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Alternative Fuels

16. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What steps he is taking to encourage the manufacture of compressed natural gas vehicles and the conversion of existing petrol and diesel vehicles to alternative fuels. [78831]

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The Minister for Transport in London (

Ms Glenda Jackson): The Energy Saving Trust's powershift programme, funded by my Department, contributes towards the additional cost of purchasing gas and electric vehicles. In the recent Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor reduced duty on compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas by 29 per cent.--a strong incentive to convert to those fuels.

Mr. Prentice: That was a good answer; we must all celebrate the 29 per cent. cut in fuel duty for gas vehicles in the Budget. However, is it not true that we will never get people to convert their vehicles until there are pumps in filling stations to allow them to fill up their tanks with compressed natural gas? What are the Government doing actively to encourage filling stations to put compressed natural gas pumps on their forecourts?

Ms Jackson: My hon. Friend is right; there is certainly a need for further improvements in the refuelling infrastructure. However, there are signs that fuel suppliers now have the confidence to invest significantly in gas refuelling facilities, and the recent Budget announcements should provide further impetus for their plans.

Local Government Finance

17. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): What has been the average rate of increase in percentage terms in the allowable spending of local councils over the past five years; and what is the figure for Rochford. [78832]

The Minister for Local Government and Housing (Ms Hilary Armstrong): The average allowable increase in the spending of local councils in England over the past five years was 2.7 per cent. For Rochford, it was 2.8 per cent. This year, the Government have not set spending limits for individual authorities.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the Minister is aware, Rochford is an area with high unemployment and many social problems, and needs investment--but is she also aware that since the Government came to power, the council has been concerned about the financial nightmare that it has had to face? Is she willing to reconsider the situation in Rochford and tell us in what way grants for the area were increased this year? According to the information given to me, they have not been increased, but fell in real terms.

Ms Armstrong: The hon. Gentleman will know that the sums that the Government have provided for local government this year are higher than for the past seven years. His local council, which covers Rochford, has not had a spending limit imposed this year. It has increased its budget by 2.8 per cent. Council tax rises are substantially higher in Tory authorities than in Labour authorities. I invite the hon. Gentleman to help us to get the best value from local government by ensuring that authorities use the increased money that they are getting from the Government this year effectively for local people.

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3.30 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I would like, with your permission, Madam Speaker, to bring the House fully up to date with events in Kosovo. There will be a debate in the House early next week.

NATO's actions continue. Our targets include the Serbian air defence system, the command and control centres of the Yugoslav army and special police forces, the lines of communication that Milosevic uses to resupply his forces in Kosovo, his fuel supplies and, increasingly, the Serb forces on the ground engaged in ethnic cleansing. The armed forces of 13 allies are taking a direct part in the NATO action. I am proud of the full role being played by the men and women of the British armed forces. They have the thanks of the whole House.

Our aims are clear. They were set out again at the meeting yesterday of NATO Foreign Ministers. They are: a verifiable end to all Serb military action and the immediate ending of violence and repression; the withdrawal from Kosovo of Milosevic's military, police and paramilitary forces; agreement to the stationing in Kosovo of an international military force; the unconditional and safe return of all refugees and displaced persons and unhindered access to them by humanitarian aid organisations; and credible assurance of willingness to work on the basis of the Rambouillet accords in the establishment of a political framework agreement for Kosovo in conformity with international law and the charter of the United Nations.

Once we have succeeded militarily we need to negotiate a political settlement based on the Rambouillet agreement. It must be a settlement that brings lasting peace to the entire region. Our action will continue until those aims are met.

There is no longer any serious doubt that the warnings that we gave about Milosevic and his intentions were fully justified. Half a million Kosovar Albanians have fled or been driven out of Kosovo into the neighbouring territories of Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro. In no small measure due to British efforts, those who sought refuge in neighbouring countries are now being looked after and have at least found shelter, food and safety.

I would like to pay tribute to the British troops in Macedonia who built a camp for some 30,000 people inside 48 hours; to the sterling work of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Development in persuading the Macedonian Government fully to open the border; to British non-governmental organisations for their rapid response in getting relief through to the refugees; and to the tremendous generosity of the British people, who have already given some £10 million to the Kosovo appeal and added substantially to the £23 million committed so far by the Government. I should like also to commend the Albanian Government, who have been unstinting in providing a welcome to those fleeing from Kosovo.

