HC Deb 18 July 1996 vol 281 cc1314-40

[Relevant documents: Fifth report from the Defence Committee of Session 1995–96, House of Commons Paper No. 423, on the British Forces in Bosnia and the Government reply thereto in the Sixth Special Report of Session 1995–96, House of Commons Paper No. 592, and the Government's Expenditure Plans 1996–97 to 1998–99—Ministry of Defence (Cm 3202).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a further sum not exceeding £6,228,158,000 be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to complete or defray the charges which will come in course of payment during the year ending on 31st March 1997 for expenditure by the Ministry of Defence on: personnel costs, etc of the armed forces and their reserves and cadet forces, etc; personnel costs, etc of Defence Ministers and of certain civilian staff employed by the Ministry of Defence; movements, certain stores, supplies and services; certain spares and maintenance; plant and machinery; charter of ships; certain research; lands and buildings; works services; certain contingent liabilities; certain services provided by other Government departments; some sundry services, subscriptions, grants and other payments, including those abroad, including assistance to foreign and Commonwealth governments for defence-related purposes; and set-up costs, loans and funding to trading funds.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

4.12 pm
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I thank the House for the privilege of being invited to introduce this debate on British forces in Bosnia. It is certainly timely because of the elections that are due in that country in the middle of September. It is an appropriate subject for an estimates day, as class I, vote 1 is entirely related to defence expenditure, and we shall be asked to vote an extra £6.25 billion from the Consolidated Fund to meet additional defence costs.

I was interested to hear the exchanges during business questions and noted the fact that many of them related to procurement matters. I was also interested to pick up from the Board a letter from my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence Procurement, which makes an announcement about LPDs—landing platform docks. I am sure that the House will be delighted to hear that the Secretary of State is to make an announcement today about replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, for which the House, and certainly the Select Committee on Defence, has lobbied for many months.

I am told that the contract to build both LPDs is to be placed with GEC Marine at the Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness. No doubt £450 million of what we shall be voting today will be used to assist the MOD's important purchase. Perhaps, when he winds up the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister of State will tell us a little more about the number of jobs that the order will provide, and about when the ships are likely to come into service; but I think that the House will applaud the Government's determination to ensure that our country retains an amphibious capability.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces for his note telling us that he would be unable to stay until the end of the debate because of pressing engagements of an international nature. It is good to see that he is here for the beginning.

The Defence Committee visited Bosnia between 22 and 24 April this year, just after the D-plus-120 Dayton deadline for withdrawal to military barracks had been largely met. Its report has been published as our fifth report for this Session, and the Government's reply, which the Committee received, has been published as the sixth report.

Last October's ceasefire in Bosnia was described by the United States peace envoy Richard Holbrooke as not peace, but a big step forward. The purpose of today's debate is to give the House an opportunity to review progress in the peace process, and in particular the continuing role of British forces in Bosnia, which is described in our report. Since the ceasefire, the Dayton peace plan has been signed by the countries involved, and by the warring parties in Paris on 14 December last year. The agreement maintains a single unitary Bosnian state within internationally recognised borders, with Sarajevo as capital, but divided into two semi-autonomous entities, the Muslim-Croat federation and Republica Srpska—the Serb Republic.

The peace implementation conference held in London last December saw Carl Bildt appointed as high representative to take charge of the civil side of the peace agreement and co-ordination of the civil and military operations. On 20 December—the so-called D-day—authority was transferred from the United Nations protection force, UNPROFOR, to the NATO implementation force, known as IFOR, and Bosnia was divided into British, United States and French multinational military zones, known as MND—multinational division—north, MND south-west and MND south-east.

I think that it was with relief that our British troops in UNPROFOR took off their blue berets and put on brown helmets. It then became clear to everyone that they meant business. This debate gives the House an opportunity to pay tribute to those forces. Anyone who has visited them—as the Defence Committee has done not just this year, but for the past four years—cannot fail to be impressed by the skill, professionalism and enthusiasm with which individuals and units carry out their tasks. The relative calm in Bosnia this year should not make us forget the real dangers that British forces have faced in the past, and the potential risks that they still face. The House will recall that, since 1992, 24 British soldiers and four aid workers have lost their lives while serving in the Bosnian theatre.

When IFOR took over from UNPROFOR, British troops moved quickly to open up crossing points across the former confrontation lines, and to demonstrate the new mandate under the Dayton agreement. That decisive action set the tone for the completely new style of operations being undertaken by IFOR, with a clear set of military rules and a single politico-military chain of command. It did not have that under the UNPROFOR arrangements.

The Committee was impressed with how soldiers of the Queen's Royal Hussars had deployed with their Challenger 1 tanks to a disused factory at Bosanski Petrovac, both to deter anyone tempted to resort to military force and to reassure people seeking to rebuild their homes and lives. That increased military capability is a key feature of IFOR—tread softly, but carry a big stick. A good example of soldiers getting job satisfaction was how the men and women of the Royal Engineers built bridges, restored power supplies and helped local people to clear minefields. They were putting into practice what they were trained to do and could see how the local population benefited.

