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2.48 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure and an honour to be the final Back-Bench speaker in what has been a very powerful and interesting debate. I begin where my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) ended by paying tribute to my hon.-I should say gallant now-Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for his recounting of a truly incredible story. It was a very moving and vivid account of a personal experience that brought home to him the actual dangers of the very thing that we are discussing today. I am pleased that he survived the incident, although very saddened to hear about the loss of his friends. He has been, and continues to be, an asset to this House, so it was all the more moving to hear about the start of that amazing story back in 1955.

There have been other excellent contributions, and it has been fascinating to hear the interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster), who has had first-hand experience of dealing with these munitions, as well as the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Holloway), who has equally wandered the globe, seen those munitions at first hand and seen also the damage that they can do. It is a tribute to the power of this House that we have Members with such knowledge and expertise who can contribute to this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster stressed that countries that are either applying or want to be at the top table on the UN Security Council may not be signatories to the convention, so I should be interested to hear whether the Minister supports countries putting their names forward to sit at that top table-whether in a permanent or temporary slot-if they have not signed up to the convention.

Before I get into the detail of the Bill, and as we are on the subject of mines, I pay tribute to the 56 Riflemen who have been killed and the 235 Riflemen who have been injured from the 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion the Rifles. These deaths and injuries, which have taken place in Afghanistan in the past 12 months alone, show the dangers that those Riflemen are continuing to endure in a war zone. I highlight that because Afghanistan is the war zone at the moment, and we are debating what happens to a war zone once the war is concluded-once the armies pack up and go home and the civilians return to be rehoused or to reoccupy their communities. The Bill is important because it does not discriminate in terms of its application, but there is a legacy for which we are responsible.

I was interested to hear the Minister say that a third of all injuries are to children, who pick up these munitions way after the war has finished and the military has gone on its way. It is worrying in itself that we do not do more to ensure that we clean up after war has taken place.

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Mr. Lancaster: May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lieutenant Gareth Evans and Sergeant Balaram Rai of the Queen's Gurkha Engineers, who died in Kosovo in June 1999 attempting to clear cluster mines so that these very young people and children would not be injured? This is an appropriate moment to put that on record.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that intervention and very pleased that my hon. and gallant Friend has placed that tribute on the record. The sacrifices that our armed forces make, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, should never be forgotten.

We had some discussion about smart and dumb cluster bombs. I hope that the Bill does not distinguish between the two. A dumb cluster bomb is one that is not designed to explode after a certain time but simply lands and waits for somebody to step on it, whereas a smart one is supposed to overcome that problem and end up exploding of its own accord so that it does not become dangerous ordnance in the aftermath of war. Either way, they are considered as force multipliers, and I am pleased that we are removing those aspects of war.

However, as we have heard time and again, it is all very well our stepping forward and making this noble gesture to remove our arsenal of those weapons, but there are still countries, some of them military allies, that are not only using these weapons but manufacturing them. My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster made the important point that if countries such as China are making these weapons, who on earth are they exporting them to? We do not know, but we do know that we might end up bumping into them in one part of the world or another.

There was much talk about matters closer to home-European countries that have yet to ratify the convention. I was also astonished to hear that half the Commonwealth countries, with which one would assume that we have good relationships, have yet to sign the convention, and that a number of European countries-about a third of the European Union-have yet to do so. Again, we do not know where they are exporting to. Eighty-five countries continue to have stockpiles of weapons. I would be keen to learn whether the Minister thinks that all those countries will have destroyed their stockpiles by the time that we have got rid of ours.

Mention was made of Diego Garcia and other British territories overseas. As the Minister said in response to my intervention, we may well ask the Americans to remove their cluster munitions from our soil, but can he guarantee that the same will apply in other locations around the world where we have a British interest?

How will compliance with these measures be confirmed? Is there a UN team that will go in to inspect, or will it simply be done by good will? Is there some form of inspectorate? How will we formally know that this is taking place?

