Madam Speaker : I regret to have to inform the House of the death of Stephen David Wyatt Milligan, esquire, Member for Eastleigh, and I desire, on behalf of the House, to express our sense of the loss we have sustained and our sympathy with the relatives of the hon. Member.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind) : The NATO summit successfully set the agenda for the alliance to meet the challenge of enhancing European stability. Alliance leaders launched a partnership for peace in which the emerging democracies of eastern Europe will be able to develop a deeper relationship with the alliance through practical military and political co-operation.
Mr. Ainsworth : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that encouraging answer. Would he care to comment on the recent trilateral meeting with France and Germany which took place in London? Does he agree that that may well help Britain to play a leading role in the emerging European security and defence initiative?
Mr. Rifkind : My recent meetings with my French and German colleagues provided a useful opportunity for informal exchanges of views about a wide range of issues. Perhaps the most interesting information that was shared at the meeting was the decision that the French Government have reached to join the military committee of NATO, in which they have not fully participated since the days of General De Gaulle. They also expressed an intention to participate in informal meetings of Defence Ministers. We welcome that closer association of France with the workings of the alliance, as it is especially important that the views of the French should be available when subjects such as peacekeeping, partnership for peace, counterproliferation and other matters of that type are being discussed.
Mr. Rifkind : They are obviously separate alliances, but it is assumed that, as countries move towards membership of the European Union, if they also wish to consider a closer association with NATO the two would naturally seem to go together, as would involvement in the Western European Union. It is obviously better that there is common membership so far as possible, but that will depend on the pace of progress, not only for the European Union but for other matters relating to military integration.
Mr. John Marshall : Do the NATO leaders recognise that there will never be a negotiated peace in the former Yugoslavia so long as there is a huge imbalance in firepower there, and is that not an irrefutable reason for lifting the arms embargo so that the Bosnian Muslims can have a chance to defend themselves?
Mr. Rifkind : It has been the policy of the United Nations for many years, not only in relation to the former republic of Yugoslavia, that when wars take place it would be inappropriate for the United Nations to take sides in a conflict of that type or to encourage the supply of arms to any of the combatants.
Mr. Menzies Campbell : One of the most welcome results of the NATO summit was the commitment to open Tuzla airport, which would greatly enhance the credibility of the United Nations and greatly assist the humanitarian effort in central Bosnia. What steps have the Government taken, either on their own or with their NATO allies, to implement that commitment? Is it understood that for Tuzla airport to be opened and kept open will require not only air power but the deployment of forces on the ground, possibly up to brigade strength?
Mr. Rifkind : Two decisions were taken at the NATO summit. One decision was to ensure the relief of Srebrenica, where it has not been possible for the Canadians to be relieved by other UNPROFOR forces. The second decision was to call for an urgent study of ways of opening Tuzla airport. The Dutch have now sent an advance party into Srebrenica and it is believed that the relief operation will be completed during this month. We obviously still need to study the results of the further work that has been commissioned with regard to the opening of Tuzla airport.
Mr. Rifkind : There are at present some 2,300 troops serving on the ground in former Yugoslavia, of which some 1,500 are based in Bosnia- Herzegovina supported by the remaining 800 in Croatia. I returned this morning from a visit to Bosnia, including Sarajevo, where I have seen personnel of all three services hard at work in the former Yugoslavia as well as the Adriatic and Italy. It is clear from my own experience that, despite the difficult and
Column 127dangerous conditions in which they operate, our forces continue to make a vital contribution to UNPROFOR in the performance of its humanitarian mission.
Dr. Spink : In the light of his recent visit to Bosnia, will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in paying tribute to all the British forces with the United Nations for their courage and skill in delivering the humanitarian aid that has probably saved about half a million lives in Bosnia and is certainly protecting thousands of lives now? Is he aware that senior officers in Bosnia are fully satisfied with the current scope of their operations, and will he refrain from taking any action in the short term which, although it might give instant gratification, would, in the longer term put at greater risk the people of Bosnia, the United Nations and British troops?
Mr. Rifkind : I warmly endorse my hon. Friend's tribute to the work of the British and other United Nations forces. He is right to say that that has a crucial impact on the saving of lives. The Bosnian Prime Minister, whom I saw in Sarajevo two days ago, stressed that without that humanitarian aid the people of Sarajevo would have starved over the past year. It is, therefore, important that in any new initiative being considered we continue to attach the highest importance to the United Nations being able to meet the crucial humanitarian requirements of the people of Bosnia, not only in Sarajevo but elsewhere in that country.
