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17 Mar 2010 : Column 909

My friend and I got bored. We turned round. We had our backs to our friends, and were about the same distance from them as I am from you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when there was a huge explosion. We were blown into the sea, and lived. Five of my friends died. Five British children were blown up by a British mine on a British beach, within my living memory, and the living memory of many other people. It was an extraordinary thing. It happened in the middle of the 1955 general election. The front page of the following day's edition of The Daily Telegraph carried a story with the headline, "4 Boys Die, One Missing in Explosion". Below that, smaller headlines stated, "Big Crater Torn in Beach" and "Wartime Mine Theory".

There was not much theory involved for the five who were killed, or for the two of us who were the luckiest people alive. I still think that I am the luckiest person alive in this House. Of course, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes has deliberately put himself in harm's way, and I salute him for it, but I was there as a child and got tangled up in what happened by mistake. So what was the response in Britain when a mine exploded around our shores? Many years later, I was a Minister in the Department of National Heritage, and the Imperial War Museum was one of my responsibilities. One day, I asked the staff there whether they had any records of something happening on Swanage beach on 13 May 1955. A couple of weeks later, a large box arrived, full of all the documentation relating to that horrible event.

I have here in my hand copies of the Dorset police documents entitled "Report to Coroner Concerning Death". They detail how, on 13 May at about 4.20 pm, four boys were reported dead. I also have a copy of the report from the police constable who found them, but the strange thing is that the fifth boy was never found. Within a day or two, a plimsoll that he had been wearing was found. Another was found a few days later. That meant that the then Home Secretary had to issue a document giving authority to the coroner to investigate the matter. The coroner simply declared that there was no conclusion to reach other than that the fifth boy had been a victim of the same mine explosion.

In the inquest, the coroner called for evidence from the officer responsible for de-mining the beach, who had issued a class IIA certificate in January 1950. The officer said:

I have read the mine clearance officer's reports, and have with me a copy of the plan of the mines that were laid on Swanage beach in 1940. A clearance operation was undertaken in 1945, which was repeated in 1947 and again 1949. Eventually, a clearance certificate was issued on 17 February 1950. The documents reveal that 117 mines had been laid, of which five were lifted in clearance. They also show that, although there was some evidence of the existence of 54 others, the remaining 58 are still unaccounted for. That was what I found so horrendous when I discovered all this as a Minister of the Crown so many years later.

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The coroner concluded his remarkable summing up-in those days, of course, everything was handwritten, and I have a copy of his notes-by saying:

the master in charge

I certainly concur with that. He was my favourite master. He was my French master, and a remarkable and good man. I think that he must have been through hell ever since.

One can imagine how horrified the staff at the school were by what had happened. They, too, were remarkable in the way in which they handled the incident, the enormity of which was overwhelming. The headmaster, John Strange, who was a wonderful man, managed to hold the whole community together. The retired headmaster, the Rev. Chadwick, also played his part. The master who had been at the heart of the incident and who had been taking his charges on the beach was wonderful. The school could not have done more to look after the children, but the fact remained that the mine clearances had not been completed satisfactorily. The mine clearance officers had, in fact, refused a certificate of clearance on one occasion, but had been overruled.

In the final certificate of removal of dangerous military defence works, the officer concerned-who, ironically, was operating out of Southern Command in Salisbury in my constituency-stated:

Bulldozers were brought in, and the beach was removed down to the rock and put back again. The officer continued:

and that is what happened.

This is a horrendous story, and I repeat it to the House to point out that on the issue of mine clearance, whether it is cluster bombs, cluster munitions or mines of any kind, the impact is the same on a child of 10 at play, whether in Beirut or in Swanage. Personally, I would like to see the mystery of the missing mines of Swanage bay cleared up. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), who also knows more about military matters than most of us, and who has first-hand experience in his military service, might be interested.

After the event, the coastguard swept the whole coast from St. Aldhelm's head right round past Poole harbour all the way to the Isle of Wight for any traces of that missing body. None were found. More significant now is the fact that we have the technology to detect those mines. I would like to see minehunters of the Sandown
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class or equivalent brought in, perhaps in training, to sweep Swanage beach and the coast right round Bournemouth. We have the evidence in the 1950 statements of the officer who did the clearance and also from the 1955 inquest that the bomb which killed those children had probably been swept inshore by a gale. There is an opportunity for the Ministry of Defence, in the course of training our Royal Navy operatives, to have another go. That would be an opportunity worth taking.