No tribute to the British forces in Bosnia would be complete without referring to our allies who work alongside them. In April, the Committee visited American, Dutch and Canadian forces. The close co-operation was striking, and the subtle differences between styles of operation and the emphasis placed on creature comforts were clear.

Fifteen NATO countries are involved in the IFOR operation, but there are also 15 countries that do not belong to NATO. The operation in Bosnia has allowed countries such as those that are members of "Partnership for Peace", which have aspirations to join NATO, to demonstrate how well they can operate militarily under the NATO umbrella. Of the non-NATO countries, the Russians have the largest number of troops on the ground. It was quite something to meet a Russian colonel taking orders from an American general. That shows how far we have come since the iron curtain came down in 1989.

We were given one clear example of the risks faced by soldiers serving with IFOR. On the day that we visited the Dutch battalion at Novi Travnik and its medical facilities—which, I regret to say, were at that time, although not now, rather better than ours—a soldier from that unit lost a leg in an explosion in a minefield. Between 3 million and 6 million mines are estimated to have been laid in Bosnia. They will have to be cleared. That is a major job with the funding of which European Union countries can help. It may be too late to speed up the operation this year, but a fully supported effort next spring is badly needed. It was also clear that without the repair work and support of our forces, especially the Royal Engineers, the £332 million humanitarian aid effort could not have been delivered.

What has been the effect of the Bosnian operation on the Army? IFOR shows how British armed forces may operate in future. The UK contingent is tailor-made for the task, drawing together a wide variety of front-line and support units to meet the specific needs of peacekeeping in Bosnia. That means that we must plan for a much wider range of possibilities than in the past and we need the flexible command systems that enable the right combinations of forces to be put together for a particular mission at short notice.

We were struck by the effectiveness of the headquarters in Sarajevo of the so-called ARRC, the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps, under the command of a British general, Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker. Its multinational NATO headquarters, based in Germany, is led by Britain and 60 per cent. of its general staff are British. The bulk of them are engaged in communications. Quite apart from the contribution of British forces on the ground, the provision of a significant British element amounting to a high proportion of ARRC's communications facilities is a major part of the UK's participation in IFOR. While such a varied operation, involving a wide range of units, must be good for training, the disadvantage of having so many soldiers involved in peacekeeping missions is that training for their essential war role of high-intensity combat can suffer.

The Committee has seen no evidence to show that it is wise or practical to train our armed forces solely for peacekeeping roles. Not only have we had to deploy tanks and major artillery to Bosnia to ensure peace enforcement and the protection of our soldiers, but the discipline, organisation and command required to carry out high-intensity operations are still needed for a mission such as IFOR. As the Committee's report notes in its opening paragraph, 10,500 British troops are serving on the ground in Bosnia—more than one tenth of the trained strength of our Army.

The Territorial Army volunteers and reserves made a significant contribution to the British presence in Bosnia. Between 500 and 600 soldiers have filled a variety of posts to bring Regular units up to full operational strength. They include sappers, Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers personnel, signallers, military police, logistics personnel, catering and pay staff. We applauded the valuable work done by those volunteers, their employers' tolerance in releasing them and the way in which the Ministry of Defence has adjusted its arrangements for call-up and bounty in the light of experience in Bosnia. The enactment of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 will help still further.

With further commitments overseas and other units preparing for, or recovering from, service in IFOR, more than one third of our Army is committed to operations worldwide. As we saw from the "Statement on the Defence Estimates", we now have deployments in more than 33 countries. As a consequence, for many units, tour intervals between deployments have dropped well below the target level of 24 months, training for other missions has suffered and a substantial proportion of the United Kingdom's communications facilities are unavailable for other tasks. Our report concludes that in the wide range of post-cold-war scenarios in which our armed forces might be needed, either a prolonged peacekeeping mission such as IFOR is too large a task, or the Army is too small.

Are there any weaknesses to be identified in the Bosnian operation? While the logistics operation to support British forces in Bosnia is impressive, during its April visit, our Committee identified and reported some weaknesses. As a result, the Government decided to purchase two containerised operating theatres, to fund the provision of bottled water for British troops, to improve access to welfare telephones and to enhance the capability of logistics communications. Those small areas of difficulty highlight a shortage of UK campaign stores.

We saw that the American and Dutch forces had better accommodation and facilities than those of the British soldiers. For those reasons we concluded that, if the UK is to be involved in peacekeeping missions in future, the Ministry of Defence clearly has to acquire and maintain a greater quantity of campaign stores to meet a variety of eventualities. We also suggested that the Ministry of Defence needed to show a faster response to meeting unforeseen needs for supporting soldiers in the field—including access to welfare telephones.

All armies march on their stomachs—ours certainly does. We noted that while American troops were dependent for the first three months of deployment on their famous MRE—meals ready to eat—which members of the Committee had brought back home and tried, with mixed results, British forces were being served three hot meals a day from the start of the operation. It was clear that other countries serving in Bosnia were envious of the quality of food being supplied to our forces.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I think that other hon. Members want to thank the members of the Committee for the work that they have done. Often, colleagues remain absolutely unpraised for having worked very hard on the House's behalf. Armies may march on their stomachs, but they also march on their feet. To speak anecdotally, I have been told by a constituent that the British footwear is nothing like as good as that of the Americans. Did the Committee see any evidence of that? Should there be an improvement in footwear for such operations?