Mr. Mullin : Air strikes alone will achieve nothing in Bosnia. They will have to be matched by a commitment of ground forces if anything is to change. To pretend otherwise is just a gimmick, so why are those who were so keen to commit ground forces in the Gulf to reinstate the tyranny in Kuwait not at all enthusiastic about doing so in what would be a much better cause?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman's suggestion goes against all military advice and military common sense. The fundamental distinction between Bosnia and both the Falklands and the Gulf is that the latter territories had been invaded by foreign armies, so when all other means had been exhausted it was possible to expel the aggressor by military means and send him back where he came from--from the Falklands to Argentina, and from Kuwait to Iraq. As the hon. Gentleman must be aware, the vast majority of the people involved in the fighting in Bosnia are themselves Bosnians, whether they be Serbs, Croats or Muslims, and have shared the same villages and communities. Therefore, whichever community they come from, there is no way in which an external army could expel them from their own country.
Mr. Jacques Arnold : Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind that those most keen to be first in, such as the Front-Bench spokesmen of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, are often also first out, as was seen during the Falklands crisis? If we were to intervene militarily it would be at the expense of our relief work in Bosnia and we should run the risk of becoming bogged down in the Balkans--something which successive British Governments have avoided for a century.
Mr. Rifkind : It is certainly true that any initiative under consideration at present, or that may be advocated by anyone with an interest in such matters, should fulfil two requirements : it must be consistent with the need to show
Column 128political leadership and political will, but that political will and leadership must be rooted in sound military judgment. If it is not so rooted, it will be a cruel deception on the people for whom it is designed. It is, therefore, essential that both those criteria be satisfied before any new initiative is taken.
internationalise Sarajevo, making it a true safe area? Will the Government join in an ultimatum to the Serbs to the effect that if they do not accede to that request they must face the consequences of air strikes?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman knows that these matters are currently being considered by the United Nations. Of course, we all share his reaction to the atrocity in Sarajevo on Saturday : it was an act of pure terrorism against women and children and must be seen in that light. What we must now consider is whether action that might be taken can meet our various objectives : the continuation of aid, which most people accept as being highly desirable ; the need to try to influence the behaviour, particularly of the Serbs but also of other factions, with regard to the commitment of military and other atrocities ; and our obligation as a national Government in the protection of our own forces, who are already doing a very difficult task in Bosnia. I hope that the whole House will agree that it would be unwise to follow any initiative that would put in jeopardy those other requirements.
Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith : Is it not significant that the recently appointed American Secretary of State for Defence has said that, when considering air strikes, attention should be paid to the fact that the 22,000 lightly armed United Nations troops on the ground are surrounded by 200,000 combatants who are capable not only of fighting a war but of winning it? In those circumstances, does my right hon. and learned Friend welcome the new realism of the American Government? Will he give an assurance that that sense of realism will prevail and that if the Americans wish to contribute more to the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia they are welcome to do so?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the views of Mr. William Perry, the new American Defence Secretary, whom I met in Germany on Saturday. As my hon. Friend indicated, Mr. Perry confirmed that it was his view that all countries must take account of the need to ensure the safety of United Nations forces currently in Bosnia, and that it was important, before any conclusions were reached, to take into account the advice of the military commanders in Bosnia, who clearly have an awesome responsibility which must be an important factor in the considerations currently under way in the United Nations and elsewhere.
Column 129housing associations and the Housing Corporation to ensure that service leavers have access to low-cost housing.
Mr. Miller : I am sure that the Minister will accept that the recent £150 million cut in local authority credit approvals and the £334 million cut in housing association capital expenditure will inevitably lead to a reduction in affordable housing. I am sure that the Minister will also accept that the Ministry of Defence has some 15 per cent. of void properties, while the figure for local authorities is currently 1.9 per cent. Is that the way to treat people who have risked their lives in the interests of the country when their pay and conditions are being cut?
Mr. Hanley : On the hon. Gentleman's first point, the Housing Corporation has suffered funding restraints for 1994-95. That will mean a reduction in the availability of some low-cost opportunities ; I do not deny that. The joint service housing advice office does a tremendous amount of work in providing housing for people leaving the armed forces. There is a wide range of attractive schemes. Nomination rights have been worked out recently with a number of local councils, including Portsmouth, Chatham, Shrewsbury, Bristol, Plymouth and Doncaster, and negotiations are under way in East Anglia and Berkshire. The authorities have provided 925 housing units, which have been returned to the associations in exchange for 469 nomination places. There is also a do-it-yourself shared ownership scheme. A recent survey of those leaving the armed forces showed that nearly 80 per cent. intend to own their own homes, and we are helping with low-cost solutions to that, too.