I support the Bill-of course I do, after what I have been through in my life. I still think I am the luckiest Member to be alive. It motivated me in my politics, and it motivated me to be interested in defence once I came to the House. I have done that for 27 years. I hope the lessons of Swanage beach will not be forgotten. I hope the Bill will be but one step on the road to realising that although war may have to be fought, we should always strive to do it honourably, morally, with integrity, and always and everywhere with the minimum impact on a civilian population that has not put itself in harm's way. That is my wish, and that is why I support the Bill.

2.33 pm

Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for that remarkable speech. I am sure no one will forget what he said about Friday 13 May 1955.

I welcome the international moves against land mines and cluster bombs. The first time I came across a cluster bomb was in the early 1980s in Afghanistan. There were a number of little green things with a wing on the side and a bit of metal protruding from them. Back in Pakistan, I saw the effect of those at a children's hospital run, I think, but the International Committee of the Red Cross. I shall not forget, in Bosnia in about 1992, when someone had been blown up by a mine in a little town called Stari Vitez, my team and I going back to where we lived and prising out of the soles of our Timberland shoes little flecks of different bits of people.

In 2003 I remember standing in a built-up area in northern Iraq and being extremely surprised to see shiny little unexploded bomblets, almost certainly from an American plane. I wondered why they had been used there in those circumstances. Poorly targeted, they do not discriminate between civilian and military targets. When the submunitions fail to explode, they become de facto land mines, every bit as lethal as that experienced by my hon. Friend, causing civilian casualties much later.

A number of countries have refused to sign the convention, most notably Russia and China, which export cluster munitions to third-world countries. We know that the end-user arrangements can be extremely tenuous. Russia's arms exports are about $10 billion. Chinese defence exports are somewhat lower. Most of those go to Pakistan, another country that has not signed, as is the case for Israel.

By signing the convention, the Government will not be able to stop nasty wars in various parts of the world that are still being fought with the use of cluster munitions. The two latest and most well-known examples are the war between Russia and Georgia and the extensive use of presumably American-made cluster bombs in Lebanon by Israel. I have no idea what is going on in the nastier, darker corners of the world in all those little wars in places such as Africa.

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Mr. Caton: On a point of information, Israel is a manufacturer of cluster munitions, and the British defence forces have used Israeli cluster munitions.

Mr. Holloway: I thank the hon. Gentleman for telling us that.

Now many-dare I say it-responsible first-world countries will not have cluster munitions and will not be able to stockpile them or transfer them. A number of European countries have already signed up to the convention, and the US has tabled the Cluster Munitions Civilian Protection Act to restrict their open use by the military, although like most legislation in the US, that has rather slowed down. But cluster munitions are useful in dire extremis because, as was shown by the US in Iraq, they have the capacity to destroy large armoured formations spread over a large area in a very short time frame.

I was talking to one of my friends about the war in Iraq in 2003, when a multi-launch rocket system was presenting an instant threat, presumably to our troops, and how the use of those munitions instantly got rid of that threat. I accept that in Iraq in 2003, for example, they were massively over-used. I saw that. However, the US will retain them, and as we know, it has no plans to sign the convention. During future coalition operations, the UK will still be able to benefit from the protection afforded by those munitions if the US chooses to deploy them.

As a state party to the convention, the UK is required to promote adherence to the convention and discourage the use of cluster munitions. By ratifying the convention, we have removed the ability to use such weapons. It is a shame that we ratified without an exemption to allow the UK the ability to acquire those weapons in extreme circumstances. That would not prevent us from getting rid of our current stockpile, as we are doing now, which is costing a large amount of money; nor would it prevent the US from stockpiling them in our country. I do not understand the need potentially to endanger the country's security and the safety of our armed forces, when we have the opportunity now to comply with the convention but retain the ability to protect our troops in extremis.

All weapons are filthy. Cluster munitions and land mines are particularly so because they are cruel and enduring. However, in some dire scenarios, as one of the weapons of last resort, in a deadly battle space, they could have a role. In crude, ugly, practical terms, they could be extremely useful in protecting our troops. I hope we do not regret signing the convention.

2.39 pm

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): This legislation and the convention on cluster munitions are welcome. In warfare we should always strive to ensure that civilian casualties are kept to a minimum. The principle that civilians are protected from the effects of warfare and conflict, and that non-combatants are treated humanely during warfare and conflict and its aftermath, is something that we must observe, and the convention and the legislation take a step in the right direction. At a time when our moral standing as a great power has been questioned morally and ethically in respect of our foreign policy, and widely judged by the public here and abroad, we are sending out a positive signal by ratifying the convention.

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I am sure that over the years we have all been contacted by our constituents and various lobby groups and charities, highlighting the dangers of cluster munitions. Even in areas where wars and conflicts have finished, cluster munitions pose a threat to civilians for decades. In Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, there are still regular instances of civilians-often children born a generation after the bombs were dropped-being maimed and killed. It is estimated that there are 300 new victims a year in that area-almost one a day.

