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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): No.

Mr. Hancock: The hon. Gentleman, who is wearing some spectacular House of Commons socks, says that he does not think so. I would be a little more generous. Perhaps he needs to pull his socks up.

Mr. Simpson: Is the hon. Gentleman a candidate?

Mr. Hancock: No; my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) and I are the only two who have not signed up for the campaign trail.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Spellar): There is still time.

Mr. Hancock: Sadly, for me, that time has long passed.

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We have armed forces of which the whole nation can be very proud. Their commitment is unquestionable. We should thank them, but more importantly, we should ensure that, in their endeavours, they have not just the full support of this House but leadership in government that convinces them that the Government are on their side. On all occasions when asked, on issues across the world, they have been on our side--the right side.

3.42 pm

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth): I should first apologise to both Front-Bench teams, as election commitments in my constituency may mean that I will be unable to stay for the winding-up speeches.

I cannot avoid paying tribute to the unshakeable determination of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his colleagues in their campaign to force Milosevic to back down and to prevent the Serbian capacity committing atrocities in the region. We have grown used to the chilling phrase "ethnic cleansing", but my fear is that it is a euphemism and that, as Serbian troops pull out and ours go in, evidence will emerge to reinforce our sense of rightness in the campaign over recent months.

Nevertheless, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, we face a formidable task truly to settle the situation in Kosovo. During business questions, my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said that it may take five years to be certain that the military action has achieved its long-term aim. I fear that that may be true, although it is also surely true that the military technical agreement signed last night is a very welcome and important step towards that long-term aim. The signing of that agreement is a major military and political vindication of the action that the Government and NATO have taken in recent months.

I also pay tribute to the soldiers, aircrews and ground crews who have carried out the campaign--some from my constituency and many others from elsewhere in South Yorkshire--as well as to the armed forces and aid agencies that have dealt with so many traumatised refugees in and around the Balkans. Britain, one must remember, has been one of the largest and most active donors in the effort to improve the provision of humanitarian relief for the refugees. The Government's aim of directing the humanitarian effort, in order that the refugees are helped to stay in the region until they are able to return to their homes, is surely right. As a Government, we have committed more than £40 million to that effort, and more will clearly need to be done.

It is obviously right that, if possible, the refugees should remain in the region before returning home, although I welcomed the recent commitment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to beef up the United Kingdom's commitment to take refugees who needed to leave the region. I extend a welcome, as many are in Rotherham, to the first refugees from Kosovo who are due to arrive there next week.

It is clearly right that Kosovo has dominated any discussion on, or attention to, military issues in recent months. To that extent, today's debate is a welcome opportunity to reintroduce some of the wider perspectives that the House must consider. In doing so, British forces could truly be said to be a force for good in the world at present. The British armed forces have a proud tradition of promoting peace and stability; Kosovo is just the latest example of it.

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In Bosnia, our British forces led the way in trying to bring suspected war criminals to justice. In Iraq several years before, Britain, in concert with the United States, led efforts to contain Saddam Hussein. Royal Air Force pilots of course still protect Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq. The proud tradition extends beyond the previous decade. For more than 40 years during the cold war, British forces were committed to the defence of Europe, and stationed in Europe to undertake that responsibility.

British armed forces have a vital role to play in promoting peace and stability throughout the world, particularly Europe, as they do in peacekeeping and peace-support operations. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) pointed out, later this year, Britain is due to sign an agreement with the United Nations to make more of our forces, including all our rapid-reaction troops, available for UN peace-support operations. Should we sign that agreement, we are set to become the first permanent member of the UN Security Council to do so, thereby giving a lead to others.

NATO has obviously played the lead role in Kosovo, but we need to beef up the UN's capacity to play a leading role in future peacekeeping operations, to carry out the so-called Petersberg principles of humanitarian and rescue tasks, peacekeeping, peace-making and, of course, crisis management.

