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Sierra Leone

3. Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town): How many British troops are deployed in Sierra Leone. [127258]

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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): More than 300 UK military personnel are currently deployed on the ground in Sierra Leone. These include members of the short-term training team, lead elements of the UK-led international military advisory and training team, support and protection elements, the British military liaison officer, and members of the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone and of the Department for International Development-sponsored Sierra Leone security sector reform project. In addition, HMS Argyll and the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Percivale have crews totalling some 240 personnel.

Mr. Fitzpatrick: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. May I express the appreciation of my constituents--some of whom have relatives in Sierra Leone and others have simply expressed concern about the situation there--for the role that our troops have been playing? Will he advise the House what progress is being made to deal with the illegal diamond trade which is perceived by many as fuelling the civil war?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) rose--

Mr. Hoon: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) for his offer of help.

Britain wants international action to curb the illicit trade in conflict diamonds to be proceeded with as a matter of urgency. A new Security Council resolution on Sierra Leone provides a significant opportunity to focus the international community on addressing the problem and exploring measures to tackle it. Britain is certainly proposing ideas to prevent RUF access to Sierra Leone diamonds and the diamond markets, and to help the development of a regulated and sustainable diamond industry in Sierra Leone.

Surplus Assets

4. Ms Christine Russell (City of Chester): What progress is being made in achieving the target for disposal of surplus assets contained in the strategic defence review. [127259]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In the past two financial years, more than £400 million has been realised from the sale of surplus property assets. We are fully on course to achieve the £700 million target for gross receipts which is set out in the strategic defence review. The Defence Logistics Organisation was set a target to reduce the book value of spares holdings by some 20 per cent., and is on target to meet that by 2001.

Ms Russell: I thank the Secretary of State for that reply and congratulate the MOD on achieving its target. May I further congratulate my right hon. Friend on the estates strategy that has recently been published? My constituency has a long military history and therefore significant MOD assets. I noted a strong commitment to sustainability in the strategy. The MOD has announced--I have no criticism of it--that it intends to dispose of Saighton camp on the rural fringe of my constituency. I therefore seek an assurance that it will conduct a full

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environmental impact assessment, as promised in the strategy, and consult local planning authorities prior to the disposal of that asset.

Mr. Hoon: I was about to say that I suspect--but I know that my hon. Friend knows a good deal more about the site than I do. None the less, I shall certainly ensure that the case is looked at and will write to her in due course. I hope to be able to give her the answer that she seeks.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Is not it a rather fragile and inadequate basis for the Secretary of State's budget to depend to such an extent on windfalls from surplus assets? Does he understand that there is great sympathy for him in the House as he prepares, once again, to repel the predatory swoop of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the comprehensive spending review? Indeed, there is some sympathy for him in the House owing to the fact that briefing against him appears to have started already in this morning's national newspapers. Will he insist in the comprehensive spending review on a settlement that allows the MOD a proper budget, and one that does not rely on speculative returns from surplus assets?

Mr. Hoon: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong to describe asset sales as windfalls. All Departments--the MOD is no exception--must concentrate their activity on areas that they require, whether for training of people or testing of equipment. It is crucial that we retain only those assets that we need at any given time. Therefore, there is a vigorous programme of selling assets, as it is clearly important that land and sites are used for proper purposes rather than remaining redundant as part of our property portfolio. I disagree with him profoundly when he talks of the sale of such assets as windfalls. They are assets that the country can use more effectively than merely leaving them idle on the books of the MOD or any other Department.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside): Will the comprehensive spending review, to which the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) referred, consider the successor identification friend or foe system, and if it does, as I suspect it will, will there be sufficient funding for it from my right hon. Friend's Department? My constituency, Raytheon and RAF Sealand want to help my right hon. Friend and offer their services on the contract--

Madam Speaker: Order. We are getting quite a way from the original question. I shall try Sir Michael Spicer, who I hope will return to it.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): One organisation that seems to be coming quite close to being surplus to requirements in the Government's mind is the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. In the light of the Select Committee's report on DERA and its importance to Anglo-American relations particularly, will the Government reconsider their position on it?