A cluster submunition explosion took the life of a 40-year-old man in Quang Tri in Vietnam in February, and five children were killed and another was injured when a cluster submunition exploded in a village in Laos-also in February. Those are just two of the many sad cases that highlight for us all the need to take action, but ratifying the convention and passing the legislation is just one step in the process of dealing with cluster munitions. A number of outstanding issues need to be resolved nationally and internationally to make the convention more effective.

I should welcome from the Minister an explanation of how our obligations under the convention will be consistent with the support that we give to our allies who are not signatories. Article 1 states:

The UK has always had an important working relationship with the USA on military operations. However, the USA is not a signatory to the convention, and nor is Pakistan, with whom we are also working on operations in Afghanistan. How will our ratification of the convention and obligations under article 1 be consistent with the joint working relationship that we need with our allies?

By working with those countries on joint military operations, would the UK be in breach of article 1 and the requirement not to "Assist, encourage or induce" others to use cluster bombs? If we gave our allies intelligence on the location of enemy positions in Afghanistan, and they then chose to use cluster bombs in that area, would the UK be in breach of the convention and those officers involved sanctioned under clause 2 of the Bill? Would a British soldier working with US forces on an operation in which cluster munitions were used be prosecuted under clause 2? Or do the Government envisage a protocol whereby we will co-operate with our allies only on the condition that cluster bombs be not used?

In the NATO operation in Serbia and Kosovo, which was championed by our former Prime Minister and widely supported, cluster munitions were used. Under clause 2, however, troops involved in joint operations could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted of "assisting, encouraging or inducing" our allies in using prohibited munitions. Once we ratify the convention, how will future operations be affected when our allies might be using those weapons?

Then there is the matter of cluster munitions at US bases in the UK. The Minister touched on it in his opening comments, but it is unclear whether by permitting that practice the UK would be breaching its obligations and committing an offence under the Bill. As we know from the use of US bases in Britain for extraordinary
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rendition, whereby Britain has been complicit and implicated in that practice, our moral standing on such issues can be undermined by our associations with our allies. The Government have yet to provide clarity on those matters or the reassurances that we would like to ensure that our armed forces are not compromised in their tremendous work in theatres of war to bring about peace and security.

The Government also need to outline to us their plans to lobby other countries to sign up to the convention. In addition to America and Pakistan, a significant number of other countries have yet to sign up. Israel, Georgia and Russia have all reportedly used cluster munitions and are not signatories to the convention, and we have all seen, from the Georgian-Russian conflict and the ongoing violence in the middle east, the devastating effects of cluster munitions. Other non-signatories include those regional powers that aspire to permanent seats on the UN Security Council-Brazil, India, China, Argentina, North Korea, Iran and Syria-and non-state organisations, such as Hezbollah. There is nothing to prevent those countries and groups from producing such weapons and trading them.

When Parliament agreed to replace Trident, we also agreed to continue to renew our efforts under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to support arms reduction. We should be doing likewise with this convention and pushing forward with efforts to get other countries on board. I would be concerned if the UK had to enter a conflict in which our enemies were using those devices. At the Oslo conference in December 2008, the Foreign Secretary stated that the UK's decision to sign the convention would send "a clear political message" to others, and it is important that the message is understood by those countries and reinforced.

I understand that under article 3, signatories must undertake to destroy their stockpiles of prohibited cluster munitions within eight years. It would be helpful to know from the Minister the progress that the UK and other parties to the convention are making in destroying those weapons. I should also be interested to know the shelf-life of such weapons, the cost of destroying them and the reduction in cost as a result of the eight-year period.

I should also welcome from the Minister further details on how the UK will meet its obligations to help clear cluster munitions under article 4 of the convention, and to support victims under article 5. Although those measures are not covered by the Bill, they are part of the convention. Some 6 million to 7 million cluster munitions are thought to be in Laos, and munitions are present in Georgia, Africa, Afghanistan and the middle east. The international community has made progress in clearing land mines over recent years, and I urge the Minister to step up efforts, in the year that this convention comes into force, to clear up unexploded cluster munitions. I should welcome also an explanation of how our obligations under the convention will be consistent with the support that we give to our allies who are not signatories to the convention.

When I was a solider, I was trained to understand that cluster munitions would be used to protect areas in the same way as setting land mines would. They were an important defensive measure for an army being trained to resist the might of the Soviet Union. I hope that we will learn what we would do if such threats were to exist
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in future-although obviously not in the same way as they existed in the '80s or earlier. We would not like our troops to have their hands tied behind their backs, but equally we must do everything that we can to ensure that stories such as that which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) told never occur again. Therefore, I welcome the Bill.

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