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House of Commons

Monday 10 May 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


2.33 pm

Madam Speaker: I regret to have to report to the House the death of the right hon. Derek Fatchett, the Member for Leeds, Central. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will join me in mourning the loss of a colleague and in extending our deepest sympathy to Derek's family and his friends.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Defence Procurement Contracts

1. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South): What plans he has to use the experience and data acquired from the current air campaign over Yugoslavia to assist in the drawing up of criteria for future defence procurement contracts. [82578]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): Decisions about our future equipment programme, and the best way to procure that equipment, are based on a wide range of information, including data drawn from operational experience. We are taking steps to acquire accurate data from the current air campaign to provide a sound basis for future analysis. The results of that analysis will be used as a guide in the determination of future capability requirements.

Mr. Marsden: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that one of the lessons of the current conflict is the need for our forces to be at the cutting edge of technology, collaborating as much as possible with our European partners, and that that applies to air-to-air missiles as well as to air-to-ground missiles? In that context, may I especially commend to him the programme currently being developed by British Aerospace for the Meteor missile? I believe--as do many of my constituents who are employed by British Aerospace--that that programme will give Eurofighter great capacity; it will give us air strength, and enable us to carry forward our cutting-edge technology in defence procurement.

Mr. Spellar: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his campaign on behalf of his constituents and the most important work that they undertake for our defence needs. He will be aware that proposals were received in May 1998 on the BVRAAM--beyond visual range-air-to-air missile--capability. We are holding discussions with our potential partners in Europe--Germany, Italy, Spain and Sweden--on those proposals, and we are holding separate discussions with the United States. A contract to proceed to full development and production is expected to be awarded towards the end of 1999. All factors--operational, financial and industrial--will be taken into account in reaching our decision.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the experiences that has been learned from the campaign in

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Yugoslavia is that air power alone is not an effective way to induce an adversary to relinquish territory? Moreover, it kills many non-combatants.

Mr. Spellar: First, we go to inordinate lengths to avoid collateral damage and civilian casualties. The experience of the war clearly demonstrates that. Secondly, the right hon. and learned Gentleman should not talk down the effect of our air campaign, which has significantly degraded the military capability of the Yugoslav armed forces and their armed police and paramilitary assistants. We have made a considerable impact on their operational capability, communications and command and control. That is starting to have a significant impact.

Troop Deployment (Macedonia)

2. Helen Jones (Warrington, North): How many troops are currently deployed in Macedonia. [82579]

8. Mrs. Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): How many troops are currently deployed in Macedonia. [82585]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson): As at 10 May, about 5,700 British Army personnel and about 100 RAF personnel are deployed in Macedonia.

Helen Jones: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he join me in taking this opportunity to congratulate our forces in Macedonia on the humanitarian work that they have undertaken to ease the plight of the Kosovo Albanians? Does he agree that their plight demonstrates that, despite the tragic events of last weekend, NATO must maintain its resolve to ensure that those people can go home and rebuild their lives?

Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I certainly join her in congratulating British forces in Macedonia. In fact, Lieutenant-General Mike Jackson, the commander of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps--the NATO force--was in London this morning and shared the rostrum with me at our Ministry of Defence daily briefing. I made clear to him--as did all my ministerial colleagues--how proud we are of the British forces and of all the troops under General Jackson's control for the outstanding work that they have done to deal with that flood of humanity tipped over the borders of Kosovo into Macedonia. With civility, decency and huge individual skill and sacrifice, the troops have looked after those human beings. We must continue to listen to what the refugees are saying about the horrors that they have experienced; we must not be put off by anything in our determination to get them home.

Mrs. Gilroy: In addition to echoing my right hon. Friend's tribute to our troops in Macedonia, may I invite him to pay tribute to the men and women on board the Devonport-based HMS Somerset in the Adriatic? Macedonia and other front-line countries face a significant challenge in the way in which they accommodate troops, as well as the huge influx of refugees. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help them meet that challenge?

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Mr. Robertson: My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of the Royal Navy and especially of those ships that sail from Plymouth, and I too pay tribute to HMS Somerset. I visited the Adriatic last week with the shadow Defence Secretary, the defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence and the shadow Foreign Secretary. We all visited Gioia del Colle, where RAF pilots are in action on a regular basis, and HMS Invincible, where we were joined by members of the crew of HMS Newcastle. All of them are doing a job that is in the interests of international law and order, and we expressed the country's pride in their actions.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the huge sacrifices being made by the people of Macedonia and Albania, both in absorbing the large number of refugees who have been forced on them by Milosevic's genocidal violence, and in playing host to the large number of NATO troops who are there to implement the eventual settlement. We are doing much to ensure that aid, support and back-up are given to the Governments of those small countries, which have had to bear so much of the burden arising from the brutality of President Milosevic in Belgrade.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): Would not the position of our troops in Macedonia be greatly enhanced when they eventually enter Kosovo were they do so pursuant to the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution? Last week, the Government secured the agreement of Russia to seeking such a resolution, but has not that now been made almost impossible by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that incident showed a quite unacceptable degree of incompetence, given that the address of the Chinese embassy is apparently in the Belgrade telephone directory? Does he agree that that act not only sets back the achievement of NATO's war aims, but means that we have succeeded in seriously damaging relations with both Russia and China within one month?

Mr. Robertson: There was no targeting of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade--it was a huge and terrible mistake, and expressions of regret have been made by NATO and other Governments. However, given that some 18,000 sorties--6,000 of them strike sorties--have taken place, the few mistakes that have been made, every one of which is bitterly regretted, have to be seen in proportion.

