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House of Lords

Wednesday, 26th January 2000.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lincoln.


The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to introduce new procedures for the fixing of tariffs for all those sentenced to detention during Her Majesty's pleasure; and whether they will give an undertaking that legislation will be introduced within six months of the judgment in the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Thompson and Venables.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government are currently considering the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in this case. We shall, of course, announce our intentions as soon as we practicably can.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I hope my noble friend the Minister will forgive me if I say that that was the Answer I expected. I expected him to duck it. However, does he agree that the crucial issue is whether, in future, in the case of young offenders--that is, young people who are convicted of crimes that merit life sentences--the decision should rest with judges rather than the Home Secretary? Is my noble friend ready to say anything helpful about that?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, my view is that we must consider the implications of this case very carefully. Of course, the ECHR judgment will have a strong bearing on the question of the treatment of juveniles in the future. It will have a tremendous bearing and effect on the treatment of juvenile offenders who are processed through the Crown Court system. That is one of the most complex issues at the heart of the matter.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, in the case of very young children who are sentenced during Her Majesty's pleasure, does the Minister accept that what is appropriate is not so much a fixed term as a sentence which is dependent on the moral and psychological development of those young people?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great wisdom on this point; indeed, that is something very much at the heart of these issues. But the judiciary must take into account the seriousness of the crimes involved. This was a very serious crime and

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the court must take that very firmly into consideration, as well as the feelings of the public, witnesses and victims.

European Defence Initiative

2.38 p.m.

Lord Blaker asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to give effect to the European defence initiative.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, the Government are actively pursuing discussions with EU partners on the commitment made at Helsinki to strengthen military capabilities. This will mean that EU nations will be better able to assemble, deploy and sustain effective forces for NATO or EU-led operations. We are also taking forward discussions on the political and military structures necessary for the EU, where NATO as a whole is not engaged, to decide and act in response to crises. All these matters will be taken forward under the Portuguese presidency of the EU.

Lord Blaker: My Lords, does the Minister agree that for the European defence initiative to be successful it is essential that it should enjoy the confidence of our American allies? Do not our American allies see at the moment that too many of our ships are in port or subject to speed limits because of a shortage of fuel; that too many of our aircraft are grounded because of a shortage of spares; and that too many of our soldiers are unable to communicate because their radios do not work? On top to all that, the Government are planning further defence cuts. Can we expect the Americans to have confidence in the situation, bearing in mind also the fact that the level of defence spending of our European partners is, in general, lower than ours?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord adroitly raised a huge range of issues in his supplementary question. On the question of some of the issues that have been aired in recent newspaper reports, perhaps I may point out that there is a good deal of exaggeration in what has been said regarding such matters as speed limits. There have been problems over the Clansman radio and a number of other issues which I would be very happy to discuss with the noble Lord if he wishes.

However, the central point of the noble Lord's question is whether the Americans would have confidence in what we are taking forward. Perhaps I may tell him what Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, said about these ideas on 15th December last. He said:

    "There should be no confusion about America's position on the need for a stronger Europe. We are not against; we are not ambivalent; we are not anxious; we are for it. We want to see a Europe that can act effectively through the Alliance or, if NATO is not engaged, on its own. Period. End of debate".

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There is no doubt in the minds of the Americans that we are taking forward a matter both properly and rightly.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, despite the matters to which the noble Lord drew attention a few moments ago, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the military capacity of the United Kingdom remains far more significant than that of any other member state of the EU and NATO in Europe? Can my noble friend say whether it is appropriate at this stage for consideration to be given in Parliament at Westminster to the future political structures of defence organisations in Europe, not least in regard to the future of the Western European Union and its parliamentary assembly?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, of course I believe that the United Kingdom's military capacity is very considerable and certainly very significant within Europe. I do not think that we need to look any further than the recent engagement in Kosovo. I know that many noble Lords will have heard what General Sir Mike Jackson had to say on this issue when he was recently interviewed during a radio programme. He said:

    "I look back and just recall ... the entry into Kosovo by KFOR ... the record speaks for itself. It was a considerable success".

That was a considerable success to which the United Kingdom contributed in no small measure. None of us should forget that fact.

The Kosovo crisis also underlined the need for European nations to make a greater contribution to their own security. It is right that Europe should have a place on the international stage that matches its economic and political weight. It is the matching of that considerable political and economic weight that Her Majesty's Government seek to progress in taking forward these discussions on the European defence identity.

Lord Chalfont: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the implementation of this initiative will require any additional British troops and, if so, how many? What will be the cost? Are there any implications for the already serious over-stretch of the British Armed Forces?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, obviously we are looking at all these questions carefully. As I indicated in my initial Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Blaker, these matters will be discussed under the Portuguese presidency. Over the next few months we shall have to consider not only what we in this country are doing but also what our allies are doing.

The European nations will certainly need to spend defence budgets more effectively; I think that we can say that without fear of contradiction. Just as the UK has done in our Strategic Defence Review, our European partners will need to review the structures of their Armed Forces. But, of course, we shall also have

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to consider the implications of that for our own Armed Forces and also the cost implications. I am afraid that it is too early for me to give a detailed answer to the points on cost that the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont, raises, but I assure him that they are very much in the forefront of our minds as we consider this question.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, I am sure my noble friend is aware of the importance of nuances in this question of a separate European defence identity. But surely I am right in recalling that Strobe Talbott, whom my noble friend quoted at some length, referred in that passage particularly to the need for Europe as a whole, as it were, to strengthen the European side of the alliance. He went on to say, if my memory is correct, that he was concerned at the possibility of an autonomous European defence force growing away from the main body of NATO. Surely if I am correct about that, it puts a very different interpretation upon his speech.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, we have repeatedly made it clear--and I have made it clear on innumerable occasions from this Dispatch Box in your Lordships' House--that NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom's defence policy. Nothing I have said today should in any way derogate from that principal undertaking. The noble Lord returns to what Strobe Talbott said. I quote the passage again, specifically as it relates to Helsinki where the headline goal specifies that,

    "[when] co-operating voluntarily in EU-led operations, Member States must be able, by 2003, to deploy within 60 days and sustain for at least 1 year military forces of up to 50,000-60,000 persons capable of the full range of Petersberg tasks".

I repeat that that was the Helsinki headline goal.

I quote directly the words of Mr Strobe Talbott:

    "Helsinki represented, from our perspective, a step--indeed, several steps--in the right direction".

I do not think that there is any doubt about what our American colleagues feel on this issue.

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