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Côte D'Ivoire

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): In a statement on 11 November 2004, I outlined the military planning that was in hand to support an evacuation of UK nationals from Côte d'Ivoire.

The deteriorating security conditions in Côte d'Ivoire last week subsequently led to an evacuation of UK nationals from the country, following a recommendation by Her Majesty's ambassador to Côte d'Ivoire that he judged this a prudent course of action. This recommendation was formulated after receiving technical military advice from the operational liaison and reconnaissance team, which had deployed on 10 November 2004 to monitor the situation in the region as part of the Ministry of Defence's contingency planning.

The spearhead lead element was initially deployed to a forward mounting base in Accra, Ghana, where the operation was commanded by elements of the UK's joint task force headquarters. The majority of these forces were drawn from the spearhead lead element based on the 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles, but the operation was supported and enabled by Royal Air Force transport aircraft from RAF Brize Norton and RAF Lyneham. As an additional contingency measure, the landing platform dock HMS Albion was also diverted towards Côte d'Ivoire.

It is indicative of the armed forces' capacity to undertake comprehensive contingency planning, and their flexibility and capability to respond quickly to events, that within 24 hours of receiving a formal request from the Foreign Secretary nearly 300 service personnel were on the ground in Ghana, engaged in preparations for the evacuation.

Between 11 and 13 November 2004, UK forces evacuated some 220 individuals from Abidjan and Yamoussoukro to Ghana, where the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had set up a reception centre to cater for the men, women and children who wished to leave Côte d'Ivoire.

All Service personnel involved in the evacuation operation have now returned to the UK, with the exception of HMS Albion which has returned to normal duties.

The success of this operation is in no small part due to the high degree of co-operation that existed between the deployed forces, Her Majesty's ambassador and his staff in country, and with international partners in the region, in particular Ghana and France.

The successful completion and efficient recovery of our deployed forces is m impressive achievement and one which took place without impact on the UK's enduring commitments across the globe. This is testament to the professionalism of the men and women who serve in the UK armed forces and in particular to those who participated in this operation.

Future Rapid Effect System (FRES)

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am pleased to announce that the Ministry of Defence has signed a contract with Atkins in respect of the systems house role for the future rapid effect system (FRES).
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The Ministry of Defence will be providing strategic direction, with Atkins, who are a major British company in this field, leading a number of key activities designed to inform MOD's major programme decisions during the assessment phase. Atkins' independence from product will enable them to take an objective view of the ideas and technologies that may be applicable to FRES, and marry new approaches to the knowledge that we already have as a result of previous work. Their comprehension of the risks inherent in complex systems of systems integration will be vital in determining feasible solutions. In addition, they will be managing a programme of risk reduction activities, mitigating the risks of certain technologies to determine if they are suitable for FRES. Technologies will only be inserted into FRES when they are sufficiently mature, whether initially or as part of an incremental technology insertion programme. The proactive management of these diverse de-risking activities will be key to achieving a manageable level of risk at the Main Gate investment point.

We will seek maximum appropriate competition during all programme phases, enabling industry to engage at all levels, within the context of our defence industrial policy. We will be transparent and inclusive with industry from the earliest possible stage in terms of the defence industrial policy factors that may affect acquisition decisions. To this end we have published a paper setting out our plans in this respect and identifying constraints where they apply. Understanding the broad factors that are likely to impact those decisions will enable industry to make informed judgments on whether they wish to bid and, if they choose to do so, to ensure that their bids take due account of the declared criteria.

Finally, FRES is a complex programme, with obvious tension between competing demands such as capability, time to delivery and affordability. However, the award of this contract to Atkins provides us with the necessary industrial expertise and realism to examine those competing demands in detail and to make informed decisions in order to achieve the optimum FRES solution.


NHS Research Ethics Committees

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Lord Warner, announced at the Grand Committee on the Human Tissue Bill on 15 September, column GC432, that he intended to seek independent advice on the operation of the research ethics committee system, including the Central Office for National Health Service Research Ethics Committees.

My noble Friend has asked Michael O'Higgins, a managing partner of PA Consulting Group Ltd., to chair a small ad-hoc group of scientists and lay members. It will undertake a review of the systems that support NHS Research Ethics Committees in England, and make recommendations for further steps to improve their operation, building on changes already under way.

The group will first meet in November and will report to Health Ministers by the end of March 2005. Details of the group's membership and terms of reference can be found on the Department's website
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The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne): In January 2002 the Home Secretary announced the temporary suspension of removals of failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe. This was in response to concerns at that time about the serious deterioration in the situation in Zimbabwe in the run-up to the presidential election held in March that year. We did not regard it as unsafe to return failed asylum seekers to Zimbabwe, but in view of the turbulent political conditions we considered that it would be appropriate not to enforce returns at that time.

During the period of the suspension, asylum and human rights claims made by Zimbabwean nationals have continued to be considered on their individual merits in accordance with our obligations under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Each application is considered against the background of the latest available country information from a wide range of reliable sources including international organisations, non-governmental organisations, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the media.

As with any other nationality, Zimbabweans who meet the definition of a refugee in the 1951convention are granted asylum. If they do not qualify for asylum, but there are other circumstances that make them particularly vulnerable and engage our obligations under the ECHR, they are granted humanitarian protection or discretionary leave. If their application is refused, they have a right of appeal to the independent appellate authorities. In this way we ensure that we provide protection to those Zimbabweans who need it. But if an asylum and human rights claim by an individual of any nationality is refused, and any appeal to the independent appellate authorities is unsuccessful, that means that it would be safe for that particular individual to return to their country of origin.

It is clear that there are Zimbabweans in need of international protection from persecution. Our asylum system provides that and will continue to do so. We have continued throughout the period of the suspension of enforced returns to consider cases and grant asylum or other forms of protection to Zimbabweans where necessary. The latest asylum statistics published today show that at initial decision stage in the first nine months of this year we granted asylum to 195 Zimbabweans and some other form of protection to more than 25 others. But this was out of a total of 2,025 decisions, meaning that very nearly 90 per cent. of claims were refused. 82 per cent. of subsequent appeals to the independent adjudicator were dismissed or withdrawn, the clear message is that the majority of Zimbabwean asylum applicants are able safely to return to Zimbabwe. We expect these individuals to leave voluntarily, and significant numbers have done so, but if they do not leave voluntarily we consider it entirely proper to seek to enforce their removal as we would nationals of any other country.

While there has not been any improvement in conditions in Zimbabwe since enforced removal of failed asylum seekers was suspended, the proportion of claimants whose claims are not well-founded has
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increased markedly over the period of the suspension. It is clear that the absence of enforced returns increasingly acts as a "pull factor" for Zimbabweans, and for others posing as Zimbabweans, who do not need international protection but nonetheless make asylum claims confident that even when unsuccessful they will not be forcibly removed. This is a misuse of the asylum system. We are therefore today bringing our policy on returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers into line with that on every other country and ending the temporary suspension of enforced returns of failed Zimbabwean asylum seekers.

This change in asylum policy does not reflect any change in our categorical opposition to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. We will continue, bilaterally and with our international partners, to push the Government of Zimbabwe to end human rights abuses there, and restore democracy, so that all Zimbabweans can in time return safely to help build a prosperous and stable country. There is no doubt that political persecution, abuses of human rights and denial of basic freedoms persist in Zimbabwe and the asylum decision-making and appeal system will continue to ensure that Zimbabweans who face persecution and claim asylum in the UK will continue to receive the international protection they need.

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