I do not believe that we have made it impossible to get a Security Council resolution when a settlement has been reached, and that would clearly be our objective when it came to putting our forces or any other forces that were required into Kosovo. In the short term, that task has been made more difficult, but no interest of either China or Russia is served by allowing Milosevic to get away with the sort of ethnic cleansing that he has been carrying out until now. When I stood yesterday at the newly erected memorial to the 27 million citizens of the then Soviet Union who died in the second world war, the Russian ambassador made it clear that the diplomatic track had to go on and that those efforts should be intensified. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will express the same message when he makes his statement on Kosovo later this afternoon.

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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Does the Secretary of State for Defence recall telling the Defence Committee some 10 hours before the bombing began:

and further stating:

    "I would like to stress that whatever action is taken, that action is taken on behalf of all NATO allies with the aim--the clear and, I believe, justified aim--of averting a humanitarian disaster."?

Will the right hon. Gentleman report to the House his assessment of the effectiveness of that strategy in delivering that aim?

Mr. Robertson: That was of course our aim, and it is still our aim to avoid the humanitarian catastrophe that would occur if all those refugees who have left Kosovo were not to go home, and to avert the humanitarian catastrophe that would occur in many other parts of the world if Milosevic were to get away with his ethnic cleansing.

The campaign could have been over in a few days if Milosevic had recognised that our determination was absolute and that international opinion was against him, but his obstinacy and his genocidal instincts in respect of the Albanian members of the Kosovo population have led him and his country down a suicidal path. Our objective remains to disrupt the violence that may still be going on, in which we are being progressively more successful every day, and to weaken the military machine that is causing that violence. With every day and night that passes, we degrade and weaken that military machine. Ultimately, Milosevic will have to recognise that he cannot defeat NATO and that international decency will prevail.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Given the fact that the American Senate has voted overwhelmingly against the commitment of ground troops, is it not clear that the air war of itself cannot achieve the objectives set? Will the Secretary of State tell the House how the indiscriminate bombing of Yugoslavia, including the bombing of a hospital and a market with cluster bombs, and the bombing of refugee camps and the Chinese embassy, contributes in any way whatever to the restoration to the refugees of their rightful homes in Kosovo?

Mr. Robertson: I hope that sometime, when my right hon. Friend is listing the handful of bombs that have gone astray in Kosovo, he will mention the thousands of bombs that have landed accurately on military targets in accordance with the objectives that we set out. The air campaign is successful, but there are clearly limitations. If we believe in international law and in high standards of conduct, and if we are targeting military installations and trying specifically to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian buildings, we will be at a disadvantage compared with someone who is brutally, ruthlessly and mercilessly directly attacking civilians and civilian property. Yet we have had enormous success: the machine is substantially weaker than it was. Day after day and night after night, we are targeting the military installations inside Kosovo that are causing the violence. Ultimately, Milosevic must recognise that and comply.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater): Since the only personnel on the ground who might give any immediate help against

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persecution by the Serbian paramilitaries are in the Kosovo Liberation Army, what is the Government's and NATO's present view on supporting the KLA's activities within Kosovo?

Mr. Robertson: Quite simply, we are prohibited from supporting the KLA either with arms or other resources. A specific United Nations Security Council resolution limits the military assistance that can be given in that theatre, and we are bound by its terms. Therefore, that is the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): I join in congratulating the NATO forces that are engaged in humanitarian work in Macedonia. However, I ask the Secretary of State: are there no maps available to NATO forces showing them the sites of foreign embassies in Belgrade? If plan A--which is to bomb Milosevic into submission--fails, is the Secretary of State prepared to share with the House what is plan B?

Mr. Robertson: First, I thank my hon. Friend for the congratulations that she has offered to British troops engaged in Macedonia. They have shown their usual professional skill and dedication in carrying out their humanitarian work, and I am sure that my hon. Friend's commendation will comfort them enormously.

Facetious comments about targeting, however, are not very appropriate in the present tragic circumstances. A tragic mistake was made, and NATO is attempting to discover how that happened and what can be learned from it. Some 6,000 strike sorties have taken place, a small number of which have tragically led to a loss of civilian life on the Serb side. Against that, I ask my hon. Friend to examine carefully the testimony of thousands upon thousands of Kosovar refugees who say universally, credibly and believably that atrocities are continuing inside Kosovo.

Plan A, to which we have subscribed from the beginning, involves air attacks that will disrupt the violence in Kosovo and weaken the killing machine that is perpetrating that violence. We believe the air campaign is proving successful and that the resolve in Belgrade is weakening by the day. We are confident that our plan will succeed.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): The Secretary of State speaks of the need to return the refugees to their homes. Can he explain to the House how exactly that will be done without the use of ground troops? Is he aware of the dismay felt in the country that the greatest military alliance on earth seems in certain respects to be like the gang that cannot shoot straight?

Mr. Robertson: I do not think that there will ever be an armed conflict involving so many people against such a ruthless opponent which will not involve mistakes. NATO, which certainly is the greatest military alliance in the world, is made up of 19 democratic countries. That is, on the one hand, its greatest strength, and on the other--at the moment--one of its key weaknesses. Another of its key weaknesses is also its towering strength: it acts according to international law. We take care. Mistakes will be made, but however tragic, they are small in comparison to the systematic genocidal violence being perpetrated by Milosevic against the civil population of Kosovo.

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We chose air strikes as the best means in the circumstances of disrupting the violence and weakening the killing machine. We still believe that they are the best means, but following the summit in Washington, NATO is re-examining all the options in the light of the past six weeks' military activity.

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