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Ms Harman: The Green Paper, which we shall publish in the autumn, will look at the level and future of the basic state pension. As a result of the announcements that we are making this week as part of the comprehensive spending review, all pensioners--not just those on income support--will be better off. They will not have to pay the cost of their eye tests; they will receive permanent help with winter fuel bills; and they will get concessionary travel.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): The Secretary of State will be aware that many British pensioners live overseas, some of them in countries where their pensions have been frozen at the rate that they were receiving when they emigrated. Why has not her review addressed that injustice? Does she recall that the Minister of State, when Chairman of the all-party Select Committee on Social Security, recognised that injustice and recommended that there should be a debate in the House in Government time with a free vote? I believe that that would be a good idea now, so that the 144 people who have signed the early-day motion calling for the unfreezing of those pensions may air their concerns.

Ms Harman: We are aware of the representations that many hon. Members have made. I believe that, bearing in mind the scandal of the very poorest pensioners in this country, about which we have been talking today, the overseas pensioners are unlikely to be a priority.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that we must now move on. We have an important debate, in which many hon. Members seek to participate.

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NATO Enlargement

Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

11.47 am

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith rose--

Mr. Corbyn: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman as he is about to speak, but earlier Madam Speaker said that she would refer to the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons the issue of debates such as this. Will you also ensure that the Speaker considers the whole issue of what happens when so much of a debate like this, for which we have waited a year, is taken up with a very important statement? Should not statements be better timetabled?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is a matter to take up directly with the Modernisation Committee.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: I agree with what the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has said. I believe that what we have experienced today represents a gross discourtesy to the House. It certainly interrupted the flow of the debate. Anyway, we shall make the protest at another time.

Before I was interrupted, I was saying that, ever since I can remember, the NATO alliance has been not just a military, but a political, alliance. That probably accounts for the fact that the alliance did not end when the cold war ended. We recognised that there were good reasons--including political reasons--for extending the scope of NATO to fulfil one of its original aims in its preamble: that it should be there to protect democracy in Europe. We also recognised that there were good reasons for extending that remit, after the end of the cold war, into eastern Europe by opening the alliance to European states that wished to join and meet the requirements of membership.

From the beginning, the enlargement process has produced differences of opinion. Some of those opinions have already been expressed during the debate. The differences have emerged in debates of the NATO parliamentary assembly that I have attended. The American Government's influence on the other Governments and in debates in the assembly has persuaded most people to look favourably on the principle of enlargement. There is nothing new about enlargement. NATO has been enlarged before, when Germany, Spain, Portugal and Turkey joined the founder members. The development came as no surprise and was affirmed in July last year by the NATO Governments, who said:

Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary emerged from the pack as the principal contenders for entry to NATO. All three suffered dreadfully at the hands of the Nazi and communist dictatorships. Before and after the war, the west did nothing to help them in their moments of distress. I have taken a positive view about the inclusion of those countries, because refusing their request for membership would have been a dreadful act of insensitivity.

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Mr. Brzezinski, a distinguished former adviser to a President of the United States, once said:

That is a fine sentiment, but it should not stop us from questioning the wisdom of ever more expansion. NATO should be used as a political force to help build a political consensus in Europe, as well as to back up our diplomatic initiatives and political goals with military options.

The prospect of NATO enlargement has already given central Europe greater stability. It has helped to strengthen democratic procedures and settle border and other disputes. The NATO-Ukraine pact is one example. There has been no opposition to enlargement from Ukraine. Poland has already created a joint peacekeeping battalion with its neighbour Ukraine and with Lithuania.

However, it is reasonable to ask whether expansion can go on without undermining the cohesion of the alliance and playing into the hands of Russian nationalists. On the other hand, can we or should we risk disappointing those countries that contend that they should not be excluded if the Visegrad countries can join? It is difficult to give a precise answer to such questions from countries known to be keen on joining NATO.

Since NATO accepted the idea of enlargement, certain events have moved the argument further than was originally envisaged. Those events should cause us to pause and reflect. The development of "Partnership for Peace" has fundamentally changed our attitude towards co-operation between the nations of western, central and eastern Europe. When "Partnership for Peace" was first raised, it was described as a "policy for procrastination". It was regarded as a tool or a sop to defer enlargement. Its recent progress has been substantial. It has had impressive success and achieved a momentum in military exercises in which the UK and other western NATO countries have participated. It has also given non-NATO countries opportunities to work with NATO in military exercises, helping to strengthen democratic control over their armed forces. We had feared that, when the cold war ended, democratic practices, particularly democratic control of the armed forces, might not be introduced.

The establishment of the new co-operative arrangements, such as the Euro-Atlantic partnership, will also provide new possibilities for closer dialogue on a broad range of political and security-related issues in Europe. Then there is the NATO-Russian Founding Act, signed on 27 May this year in Paris, which provides a unique framework for improving relations between NATO and Russia on a new basis of partnership and co-operation.

The hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) said in his excellent speech that Russian officers can be seen swanning around NATO headquarters. They are obviously enjoying themselves, not feeling shut out from anything. They can get hold of all the relevant information that anyone needs to know about NATO. We have taken that on trust, but we have agreement from the Secretary-General of NATO to go into the HQ. We want to assure our Russian friends that, as democrats, we do not just take for granted what the Executive tells us;

17 Jul 1998 : Column 718

we go and see for ourselves. When we have reported back to the NATO parliamentary assembly, we shall go to Moscow and say what we have seen.

Mr. Colvin: The Russians are not privy to discussions about article 5 issues.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: That is a fair point. There is some concern about how far article 5 protection should be extended to those states that seek membership. That is an important issue. If they join NATO, they will expect that we would respond to any attack on them. One has to question the wisdom of that protection, particularly to countries close to the Russian border or to other areas of tension. Many initiatives have been drawn up since expansion was first considered, which should encourage the stability and co-operation we seek with the nations of eastern Europe.

Mr. Frank Cook: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that candidates for membership should not be admitted to the alliance unless they are willing and able to engage fully on article 5 issues in relation to other nations?

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: The hon. Gentleman has made a valuable point. I have a high regard for the "Partnership for Peace". I am indebted to a report that the hon. Gentleman submitted to the NATO parliamentary assembly, which went into the issue in detail. He showed how convincing a system it is for ensuring that those nations feel more protected, not more vulnerable, and enjoy the benefits of closer co-operation with NATO. Asking them to take article 5 on board is a serious step, which we cannot impose in the immediate future.

That is why I ask for a pause in the examination of which nations we should allow to join NATO and which we should encourage. Nothing is more devastating to people than to be told, "Don't worry; spend a little more money, hold a conference for us and we will ensure that you have a good opportunity--perhaps not next year or the year after, but in five years' time--of joining NATO." To encourage people in such a way provokes dissension in their countries and mistrust of our way of dealing with them; it is not fair to them.

The initiatives that I have mentioned have permitted central and eastern Europe to participate in a wider range of NATO activities. In so doing, membership of NATO has become less urgent--indeed, for some countries, unnecessary. It would therefore be wise not to encourage those involved in "Partnership for Peace" to believe that it provides a passport to NATO. It should not necessarily do so. For that reason and others, further expansion of NATO should be treated with caution.

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