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) raised the issue of financing, and I encourage the Minister to respond to that. We are a cornerstone, internationally and globally, of the financial markets. How can we ensure that our own markets are not used, from a banking perspective, to support companies that may wish to continue to make these munitions?

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Something that is missing from the convention itself, let alone the Bill, is a sense of responsibility on the part of countries such as ourselves who have used these munitions in the past but are perhaps not doing enough to clear up the mess having left that legacy behind. The Minister was right to point out that, through DFID, we are doing an awful lot to pay for the existing clear-up, but what a shame that we did not include in the convention a retrospective element according to which signatories are asked to consider what they can do in the former war zones in which they fought to assist with the removal of mines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster pointed out that Africans are carrying out the clear-up in Argentina- [ Interruption. ] I am sorry-in the Falklands, not Argentina. I am loth to encourage too many Argentines to make their homes in the Falklands, given the current circumstances. Nevertheless, there is something morally right in seeing an Argentine ordnance team working to remove the munitions that they placed, as well as working with the British to remove the ordnance that we put down. As I said, Argentine ordnance is down there as well, which is why legacy should also be important in the clean-up process.

Bill Wiggin: The Kent-based company that won the contract from the Government to clear the mines employs Zimbabweans. The dilemma that that presents for the Government, on which unfortunately the Minister was unable to offer any clarification, relates to why we are taking that talent-they are brilliant mine-clearing people-from Africa when there is so much demand for it there. Yes, it is nice that we can afford to employ the finest people in the world to clear the mines that the Argentines sowed in the Falklands, but there is a moral dilemma that the Government have completely failed to address.

Mr. Ellwood: I entirely take my hon. Friend's point; he is absolutely right. The demand for the removal of munitions and ordnance in Africa itself exists, so we have to ask ourselves why we are unable to sort out the Falklands in our own way rather than depriving Africa of that asset.

Mr. Holloway: Does my hon. Friend agree that this might be the moment to pay tribute to organisations such as the HALO Trust, which goes off around the world to do this work? I shall never forget seeing one of its staff walking over a hillside with the villagers confined to a particular area to show that he and his colleagues had effectively removed the mines. He walked around for about two and half hours; I am only sorry that he asked me to join him.

Mr. Ellwood: I am grateful for that intervention. I am not sure that the HALO Trust has been praised enough. Indeed, other charities do this very difficult work, working alongside our armed forces as well.

The consequence of the western world's legacy-ours and that of other nations which have fought wars-of minefields and munitions is that more than 90 countries across the globe are contaminated with the remnants of war. We are responsible for sites in Iraq, as we used these munitions when moving towards Basra in 2003. Likewise, there are explosive remnants in Kosovo, Sudan,
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Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kenya. Many areas are inaccessible because of the amount of munitions that are blocking the roads and pathways. In Angola, I understand that 18 provinces have problems in receiving other humanitarian aid because they do not have freedom of movement because of the munitions left on the ground.

The purpose of the Bill and the convention itself is to protect future generations from the consequences of the aftermath of war, so why do nations not contribute to the clean-up? The Minister said that the UK is doing its bit, but cannot we show some leadership to encourage other countries to do the same?

Bosnia has been mentioned, and I remember going in there firstly as part of UN operations. I am afraid that we were very keen to get rid of our blue beret. We had to paint our Warriors in a bright white, which seemed to say, "We are here, please shoot at us." When we turned into an implementation force, we were pleased to go back into our normal uniforms, and with different rules of engagement we gained the respect of the Bosnians, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

I recall one very grave moment when we had to punch through an area just north of Sanski Most, near Prijedor, where we had to try to provide a road link between a Serb area and a Muslim area. It was quite a moment for me to have to send one of my Warrior tanks in front of me to pave the way through. We did not know what was going to happen. Thankfully we were able to break through, and I believe that that crossing is still called the Bondi beach crossing point. It was one of the main arterial routes that we were able to make. We could not go either side of the area and so we then had to mark it off, and I understand that it is still marked off to this very day. Children are prevented from going into it, and one of the educational things that they do when they are growing up is to learn about minefield signs. It cannot be right that they are having to do that in the heart of Europe.