Mr. Viggers : Is my hon. Friend aware that when service men leave the armed forces prematurely or when there is a divorce, there is a tendency for the family to apply to the local authority where they are currently based? That places an intolerable burden on garrison towns such as Gosport, which I represent. Will my hon. Friend ask the Department of the Environment to review the circular in which it asks local authorities to give priority to service personnel even if they originally come from other local authority areas? That would relieve the pressure on garrison towns.
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is right. There is, of course, additional pressure on garrison towns. That is why most of our initiatives are centred in garrison towns. I will willingly draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State who is looking at the matter closely. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) mentioned that a number of houses are left unoccupied by the armed forces. It is right to stress that we have pressures in the armed forces which are not present in district and local councils, inasmuch as we need to have housing that is not only refurbished, but available for occupation at short notice--possibly by large numbers of people. However, we try to keep the number of empty homes down to a minimum and we have sold many in the past year.
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Jonathan Aitken) : We shall continue to ensure that our forces are well trained and well equipped for present and future United Nations operations. Britain's armed services are already regarded as one of the finest peacekeeping forces in the world.
Mr. Connarty : At a time when there is talk in the European Union of air strikes and when France is talking about possibly pulling out if something is not done, does the Minister accept that there is a suspicion that it is the overstretch in the British armed forces that is making them unable as well as unwilling to commit other troops? Does he accept that it is difficult for United Nations staff to draw up contingency plans when member states such as the United Kingdom will not identify troops that will be available? When will he reply to the letter from NATO asking the Government what troops they are willing to commit to a peace initiative in Bosnia?
Mr. Colvin : How many of our Territorial Army units are currently involved in United Nations peacekeeping operations? Does the Minister agree that if we are to fulfil role 3, as set out in the defence White Paper, it is important that our Territorial Army becomes the first line of reserve in the British Army, rather than the last as at present? Will my hon. Friend bear that in mind when he considers his response to the current consultation document, "The Future of Britain's Reserve Forces"?
Mr. Aitken : No territorial units are involved in United Nations operations at present, although individuals from the Territorial Army are involved. My hon. Friend's more general point is currently under active consideration.
Dr. David Clark : Bearing in mind that air strikes alone, without the use of ground troops, have never resolved a war, does the Minister recall the United Nations Secretary-General calling last June for an extra 7,500 troops for Bosnia, of which only 2,800 have materialised? Is the reason why no United Kingdom troops were offered the fact that none was available because of overstretch? If that is the case, will the Minister ensure that an approach is made at the North Atlantic Council meeting this week to ask the United States to send ground troops to augment the United Nations presence as part of a new strategy which could involve air strikes?
Mr. Aitken : The hon. Gentleman seems not to have noted that we are the biggest contributor of troops to the UNPROFOR contingent at present. Our contribution is good in terms of numbers. The other matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred are matters for the United States Government. I am sure that they will be discussed at the forthcoming North Atlantic Council meeting.
Mr. Budgen : Does my hon. Friend agree that the first question to ask before committing British troops to supporting military action under the United Nations is whether a British national interest is involved? British troops should not be asked to risk their lives in some vague activity directed towards our becoming some form of world policeman.
Mr. Aitken : I think that my hon. Friend underestimates the fine job of humanitarian duty that the British troops are now doing in Bosnia. Of course, in general terms, one of the considerations that has to be borne in mind in any military action is the degree of national interest on behalf of Her Majesty's Government's forces.
Mr. Cohen : Instead of the Government's creative accountancy in the area, will the Minister consider how other countries view Trident? Especially since the non-proliferation treaty is coming up for extension next year, would an equivalent Minister of another country consider doubling the strategic warheads, as 96 strategic warheads per Trident submarine have replaced 48 per Polaris submarine? Has not the Home Office recently disbanded the United Kingdom warning and monitoring organisation which existed to detect nuclear blasts and radiation, travelling around the country in the course of its work? Has the Home Office disbanded it because it believes that there is no need for it--and if there is no threat, why do we need Trident?
Mr. Aitken : The House is used to listening to the unreconstructed voice of old-fashioned unilateralism from the hon. Gentleman. When it comes to accountancy matters, the hon. Gentleman has his figures seriously wrong. When the Trident submarines are fully in service, the explosive power of Britain's operational total of strategic and sub-strategic nuclear inventory will even then be substantially lower than before the Berlin wall came down. It would be a reduction of more than 25 per cent.
Mr. Booth : Is my hon. Friend aware that in the past year, £27 million of British taxpayers' money was spent in Russia on dismantling nuclear equipment and transporting it away? Is that not an example of the generosity of Britain and the good sense of the Government which deserves credit?
