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UN Peacekeeping Missions

14. Mr. Michael Portillo (Kensington and Chelsea): If he will make a statement on the future of the UK's contribution to United Nations peacekeeping missions. [104203]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): We are strongly committed to UN peacekeeping and Britain will continue to play a leading role in its support. Along with France, we were the first permanent members of the Security Council to sign a memorandum of understanding on the forces that we could make available to the UN if required. More than 500 UK personnel are on UN-led peacekeeping missions, in addition to the 7,000 personnel on UN-mandated missions in Bosnia and Kosovo. The whole House can take pride in the contribution that those service men and women are making to peace and stability in the countries where they serve.

Mr. Portillo: Leaving aside practical and political considerations and focusing entirely on ethics, is there a reason to intervene in Kosovo but not in Chechnya?

Mr. Cook: We intervened in Kosovo to halt and reverse a major ethnic cleansing, and the 850,000 people who were refugees last Easter are back in their homes. In the case of Chechnya, we have repeatedly made it clear to Russia that we deplore the military action that it is taking against civilians and I honestly do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman finds anything amusing in what is happening there. We have supported the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe missions to try to find a political way forward and have already intervened by making sure that we withhold the financial support available from the European Union. I shall continue to take every possible responsible and realistic step to bring home that message to Russia. If he wants us to engage Russia in a military war, he should be honest in saying so. He would find little support, either in the House or in the country outside.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Did the Foreign Secretary have the opportunity--if not, will he take one--to see the television programme broadcast on Sunday night by Jonathan Dimbleby in which it was revealed that there is widespread intimidation of Serbs in Kosovo and ethnic cleansing on a massive scale and that the KLA, whose members were described by my right hon. Friend and the American Secretary of State as "terrorists" a year ago, is in a dominant position in Kosovo? Is he altogether satisfied that the same criteria of humanitarian assistance might not be applied to relieve the pressure there and on the Yugoslav people, who have suffered so much from the NATO bombing?

Mr. Cook: We are very willing to provide humanitarian assistance to Serbia wherever we can find an interlocutor with whom we can work. That is why we have created the energy for democracy scheme to provide fuel to municipalities under opposition control, but President Milosevic held up those trucks for a long time when they reached the borders of Serbia. In the case of Kosovo, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has said, KFOR spends 50 per cent. of its time protecting the

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Serbian 5 per cent. of the population. It will continue to provide their protection and we shall continue to do everything that we can to build that multi-ethnic Kosovo. I say to my right hon. Friend that I do not accept that the KLA is in a dominant position. We shall continue to work, both in NATO and with UNMIK, to make sure that hardliners and the KLA are clear that we want a Kosovo ruled by the ballot box, not the gun.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It is all very well to say that KFOR is spending 50 per cent. of its time defending the Serbian minority in Kosovo but, although the UN has been criticised in respect of its role, we are not helping those people. The Serb community in Pristina is down to negligible proportions, Serb monasteries are

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being desecrated as soon as troops leave them and the only safe Serbs are those who are protected by their own people and herded into safe havens. The policy is not working, the whole basis of the war has gone wrong, one exodus has been replaced by another and the reply from the Minister for Europe was wholly complacent. We have to do something to protect those people.

Mr. Cook: If I may say so, devoting half KFOR's time to protecting those people is doing something. Some sense of proportion must be retained. I know that the hon. Gentleman was not keen on our intervention in Kosovo but, as a result of it, we have seen the most successful return of refugees--850,000--in post-war history. If we had not intervened, those people would still be leading a miserable existence in tents in Macedonia and Albania.

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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given private notice of this point of order both to you and to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley), to whom it refers.

Yesterday, I received a letter from someone in Northern Ireland, who had received it from the hon. Member for North Antrim. It described the new education Minister as "a terrorist".

Whatever the merits of strong feeling in the House, we try to contain our feelings within the normal courtesies of language. Although those words were not used in the House--had they been, Madam Speaker, I am sure that you would have rebuked the hon. Member who used them--they were conveyed in a House of Commons envelope, paid for by the state, and related to a Member who is also an education Minister.

I do not want to make too much of this, Madam Speaker, but I wonder whether you feel able to say anything at this point about the use of language. Terrorism is a criminal offence, and to use such language at a time when the peace process is developing in Northern Ireland might merit the Chair's consideration.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Is it related to the earlier point of order?

Dr. Lewis: Yes, Madam Speaker. Can you tell us whether you have received any notification from the Serjeant at Arms or the security advisers of the House that, if two members of Sinn Fein are to be offered facilities in the House, there will be arrangements in future for Members' cars not just to be checked for bombs on the way into the car park, but to be checked for such devices on the way out of it?

Madam Speaker: I never discuss security arrangements across the Floor of the House.

Let me respond to what was said by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who, with his customary courtesy, gave me notice of his point of order. I am afraid that the circumstances that he describes--

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those involving private correspondence between a Member and his or her constituents--do not call for a ruling from the Chair. I cannot intervene in correspondence between a Member and a constituent.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have written to you about it, and have sent a copy to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster).

During Prime Minister's questions last Wednesday, the hon. Gentleman began by praising the staff of the Conquest hospital. That is not in dispute, but the hon. Gentleman then told the House:

On Friday, I checked with the chief executive of the Hastings and Rother NHS trust, who told me that all elective surgery at the Conquest had been stopped for 10 days by then. More than 100 of the hon. Gentleman's constituents, and my constituents, with appointments in January for surgery that they need have been turned away. As of yesterday, elective surgery was still suspended, so yet more people are being turned away.

Are you able to advise hand-wringing Government Back Benchers that if they wish to be bullied by their Whips and Alastair Campbell that is a matter for them, but if they are to peddle downright untruths at Prime Minister's Question Time to make the Prime Minister look more effective--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for sending me a long letter about this matter, but I must again make a point that I made earlier in the week. What the hon. Gentleman has said is not a point of order, but a matter of argument. If he feels that the matter needs to be corrected, there are ways and means of doing precisely that in the House, and putting it on record.

Back Benchers in the House of Commons have greater opportunities than members of any other democratic Parliament. They have opportunities to raise matters in Adjournment debates, and through all sorts of other methods. I advise hon. Members that if they have an argument with each other because of the catchment area involved, that is not a matter for a point of order, or for the Chair; it is a matter to be corrected by means of a normal Adjournment debate, an early-day motion or some other method. The Chair should not be involved in squabbles--and that is what this is--between Members on either side of the House.

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