears in the foreign press or the domestic press. If there is intelligence to be gathered on what is happening on the ground, it is usually imparted in an open and upfront manner and not as speculation.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) is aware of the Government's efforts specifically to tackle the threat posed by individuals who are part of the al-Qaeda network or any other international terrorist network that is linked to it. Of course that threat resides not only within the United Kingdom but is an international problem. That is why we sometimes need an international response to that threat.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park)

So far the Minister has given very sketchy answers indeed to questions on humanitarian aid, which was not mentioned at all in his statement. He will remember that 5 million people are at risk of starvation over the winter in Afghanistan. Does he have any plans at all for the military to assist in the delivery of aid, either by changing the nature of the bombing or forming safe corridors for the aid workers?

Mr. Ingram

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), no monopoly of compassion on the issue rests on either the Opposition or Government Benches. I think that we all understand the need to drive forward on the issue. I therefore ask the hon. Lady to do what I have asked others to do: weigh the issues in the balance and then consider whether there is a purpose to the military objective. She has to make that judgment herself. I hope that she will realise that there is such a purpose. If we achieve our objectives, we shall remove not only that organisation and network from Afghanistan but the threat that it poses internationally.

My statement did not address the humanitarian issue because it was not designed for that purpose. We had a major statement only the other day from the Secretary of State for International Development on the issue. If the hon. Lady is trying to imply that the Government are not concerned about that issue, I do not think that she is living in the same world as I am. I anticipated that I would have to respond on the issue, and I have tried in all my replies to do so very specifically, not in a sketchy manner, and to express the depth of the problem that we are dealing with.

We cannot deliver humanitarian aid at the point of a bayonet; that is not the way in which it will be delivered. It has to be delivered using a range of humanitarian efforts, not only from the United Kingdom but from the international community. We are trying to create a stable and benign environment in Afghanistan. That is one of the objectives of the military campaign, and achieving it will enable humanitarian aid to flow through the country freely and without hindrance from the Taliban regime.

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 matters—on detailed operational activities, or to confirm or deny the presence and actions of special forces—on 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. Members—particularly those who, like me, come from constituencies containing armed services personnel and families who are in the active arena—keeping 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 kept fully advised and appraised, not just about current issues, but about the wide range of important tasks that we ask our armed forces to perform.

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 heroes—he constantly sings the praises of the RAF. They do a tremendous job, which sometimes puts them at risk—not 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 much—we 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. John Grogan (Selby)

Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that some of our NATO and Commonwealth allies might deploy forces alongside ours and those of the Americans?

Mr. Ingram

That is an important point. The coalition is increasingly international—not 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. David Cameron (Witney)

I welcome the Minister's statement. Will he join me in paying tribute to the crews of the C17s, Tristars and VC1Os based at Brize Norton in my constituency, who play such a vital role in air-to-air refuelling and transport? They provide the lifeblood of operations such as those on which we are about to embark. Can the Minister bring the House up to date about the prospect of serious contributions in the form of troops and material from other NATO and European countries?

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 net—privately—to 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 come into the international coalition, the more they bring their resources into play, and the totality of the intelligence grows as a consequence. It is not just in terms of troops and equipment that countries can assist us. Many countries have very good knowledge of certain aspects of that part of the world, and they can assist us in that way as well.

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?

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that touches on some of the concerns that have been raised about press speculation, to which I referred as well.

We put a tremendous amount of effort into communicating with families. In advance of the statement, a signal was sent to all the forces which will remain deployed. Families were advised in advance or at the same time as the House. We are very conscious of the importance of that. If there were to be any change, the same rules would apply. It is important to communicate with local Members so that they are fully aware as well and not caught offside by any press comment. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

I will meet the commitment to ensure that families are as best served as possible and provided with as much knowledge, as much in advance as possible, as we can give them.