Mr. Aitken : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point, with which I agree. It was an imaginative gesture by the Government and we gave slightly more to the Government of Russia than my hon. Friend suggested-- some £35 million in total--so that they could build, or have built for them by GKN in Britain, safe carriers to move their nuclear weapons to places of safety.
Column 132to the Ministry of Defence on 27 January by Grandparents' Action Against Trident? Will he also confirm that the Secretary of State has read the petition and understood the arguments against what the grandparents call Trident madness? Does he especially understand the basic point that it is unsustainable for the Government to argue that nuclear weapons are essential to the national defence of this country while, at the same time, arguing that nuclear weapons should be outlawed for the defence of almost every other country?
Mr. Aitken : My right hon. and learned Friend's private secretary received the petition and has given it to my right hon. and learned Friend. On the second point, I simply cannot agree. It is still an uncertain and dangerous world and a minimum nuclear deterrent is essential ultimately to safeguard Britain's security.
Mr. Townsend : May I encourage the Minister to continue in that direction? Is he aware that many service men, especially those serving in dangerous occupations such as on submarines, would welcome random tests and believe that they would be a useful precaution, bearing in mind the immense expense of equipment which is in the hands of young service men.
Mr. Hanley : I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend. The Army has carried out two studies, one in Berlin and one in the United Kingdom, into compulsory drug testing on a random basis and I hope to see the results of those tests shortly. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that being a member of the armed forces is different from being a civilian. Soldiers have greater responsibilities in that they often operate with weapons, ammunition, explosives and heavy vehicles, often in difficult or dangerous circumstances. At sea and in the air, they are responsible for extremely expensive equipment. The consequences of being impaired by drugs are much greater for them than for those in most civilian occupations. Therefore, I agree with my hon. Friend--we must make progress.
Mr. Foulkes : Is the Minister aware that there is great concern among fishermen in the Clyde and elsewhere of the dangers posed to fishing boats by submariners who may be taking drugs, especially on United States submarines? Will he raise this matter urgently with the United States Secretary for Defence?
Mr. Hanley : The hon. Gentleman has been most devious in getting in his question. He knows that we have recently announced a SUBFACT scheme and that the code of conduct operates in his area. He is right in one regard-- if any submariner were influenced by drugs or under the effects of drugs, it would be severely dangerous, as it would be if a fisherman were under the same effects.
Column 133possibility of service men taking anabolic steroids, as they are most certainly proven to be connected with violent, if not criminal, behaviour?
Mr. Martlew : I agree with much of what the Minister said, but does he agree that the emphasis should be placed on prevention rather than on detection and that what we need is schemes that give rehabilitation for, education on, and prevention of, the use of drugs by the armed forces? Is it correct that the Government have allowed the resources for such schemes to be cut recently? Will the Minister give the House the commitment that resources will be made available for those schemes to allow our service personnel, many of whom serve in dangerous areas such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia, to resist the temptation of illegal drugs?
Mr. Hanley : I am pleased to agree with every word that the hon. Gentleman said : it makes a nice change. The armed forces provide lectures, videos, posters and a whole range of measures aimed at preventing members of the armed forces from taking drugs and, indeed, alcohol.
Mr. Rifkind : British forces will continue through the winter to support the United Nations in carrying out its humanitarian mandate. No decisions have yet been taken about the deployment of British forces thereafter.
Mr. Brandreth : I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that reply and welcome his tribute to our troops for what they have already achieved in the former Yugoslavia in terms of saving lives and delivering humanitarian aid. Can he confirm that in any future decisions that he makes, he will be guided by the advice and counsel of our commanders on the ground, and that of paramount importance to him are the security and safety of our troops?
Mr. Rifkind : This is a matter of great importance. Indeed, it was one of the central issues that I discussed with General Sir Michael Rose, the United Nations British commander in Bosnia. Clearly, it is a matter which is relevant not only to British troops but to French, Canadian and Norwegian troops and to those from a number of other countries that are contributing to the United Nations presence in Bosnia.
Ms Hoey : Does not the Secretary of State realise that even discussion and talking like this about withdrawing British troops gives the Serbs a green light to continue their aggression? Does he agree that if the Government make that decision--I hope that they will not do so--what they would have to do immediately on withdrawing British troops is allow the Bosnians to arm themselves and to lift the arms embargo?
Column 134commitment to UNPROFOR will last and how long it is possible and desirable to carry out what is a difficult and arduous task. We had all hoped that by this time there would be a political settlement in Bosnia, which would have allowed the United Nations involvement to be transformed into a more traditional peacekeeping role. That has not happened, and inevitably a legitimate debate is taking place about what the implications would be for the United Nations if the parties involved in the traumatic war do not reach a solution in the reasonable future.
