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8. Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea): What assessment he has made of the state of relations between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of Sweden. [135167]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): Relations are excellent. A month ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had talks in London with Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary visited Sweden in May, and I visited in September. There have been 25 other substantive ministerial visits in both directions so far this year, covering most Departments, as well as ministerial contacts in the margins of the European Union and other multilateral forums. The main aim has been policy co-ordination on European Union issues, especially with a view to the Swedish European Union presidency, which begins on 1 January.

Mr. Linton: Is the Minister aware of the Swedish Government's determination, forcefully expressed to me in Stockholm last week, to drive forward European Union enlargement during their presidency? Will he ensure that the United Kingdom Government do all that they can to support them in their desire to make clear progress on broadening European Union membership and negotiations with applicant countries?

Mr. Vaz: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his highly successful visit to Stockholm last week. As he knows, the United Kingdom is the best friend of enlargement. Through the speeches of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary in Budapest and Warsaw, we have set out clearly our desire for the European Union to be enlarged as quickly as possible. That is why we need to complete the intergovernmental conference on time. It is essential that we give a message to those countries that we want them in.

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As my hon. Friend knows, there are three Es to the Swedish presidency: employment initiatives, environment and enlargement, to which I add a fourth--Mr. Sven Goran Eriksson. I am sure that his appointment will build on relations between our two countries.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is not Sweden our natural ally in securing major reform of the common agricultural policy? Is it not a tragedy that, over many years, we have failed to build effective coalitions of like-minded nations which would have secured that reform much earlier?

Mr. Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is right. We failed to build those alliances because we had a Conservative Government until May 1997, but, since then, British Ministers have been out there in the European Union fully engaging with their European counterparts, ensuring that Britain's interests are put first and foremost on the agenda of Europe. We will continue to do what we have to do to reform the CAP.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): May I point out that the enthusiasm for the success of Mr. Eriksson is not universally shared in the Chamber?

The Swedish Government intend to push the creation of employment as one of the objectives of their presidency. If they are successful, it will clearly demonstrate that employment generation does not depend on a single currency throughout Europe.

Mr. Vaz: I thought hard before adding the fourth E, for the reasons that were outlined by my hon. Friend.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with the Swedish Government on a range of issues. On the single currency, he knows that our position is absolutely clear. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may laugh, but the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has recently resigned from the No Turning Back group. He cannot, however, turn his back on the likes of the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) and the hon. Members for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), whose policy is completely different from the policy of Conservative Front Benchers.

Our policy is very clear. In principle, we are in favour of joining the single currency. In practice, we will do so only when the economic conditions are right. We will assess those conditions early in the next Parliament in the interests of this country and this country alone. In the final analysis, the people of Britain will decide whether we join the single currency.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Has the hon. Gentleman discussed how Sweden's traditional neutral defence posture can be reconciled with the proposed EU defence structure, given its concerns? I remind him that the Prime Minister described plans for a merger between the Western European Union and the EU as an "ill-judged transplant operation". What has changed?

Mr. Vaz: Unlike the hon. Gentleman, we on the Government Front Bench have to deal with real Ministers and have real bilateral contacts. We do not have to quote selectively from documents. I assure him that we are totally at one with the Swedes on those initiatives.

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They are fully involved in the initiative that was put forward by the Government, with the support of the French. We will continue to work with them as EU partners to ensure that the common security and defence policy is a success.

Sierra Leone

9. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): If he will make a statement on the situation in Sierra Leone. [135168]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): I spoke to President Kabbah of Sierra Leone at the weekend. He warmly expressed his people's strong welcome for Britain's continued commitment to building a safe future for them.

We have completed the initial training of the first three battalions for the Sierra Leonean army. We will continue our programme to equip the Government of Sierra Leone with an army that can defeat the rebels. In the past week, we have confirmed that we will provide the United Nations headquarters with a British chief of staff. We will pursue with determination our goal of a Sierra Leone free from fear and rid of the rebels.

Mr. Brake: The Foreign Secretary will know that 1 million people in Sierra Leone are not receiving humanitarian aid because they happen to be in rebel-led areas. He will also be aware of the risk of the conflict spreading to neighbouring countries. Will he confirm that the United Kingdom will adopt a higher profile in Sierra Leone, that it will commit itself to UNAMSIL, and that it will remain committed in Sierra Leone until stability is achieved in the region?

Mr. Cook: The hon. Gentleman has raised real concerns about the gravity of the situation, and I strongly agree with him about the humanitarian position. I should point out, however, that the Government have done more for humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone than has any other country: in the past year alone, we have provided £30 million worth of such aid. We will, of course, continue to do all that we can to get it to the people who need it.

As for UNAMSIL, I stress to the hon. Gentleman that Britain is already making a bigger military commitment to Sierra Leone than any other western nation. We have more troops on the ground there than many contributors to UNAMSIL. We are performing a task that no one else is performing: we are equipping the Government of Sierra Leone with an army that can take the fight to the rebels. We have also committed ourselves to a rapid reaction response in the event of its being needed by the UN forces. We cannot do all that and also contribute to UNAMSIL. I am confident that ours is the right priority, and it has been agreed to by President Kabbah.

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): My right hon. Friend is right in saying that this country has done more than any other western nation to support the legitimate democratic Government of Sierra Leone. If, however, we are to create a climate in which people throughout Sierra Leone can live without fear, what more pressure can be brought to bear on those who profit from its diamonds--

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neighbouring African countries--on those who are happy to provide the rebels in Sierra Leone with arms without asking any questions about their use, and, in particular, on those who seek closer relations with the European Union while at the same time providing weapons with which the people of Sierra Leone are being murdered?

Mr. Cook: Speaking from experience, my hon. Friend draws attention to an important dimension of the problem: the extent to which some neighbouring countries--one in particular--support the rebels, and profit from the conflict and atrocities in Sierra Leone. Britain has taken the lead in proposing a scheme to monitor the diamonds that are leaving Sierra Leone, and we have UN backing for it. I hope that that will make it increasingly difficult for the rebels to sell their diamonds, and to acquire the weapons that they need to maintain the conflict.

I assure my hon. Friend that, together with the United States, we are increasing the pressure on countries in the region that are assisting the rebels rather than assisting peace.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the Foreign Secretary provide a clear statement of purpose, telling us exactly what we are trying to achieve in Sierra Leone, what resources--both military and civil--we are putting towards that, and when he expects the task to be completed?

Mr. Cook: The House has been given a number of statements explaining precisely what military commitments we are making.

The hon. Gentleman asks what we are trying to achieve. I will answer that very simply. I went to Sierra Leone in the summer, and visited a camp for amputees where I saw 2,000 people whose arms or legs had been lopped off by the rebels--including babies who were unable to crawl before their arms were lopped off by crazed rebels. My objective in Sierra Leone is to prevent anyone else from having arms lopped off by the rebels.

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