Our concern is now for those still inside Kosovo. Milosevic's forces continue their ethnic cleansing, but at a reduced level. As a result of NATO action to date, the pace has significantly diminished. His tanks have to conceal themselves from NATO aircraft. His fuel supplies are running low. Some estimate that, taking into account all those displaced over several months, half a million or

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so Kosovar Albanians have been driven from their homes but remain within the province. Many have sought refuge in the hills and forests of Kosovo. We are looking urgently at all the options to assist them. Let me say this clearly: Milosevic is responsible for the welfare of those people. When we go into Kosovo finally, he will be held responsible for what we find.

Let me deal with some of the wider strategic issues. Some say that NATO should never have acted at all; some say, too soon; some say, not enough. However inconsistent those points, they all deserve an answer. Milosevic's action in Kosovo--the murder, rape and terror that he has visited on innocent people--provides ample justification for military action.

To those who wanted still more negotiation, I say that we struggled for a year to find a solution for Kosovo by peaceful means, despite Milosevic's brutality on the ground. We intervened only when the diplomatic avenue was exhausted, and when the hideous policy of ethnic cleansing was under way. Make no mistake: the brutality was planned well in advance. Even as the Rambouillet talks were continuing, Serb troops were massing in Kosovo and a new offensive was getting under way, with 40,000 troops and 300 tanks assembled. We now know that Belgrade was making detailed plans for ethnic cleansing as early as February.

Five days before NATO dropped a single bomb, Serb forces began a massive new offensive aimed at clearing Kosovo of its ethnic Albanian majority, wiping out their political class and even destroying evidence that Albanians had ever lived there.

To those who say that we should put in ground forces now, as part of a land force invasion of Kosovo, I repeat that the difficulties of such an undertaking, in the face of organised Serb resistance, are formidable. In the present circumstances, the potential loss of life among our service men and women, to say nothing of civilians, would be considerable, and in any event, assembling such a force would take weeks.

Every day, however, by air power, we are causing further damage to Milosevic's military machine: his air defence system is seriously degraded; half his front-line air force is now unusable; the roads and railways supplying his forces in Kosovo are largely cut; fuel is now in short supply, hampering the movement of his tanks and trucks; and artillery and troops on the ground are now being targeted and hit.

We make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, though some casualties will be inevitable in such action, and our attitude stands in sharp contrast to the utter lack of scruple of Milosevic towards the civilian population in Kosovo.

Britain and our forces can be proud of the role that we have played, in both the military campaign and the humanitarian effort. Day and night, our pilots are risking their lives to inflict defeat on Milosevic and our forces are working to help to alleviate the misery of the refugees driven from their homes and their homeland by his policy of ethnic cleansing; and day and night we are also preparing for the job that we have to do when our military objectives are met.

Today I can announce that we are sending substantial reinforcements for that purpose, with a second armoured battle group. At the moment, the British Army contingent in Greece and Macedonia consists of just over 4,500

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military personnel. The remainder of HQ 4 Armoured Brigade and supporting elements are now being sent to the region--all are currently based at their home locations in the United Kingdom and Germany--taking the total number of UK military personnel in Greece and Macedonia to more than 6,300.

Let me make it clear, for the avoidance of doubt, that those personnel are being sent so that the UK can be in a position to play our proper role in the international effort to ensure that the refugees are able to return to Kosovo in safety.

As I said in my first statement to the House, this action will take time. Dictators such as Milosevic do not bow down at the first setback to their plans, but as the weather improves, his forces have fewer hiding places. When new weapons systems are available, such as the attack helicopters, no Serb unit in Kosovo will be able to destroy a village with confidence that it will not be challenged by more powerful forces.

We continue with diplomacy to back up our military action. Tomorrow in Brussels, I shall meet with my colleagues on the European Council and this meeting is being brought forward to include a session with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The NATO Alliance has a long-planned summit in Washington at the end of next week. I and my colleagues will continue to remain in close touch with our Russian counterparts, who will have an important role to play when Milosevic is brought to meet NATO's requirements.

As for NATO, we must remain united and resolute. There can be no compromise on the terms we have set out. They must be met in full. We shall continue until they are. Ethnic cleansing must be defeated, and seen to be defeated. Milosevic's policies in Kosovo must be defeated, and seen to be defeated. I believe that we have a clear strategic interest in peace in the Balkans, but this is now military action for a moral purpose as much as a strategic interest. The barbarity perpetrated against innocent civilians in Kosovo, simply on the ground of their ethnic identity, cannot be allowed to succeed.

The conflict we now face in Kosovo is a test of our commitment and our resolve to ensure that the 21st century does not begin with a continuing reminder in Europe of the worst aspects of the century now drawing to a close. I urge the House to continue to give its unfailing support to the men and women of our armed forces and to the values they are striving to uphold on behalf of us all.

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