Mr. Duncan Smith : Is not the Government's prime concern the safety and security of the British troops now stationed in Bosnia? In the light of that, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree, with regard to the proposed air strikes, that great concern should be taken to make sure that the troops are not placed in a position of great insecurity? That would not help matters, and the troops may be used as piggy in the middle by both sides.
Mr. Rifkind : Those considerations must be taken into account. The Government have accepted for some time that there may be specific circumstances in which the use of air power would be appropriate. We have particularly spoken of the acceptability of air power if, for example, UN forces were themselves under attack. Whatever consideration may be given to that question, I can assure my hon. Friend that the security of our forces will be of importance not only to the British Government but to all countries presently considering new initiatives.
Mr. Donald Anderson : The circumstances in which air strikes would be internationally sanctioned with the authority of the UN have been strictly defined to be the protection of the troops on the spot. Does the Secretary of State believe that the UN Security Council would have to be approached again before there were any air strike for wider purposes, such as punitive purposes? If so, what is the right hon. and learned Gentleman's judgment about the response of the Government of Russia?
Mr. Rifkind : United Nations Security Council resolution 836 allowed, and indeed encouraged, the consideration of any possible means of ensuring that there was not a stranglehold on Sarajevo, and that gives us a degree of flexibility. It would be appropriate for the Secretary-General to consult members of the Security Council if any further action were thought to be desirable. However, I do not believe that it would require a further resolution of the Security Council, for the reasons that I have given.
Mr. Hanley : We have made good progress in implementing the decisions announced in July 1991 in "Britain's Army for the 90s", as subsequently modified by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State in his statements to the House on 3 February 1993 and to the Select Committee for Defence on 1 December 1993.
Column 135Territorial Army units must be large enough to be viable, and that the recent reduction in battalion establishments needs to be reversed? Will he keep open as many drill halls in East Anglia as possible to maintain vital links with a population that respects and supports the work of our volunteer reserve?
Mr. Hanley : My hon. Friend is assiduous in representing the interests of the Territorial Army in East Anglia, and particularly Norwich. My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement has said that we are looking at opportunities to enhance the role of the Territorial Army. We have had consultations, and we are now looking at what legislation can be put in place.
As to the size of the units, my hon. Friend will realise that the size of a unit must be appropriate to its role. We believe that the post-"Options" size of battalion of 500 is appropriate, and there is no reason at this moment to alter that. I say again that my hon. Friend's representation of the interests of the Territorial Army is a model to us all.
Sir Anthony Grant : One of the results of the "Options for Change" policy is that some of the best-trained and best-motivated people in the country are available for service elsewhere. Will my hon. Friend do everything that he can, in conjunction with the Home Office, to encourage those people to serve in the police force, as that may improve the rather fuddy-duddy image of the police?
9. Mr. Jack Thompson : To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what discussions the Council of Ministers of the Western European Union has had regarding the probable increase in membership of the assembly of the Western European Union ; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Thompson : The Secretary of State will be aware that the Council of Ministers, in its wisdom, created a level of associate membership of the Western European Union. Currently, Turkey, Iceland and Norway are applying for membership at that level. Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the criteria laid down for associate membership are appropriate when one considers the possibility that countries of the former Soviet bloc in central and eastern Europe will apply to join the WEU? Would they be appropriate if a situation such as that in Bosnia arose in any of those countries?
Mr. Rifkind : We consider the criteria to be appropriate. Full membership is relevant to those who are also members of the European Union. Those countries that have sought associate membership either do not seek full membership
Column 136or have not yet become members of the European Union. Therefore, the status of associate member meets that criterion.
Sir Dudley Smith : Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is an overwhelming need to get the countries of central Europe on side where the future of European security is involved? Does he agree that one of the best ways, as the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Thompson) said, is proper association with the WEU? It can lead to all kinds of good works in the future.
Mr. Rifkind : It is appropriate that we seek to develop links not only with the countries of central Europe but with the countries of eastern Europe such as the Ukraine and the Baltic republics. I believe that, within the framework of the partnership for peace proposals, it will be possible to see the development of links with not only NATO but the WEU.
Mr. Hardy : Does the Minister accept that many parliamentarians in eastern European countries believe that the Western European Union can be used as a guarantee of their security? Does not he think it reasonable to ensure that a more realistic assessment is conveyed to those states?
Mr. Rifkind : The hon. Gentleman is correct--article 5 of the Brussels treaty gives total and unqualified commitments to the security of member states. Therefore, it is important that in any consideration of extending that membership, the full implications are taken into account.