It is fair to say that the new Labour Government have put new emphasis on our armed forces' role in conflict-prevention. That was made tangible by designating one of our armed forces' seven key missions as defence diplomacy and conflict prevention--core missions and responsibilities that underpin defence planning now and in future.

The second way in which the Government have put added emphasis on the role of our armed forces in conflict prevention has been in aiming to realise the aspirations of the commitment of EU states to a common foreign and security policy, on which the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) dwelt so long. I remind him that the CFSP originated under the 1992 Maastricht treaty, which was signed by the Government of whom he was a member. That treaty pointed to the eventual framing of a common defence policy, which was given further impetus in 1997 by the Amsterdam treaty, and added impetus more recently in Cologne.

It seems to me that the aim on the European front should be to reinforce the capacity of European states to act together in pursuing foreign policy and security interests. The Secretary of State underlined that in his opening address when he said that he was determined that the European Union should play a full role on the international stage.

The elements that require further development are fairly clear. We need to develop more common policies, more effective decision-making procedures, shared access to military advice, planning and intelligence, and better political control of the strategic direction when we are involved in crisis-management operations. Above all, we need a stronger European defence capability for use within a NATO, a European Union or a UN framework.

The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, whom I welcome back to his seat, said several times that he was concerned about the military resources likely to be

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required should a common European approach be developed further. It is a startling fact that the European members of NATO collectively now spend two thirds as much as America on defence, yet can only project a small fraction of America's military capability beyond their borders. European taxpayers are much more likely to get better value from their defence budgets if their Governments and armed forces can work more closely together.

It may be common sense to share resources and strengthen co-operation in that way, but it is certainly not straightforward. Recent experience in the Balkans has proved difficult, and has provided a learning experience for many European states concerning the difficulties of pooling efforts to prepare and deploy peace support operations beyond our borders. Thirty European states contribute to SFOR, and an unknown number will contribute to the KFOR operation in the coming months.

I am under no illusions about the fact that the military involvement of European states will be essential in the Balkans, and will continue to be essential for the foreseeable future. I am also under no illusions about the fact that developing a common foreign and security capacity will be complex and protracted, and will involve dealing with some of the difficulties that the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon set out. Surely, however, that is the right way to go.

There is also the broader area of personnel matters associated with the future of our armed forces and their operation and deployment in the United Kingdom and overseas. Clearly, the extent of our overseas commitments is placing considerable strain on our armed forces, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister would concede.

In that context, the major recruitment drive that the Government have recently launched across all three services is welcome, as is the emphasis on quality rather than quantity, and the drive to recruit more women and black and other ethnic minority service personnel. As the Secretary of State pointed out, that will lead to an increase of 3,300 personnel in the Army. The extra personnel will be directed to tackling some of the present shortfall in front-line troops.

May I also direct my hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 585, which has now been signed by 96 Members from both sides of the House, about the International Labour Organisation convention on child soldiers. The Government have been involved this month in the ILO discussions on a new convention that will prohibit the employment of children under 18 in most hazardous forms of labour--and clearly, armed conflict is one of the most hazardous forms of labour that one could imagine.

Although recruiting young soldiers for our armed forces is right, I urge the Minister and his colleagues in the Department to consider seriously the case for not deploying service personnel under 18 in battle zones, thereby supporting the new ILO convention.

I also urge my hon. Friend to give extra emphasis to the new learning forces initiative that has recently been introduced, which offers new opportunities for service personnel to gain accredited qualifications while serving. That will achieve two things. It will help to boost recruitment and retention in the armed forces, but equally, it will help to equip personnel who wish to leave the forces to return to civilian life.

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Members of Parliament, especially those who represent areas such as mine with deep-seated high unemployment, will be familiar with the situation of constituents who, having served in our armed forces for five, eight, 10 or even 12 years, return to their home areas ill equipped to take the opportunities that may exist, and unskilled for the sort of civilian jobs available--[Interruption.]


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