I questioned the Minister about the use of other institutions and organisations in Europe, and he dismissed the idea that NATO might have a role and might be able to encourage its member states to participate. He rolls his eyes, but NATO uses the munitions in question. If we could oblige the armed forces to remove them from their arsenal, that would surely be a positive step. They could then say to their political masters, "Yes, we have got rid of them. We have designed our suite of warfare assets so that we no longer rely on such munitions." That is worth exploring, and I would be happy to point the Minister in the direction of Admiral Jim Stavridis, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who would be delighted to have a conversation with him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) made the valid point that the EU has the European Defence Agency. Why on earth is that not being used as a vehicle to encourage the moves that we want? We do not have to force the matter, but why is it not brought up for debate? The Minister shakes his head, but we could show some British leadership by using such vehicles to encourage our allies. It cannot be right that Turkey is still unwilling to sign the convention. That could mean that we go to war with Turkey as our NATO ally and find it using the munitions in question because it believes it is still okay to do so. The Minister did not explain what would happen to an officer working
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with or in the neighbourhood of Turkish forces if they were to use those munitions. That is not covered in the Bill-no such crime is set out in it. The crimes, punishments, threats and so on laid out in the Bill are all about what happens on British soil. That needs to be explored in Committee, and I hope that the Minister has time to answer the questions that I have asked him.

The conduct of war has changed. I think I am right in saying that the Minister mentioned Henry Dunant, whose writings about the horrors of war in his book "A Memory of Solferino" in 1862 were the genesis of the Red Cross. Since then, advances in technology have taken place and our moral understanding of what is right and wrong in the conduct of war has changed. We now have the Geneva conventions, and the Minister also mentioned the prohibition of mustard gas as a form of warfare. However, even in 2003 we were using the munitions covered in the Bill. The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) secured an Adjournment debate in 2006 on the very issue of prohibiting them, and a Defence Minister said, "Not possible."

Chris Bryant: As did the Opposition.

Mr. Ellwood: The point is made, but that shows how the argument has advanced.

Ernest Hemingway said:

Today, we strive to make one very small but ugly facet of war a crime, and that must be a positive thing. More recently, General Petraeus has said that we must think of war in a very different way-it is no longer enough just to destroy the enemy, we have to enable the local, and only then is our job done properly. We cannot enable the local if we leave behind a legacy of munitions. I am pleased to add my weight and support to the Bill, which is morally and ethically the right thing to do and a very positive step forward.

3.5 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): This has been a wide-ranging and well-informed debate. I, too, wish to place on record my support for and belief in the work of many aid organisations dealing with mines and with the aftermath of mines and cluster munitions, and that of our own mine clearance personnel in the British armed forces. It was a business that had declined in the '70s and '80s to a narrow profession dealing on the whole with specific kinds of munitions in the internal conflict in Northern Ireland, but it has grown like Topsy because of Iraq and Afghanistan.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), like other colleagues with military service and experience, put his finger on it when he asked what was the original purpose of the munitions in question. It was to enable the side that was weaker on the whole, whether on a tactical or operational level, to block off large areas of a battlefield against a superior enemy, and at least divert him or hold him up. As many of us know who lived through the cold war-the balance between NATO and the Warsaw pact-they were developed because it was assumed that there would be an overwhelming Soviet and Warsaw pact attack on NATO, and that if we were not immediately to use nuclear weapons, the next worst thing was conventional weapons such as these.

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We then tried to distinguish between the use of cluster munitions in what I would still call "conventional warfare", which could somehow be regarded as good use-although God alone knows what West Germany would have looked like in the midst of it all-and bad use in unconventional warfare, which would involve the death of large numbers of civilians and be indiscriminate, however we define that word. I do not want to become an old military historian bore, but-

Chris Bryant: I am sure you can manage it.

Mr. Simpson: The Minister has just enticed me to speak for at least another hour-he should be very careful about teasing me at the Dispatch Box.