Mr. Hoon: The Government have put out a further consultation paper in relation to the proposed sale of DERA. The hon. Gentleman refers to Anglo-American

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concerns; I assume that what he really means is anxieties in the United States. If he checks the situation carefully, he will find that the United States is content with the latest proposals, so that criticism does not arise. I have studied carefully and discussed with members of the Select Committee their reservations about the proposals. Clearly, we will take that into account before any final decisions are taken.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I welcome the statement of the Secretary of State with regard to the disposal of surplus land and buildings. Will he give an assurance that if there are opportunities to dispose of those in a way that is economically helpful to those communities, he will not stand by the last penny that he can get by holding out, but that he will co-operate with other Departments for the general benefit of those communities?

Mr. Hoon: I can give the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that I may not stand by the last penny, but I shall certainly stand by the last £100 million.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): I welcome the progress announced by my right hon. Friend in the disposal of surplus assets. Instead of the cash value, can he tell the House how many housing units have been released and how many acres of land have been disposed of by his Department?

Mr. Hoon: As my hon. Friend knows, the great majority of houses in the possession of the Ministry of Defence are owned by a private company, from which we lease them--a decision taken by the previous Government. We have 63,000 families quarters, but some 53,000 of those are leased from a commercial company. The remainder are owned, and we have a further 20,700 houses in our overseas garrisons, so there is a considerable amount of property. We review it carefully and, as I said earlier, we ensure that we retain only the property that the country needs at any given time.

Army Exercises

5. Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): If he will make a statement on the Medicine Man exercises which will take place this year at the British Army training unit, Suffield. [127260]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Normally, five Medicine Man exercises at battle group level are conducted at BATUS in Canada each year. This year, however, there is only one standard Medicine Man; two have been cancelled because the units originally earmarked are committed to operations in the Balkans, and the final two exercises are being combined into Exercise Iron Hawk. That will be a brigade level exercise and will involve 3,200 soldiers from the lead reconnaissance taskforce and the lead aviation taskforce. It is an exciting development and will be the first time that helicopters have exercised at BATUS on such a scale. It will be an excellent opportunity for the troops involved to operate at that level.

Mr. Gray: Will the Minister join me in congratulating the 250 permanent staff whom we have in the training

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facility in Canada, which is larger than all the British Army's other training areas put together--a superb facility for training in high-intensity warfare? The Minister speaks about Iron Hawk. Was that not put together at the last minute, to cover up the fact that of the five full battle group exercises that are normally allowed in BATUS, only one can be carried out this year, for two reasons: first, because of overstretch, as the Minister correctly mentions--we simply do not have the troops to go there to take part in an exercise--and secondly, because of budgetary cuts? Is that not a disgraceful waste of one of the finest assets that the British Army has?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman has got that quite wrong. Does he think that we should not contribute troops to the international effort in Kosovo and Bosnia? The moneys allocated for Medicine Man 2 and 3 have been put into Medicine Man 4 and 5, which have been combined into a brigade level exercise. That is an enhancement of capability, a better kind of training and, if successful, could well be the template for the future. It is an interesting and successful story, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to draw it to the attention of the House.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): That was a remarkable display of smoke and mirrors. The fact of the matter is that training at BATUS in Canada has been cut, which is bad news when we need to train for high-intensity warfare. Does the Minister recall that the Royal Marines cancelled their winter exercises in Norway? Has he noticed that only a handful of units have had time for biological and chemical defence training? Does he recall that HMS Westminster was pulled off an exercise and sent to enhance the millennium party on the Thames? Is he aware that in the spearhead battalions of the rapid reaction corps, only one in seven Lynx helicopters is fit to fly, and the pilots are queuing up for one-hour trips round the bay to keep their hands in? The Minister must stop the downward spiral. What does he intend to do--cut commitments or increase defence spending?

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman excels himself. He referred to Lynx helicopters. Let us be clear that there is a technical problem with rotor heads. I suspect that those rotor heads were probably ordered under a previous Conservative Administration. However, armies, air forces and, indeed, airline companies face such inevitable problems.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned a Royal Marines exercise in Norway. I went there, and several hundred troops were engaged in the exercise, notably the Royal Logistic Corps, which provided the logistics for the majority of the exercise, and the Air Force. The Royal Marines had been detached to other duties. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that we were rather busy last year. We have been engaged in several operations.

Once again, we have to return to the core question: if Conservative Members keep returning to the Dispatch Box to make points about overstretch, they should tell us what commitments they would cut.

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