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Labour’s description of Denmark and Belgium as ‘second rate’ powers criticised

British defence secretary Liam Fox tonight criticised "stupid and insensitive" comments by Labour's former security minister who branded Denmark and Belgium "second-rate" military powers.

Lord West made the "appalling" remarks about Britain's allies, both of which deployed to Afghanistan and Libya alongside UK forces, as he unveiled a report aimed at tackling delays and overspends in defence procurement.

The Labour peer and former First Sea Lord spoke of his "annoyance" at suggestions that Britain's military role was diminished in the 21st century.

He said: "This business of a second-tier power - we are probably, depending on what figures you use, the fifth or sixth wealthiest nation in the world.

"We have the largest percentage of our GDP on exports, apart from the tiny countries around the world, we run world shipping from the UK, we are the largest European investor in south Asia, south east Asia (and) the Pacific Rim, so our money and our wealth depends on this global scene.

"We are a permanent member of the (United Nations) Security Council and I think that gives us certain clout and certain ability.

"These mean we are not a second-tier power. We are not bloody Denmark or Belgium, and if we try to become that, I think we would be worse off as a result."

His comments came in a question and answer session with 100 defence industry experts and journalists at Labour headquarters in London as the party revealed the findings of a 10-month review into defence procurement, aimed at getting better value for money from buying equipment for the UK's armed forces.

According to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Denmark has 750 troops operating in the war-torn country and Belgium has 520.

Dr Fox tonight condemned the peer's remarks, saying: "I'm appalled to hear Labour's Lord West insulting Denmark and Belgium, both of whom have been operating alongside British forces in Libya.

"Forty-two Danes have lost their lives fighting alongside us in Helmand.

"Lord West's remarks are both stupid and insensitive."

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy, who sat next to the peer as he launched today's outburst, looked embarrassed, before saying: "Thanks Alan, and obviously for any friends from Belgium or Denmark, apologies.

"Or should I say 'former friends from Belgium or Denmark'?"

Lord West, previously Sir Alan West and the head of the Royal Navy from 2002 to 2006, sparked controversy in 2007 when he said in a radio interview he was not "totally convinced" of the need to hold terror suspects for 42 days.

At the time Labour was pushing for police to be given powers to detain such suspects for six weeks.

But two hours later, after meeting then prime minister Gordon Brown, Lord West reversed his opinion saying he was "convinced" of the requirement for such a power.

He explained the switch by saying: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well."