In a major speech on defence, Aldershot MP Gerald Howarth has told the House of Commons that British armed forces are over-stretched. Mr Howarth, who is Shadow Defence Minister, said that despite this, the Government had frozen recruitment.

"Our armed forces are over-stretched. I find it inexplicable that the Government should freeze recruitment at a time when we are 5,000 soldiers under strength.

"We have not heard an adequate explanation, but we think we know the truth, which is that the Government are not funding the Army Training and Recruiting Agency to the extent that they should."

He said the British had: "The most professional forces in the world. They have never let us down. Their worry is that they may be stretched to such a point that, one day, they may not be able to deliver…"

He also referred to the danger of Islamic extremists living in the country attacking military "soft targets" in Britain to harass and demoralise us.

And he pointed to a lack of toxicologists in Britain. He said he was told that there were only "six whole time equivalents", the formula used by the health service.

"We need the assurance that we have the requisite skills to identify and deal with possible chemical attacks on the people of this country," he said.

Referring to homeland defence, he said: "It is crucial that we have sufficient protection at home, particularly in the event of hostilities in Iraq.

"It is clear that the contingency reserve reaction forces are not yet up and running, and are not intended to be until the end of March at the earliest."

Turning to North Korea, he said that the Communist government there had a missile system capable of flying 4,000 miles. "The Taepo-Dong II missile could reach the United Kingdom, and we need to do something about it," he said.