We have to accept that, horrendously, tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the two world wars by direct munitions. We can think of the 30,000 French casualties during the liberation of Normandy or the tens of thousands of British and German civilians who were killed in area bombing, many of them by land mines that were left behind. My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said that those who drop or lay mines should effectively be responsible for clearing up, but that has not applied in the case of either the British or German Government. In fact, it is the home Government who have to do it. The only contribution that we have made to the continuing business of collecting munitions dropped by Bomber Command during the second world war has been to provide, thank goodness, an amazing array of aerial photographs.

The casualty element of the problem, which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) so movingly brought to bear on the debate, shows the legacy of these weapons. It is sometimes difficult for us to think about the tens of thousands of people affected in Cambodia, Afghanistan and elsewhere-they are numbers, despite the photographs and so on. The legacy of the weapons in question still exists, and there are still casualties in Belgium and northern France from munitions from the two world wars. An old friend of mine was killed 11 years ago. He was a military historian at Sandhurst who foolishly brought back a piece of unexploded munitions from the battlefield in France, quite illegally. It was placed on his study desk, and one evening he was working, the heat in the room changed and the thing blew up and killed him. He is not alone. There is therefore a historical element to such casualties.

My next point is important; I do not believe that my hon. Friends made it to undermine the purpose of the Bill, which they all said that they support. However, several colleagues asked why the UK Government changed their mind about the decision to do without cluster munitions. It might be helpful to the debate in Committee if the Minister provided an aide-mémoire from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, outlining the reasons for the decision. My shorthand on the matter is that the Ministry of Defence was always loth to give up that range of munitions, partly because it was still thinking in cold war terms, but also because it believed that there was always a possibility of finding ourselves in a conflict in which we might need such munitions. It is a fair and legitimate question for colleagues to ask. I urge the Minister to ask the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence to provide, if possible, an aide- mémoire. I imagine that it is possible because the
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information cannot be restricted, certainly not nowadays, or it would automatically end up in The Independent or The Times. An aide-mémoire should be produced in time for Committee stage. I am sure that that will find support from hon. Members of all parties.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) asked a series of questions. The first-an important question-was, what changed the Government's mind? He, like other colleagues, rightly made the point that many of our allies still see the utility of possessing the munitions. I will not regurgitate the arguments of particularly my hon. Friends about how we operate in coalitions when some of our partners still possess and maintain the right to use such weapons under certain circumstances. I do not think that that is legal nit-picking-there is potentially a genuine problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury, the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) and others asked about the indirect financing of cluster munitions and where that fits in the Bill.

My hon. Friend's final point was that there is no explicit commitment by the UK Government to meet the eight-year deadline in the Bill. The Minister is doing a cute frown at me and fluttering his eyelids in a way that only the Government Whips Office normally sees.

Chris Bryant: Don't start me.

Mr. Simpson: Indeed. The Government Whip is looking affronted.

I should be grateful if the Minister explained in detail the reason for the absence of the commitment to meet the deadline in the Bill.

Supporting the Bill means that we accept that the UK not only accepts legal liabilities, but voluntarily gives up a military/defence weapons system, and that we recognise that the effect of that system is horrendous, whether on soldiers or civilians. One of the unspoken aspects is that our military personnel, civilian personnel and many non-governmental organisations nevertheless have to operate in truly asymmetric conflicts. The other side, whether a legally based Government or irregular forces, is not constrained. British troops and civilian personnel, with other coalition forces, are risking their lives at this moment in Afghanistan to support a legitimate Government, and are facing an enemy that operates with no constraints, and effectively uses cluster munitions. I do not know whether, in the parameters of international law, there is any way in which we can bring some form of legal consequences upon not only those who plant such munitions, but those who direct them. It is demonstrably unfair that we are placed in such a position and that the enemy has all the advantages. We may have the moral high ground, but they do not suffer any consequences for the sort of warfare that they are waging.

Hon. Members of all parties support the Bill. They have asked questions in a positive spirit and we look forward the Minister's comments and views.

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