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Our forces continue to play a pivotal role in the NATO-led multinational force in creating a stable environment in which the UN mission can carry out its vital work in developing civil society and local administration.
KFOR troops continue to monitor closely ethnic Albanian extremism in southern Serbia, and its operations to interdict men and material crossing the administrative boundary have been stepped up. In recent weeks, British forces have made a significant contribution to preventing ethnic violence and lawlessness, both in the region bordering the Presevo valley in Serbia, and in Mitrovica, where extremists persist in their attempts to block progress towards a peaceful multi-ethnic society.
In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, policing and internal security remains a matter for the FYROM authorities. However, there has been dialogue between KFOR and FYROM on border security issues, and NATO has offered advice.
Mr. Spellar: Forces operating in Multinational Brigade (East) are reinforcing the United States efforts but are, of course, under the control of MNB(E). Camp Bondsteel is the main centre for that. We do not have sufficient facilities available there to detain those numbers of people.
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): Have the new United States Administration given any indication about whether they intend to withdraw their forces from Kosovo? If they have, or they do so in the near future, are European forces capable of filling the gap?
Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): My hon. Friend may be aware that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was in Yugoslavia last week. We heard some very positive proposals by the Yugoslav Government to try to defuse the problems in the Presevo valley and to allow co-operation between the Yugoslav army and KFOR to deal with extremists while bringing moderate Albanians in Presevo more fully into public life in Yugoslavia. How are we responding to those proposals and making sure that KFOR responds positively as well?
Mr. Spellar: I understand that the Foreign Affairs Committee was impressed with the work being undertaken in Kosovo. We certainly welcome Belgrade's willingness to address these issues constructively and have noted Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Covic's proposals. NATO has taken these concerns seriously. We are also considering further measures and the NATO Secretary-General has had an exchange of letters with President Kostunica.
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Clearly, there are no quick fixes in the Balkans but there may be slow fixes. Will the Minister assure the House that the professionalism and dedication of British troops on the ground will be matched by the determination and support of the Government for as long as it takes?
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Ministry of Defence is continuing to make excellent progress in implementing the long-term programme set out in the strategic defence review. More than half of the key measures have already been completed. The large majority of the remainder are on track and we remain committed to ensuring that the strategic defence review is implemented in full.
Mr. Colman: Does my right hon. Friend agree that in implementing the SDR, the Government have had to take account of failings in defence equipment brought into service under the previous Government? Is he aware that since the review, and as a result of the significant new investment that this Government have made, those failings are either being repaired or have been repaired, and that the Chief of the Defence Staff himself,Sir Charles Guthrie, has confirmed that British forces are well equipped?
Sir Charles Guthrie has said that British forces are now better equipped that any time in his long and distinguished career. Indeed, his successor, Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, has indicated that the Royal Navy currently has the best forward programme of warship building than at any stage in his naval career.
Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Secretary of State confirm that, instead of expanding the regular Army by 3,000, as planned in the strategic defence review, the numbers have dropped slightly, and that the proportion of soldiers who are unfit for combat service has increased? Will he also confirm that we have a shortfall of one sixth--17 per cent.--in RAF fast-jet pilots, an even larger proportionate shortfall in Royal Navy fast-jet pilots and that the serviceability across all our major classes of aeroplanes has declined since the SDR was published?
Mr. Hoon: The hon. Gentleman gives an accurate account of the problems that we inherited. We have sought to resolve several issues, not least improving retention. Recruitment remains buoyant for the Army, and we are on track to deliver the manning required by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force under the strategic defence review.
There is a short-term problem with fast-jet pilots. We have sought to address that through the recent armed forces' pay review body, and have accepted its recommendations in their entirety, specifically the recommendation on extra payments for fast-jet pilots. We shall address the longer-term problems by seeking to train more pilots to fill the many aircraft that we look forward to procuring for the RAF and Royal Navy.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): One of the aims ofthe strategic defence review was improvement of performance in the public service. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be aware that the work force at Clyde submarine base, in my constituency, have shown commitment and loyalty over the years. Given the latest exercise in saving on expenditure, can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will take seriously the combined trade union response on the future of the work force? Can he assure me that he will not hand the work force lock, stock and barrel to Babcock Rosyth Defence Ltd. or the private sector, but have a public-private partnership to improve the stability and efficiency of the base now and in the future?
Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He and I have held a meeting to discuss proposals to make our systems of warship maintenance and support still more efficient. I have received various suggestions from him and from the trade unions. We are also working closely with the employers to ensure that whatever support we give to the Royal Navy will be the best value for the taxpayer.
Mr. Hoon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about General Sir Charles Guthrie, but he should putSir Charles's comments in the correct context. The Chief of the Defence Staff was, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, referring to war-fighting capability, and the Government agree with what he said. War-fighting is the kind of activity that we expect NATO to carry out as a result of our collective defence obligations. General Sir Charles Guthrie was quite right to refer to the fact that it is unlikely that the EU will have a war-fighting role. European defence is about crisis management and the Petersberg tasks, not war-fighting.