Mr. Colvin

That is a useful intervention. I can confirm that the Defence Committee has expressed concern about footwear for very many years and has noted in earlier visits to Bosnia that British soldiers were buying other countries' military footwear—often Canadian footwear, which is a good design. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that, as I have been told, something has now been done about footwear. I believe that the Army has at last agreed on a new design of boot. I see that my hon. Friend is itching to get to his feet—no doubt not wearing the new footwear. Perhaps he can enlighten the House.

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Nicholas Soames)

I endorse what the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said about the hard work of the Select Committee, which has clearly produced a very valuable report. What he said about footwear was certainly true in the past, but it is now very much untrue. The new design of footwear for the Army is, by common consent, as my hon. Friend would agree, by far the best that it has ever been. Indeed—I am sure that he will want to comment on this later—this generation of soldiers are the first who have worn with pleasure on operations the kit with which they have been issued.

Mr. Colvin

I am delighted that my hon. Friend was able to confirm what I said. I thank him and the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for their kind remarks about the Defence Committee. Not only do we go out to find what is happening on the ground, but I have a feeling that we have a reputation for producing more constructive reports than any other Select Committee.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that he said that other contingents were envious of the food served to the British Army. Is that also true of the French contingent?

Mr. Colvin

It was indeed true. We did not have an opportunity to sample the French food. Had we had such an opportunity, we probably would not have been able to take advantage of it, because we had fed so well with the British troops. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

This debate is about estimates, so it is appropriate to ask who pays for the IFOR operation in Bosnia. The latest estimates of the additional cost of British forces serving with IFOR is £85 million for 1995–96 and £120 million for 1996–97. This is a debate on expenditure, so it is appropriate to ask where that money will come from. In previous years, under UNPROFOR, the additional cost was borne by the Foreign Office and eventually reimbursed by the United Nations. The cost of IFOR is currently being borne by the Ministry of Defence. Although that may make sense in the short term, it could have serious implications for defence spending on other projects.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State told the Select Committee on 12 June that he would seek reimbursement from the contingency reserve only if the cost of IFOR took defence spending this year over the planned level. That means that if non-IFOR expenditure by the MOD falls short of the planned target for the year—often the result of delayed equipment purchases—the MOD will bear the full cost of IFOR. The result of that must be that permission to carry over any underspending from this year to next year will be affected. Thus, the cost of Bosnia will almost certainly be at the expense of other defence spending—probably on equipment, and as was mentioned in business questions, we are awaiting announcements on a number of major procurement decisions. When we were visiting Washington, we noted that the United States had introduced a contingency element in the Pentagon's budget for such peacekeeping operations, and I believe that the United Kingdom should do the same.

A debate on Bosnia at this time would not be complete without some reference to war criminals. Some have questioned whether the British forces in IFOR should actively seek to arrest them. It is only fair to put on record the difficulty for force commanders of actively seeking out indicted men such as Messrs Karadzic and Mladic. In so far as their whereabouts are known, those two individuals are heavily protected, and any attempt to arrest them would inevitably involve the IFOR soldiers in fighting in which injuries and loss of life might occur. Judging by past experience of arresting Bosnian Serb generals, such an incident could pose a serious threat to stability, which would affect not only the personal safety of the soldiers but the path through the precarious elections now due, through to eventual peace in Bosnia.

We therefore concluded that it would be reasonable in the short term for IFOR to afford a higher priority to maintaining peace in Bosnia than to the active pursuit of war criminals, but that people suspected of such crimes would not be able to hide for ever.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I pay tribute, as I have done before, to the British forces in IFOR. However, does the hon. Gentleman accept a viewpoint different from the one that he has expressed, which is in the Committee's report? That viewpoint is that there will be and can be no lasting peace in former Yugoslavia unless the war criminals are brought to justice. Bearing in mind the fact that the crimes and atrocities that those people have committed are some of the worst since the Nazis committed their crimes, also in Yugoslavia, as well as elsewhere, should not a different instruction be given, despite all the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned—an instruction that those notorious war criminals should be brought to justice?

Mr. Colvin

There is every difficulty in doing so at the moment, but the House would wish that those people could be brought to justice before the deadline date for elections on 14 September, because their presence at that time could have a disruptive effect on the elections. From a personal point of view, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that their being brought to justice is essential for the long-term prospects for peace in Bosnia.

What about the future? It is almost certain that, before the House returns after the summer recess, Bosnia is bound to have featured heavily in the news. We should not be deluded by the relative peace so far into thinking that the British forces serving there are safe. In two months' time, the elections are due to be held in Bosnia, and the sheer mechanics of running them will place added strain on the peacekeeping forces and pose greater risks for them.

In a country in which four fifths of the population no longer live in the place where they were registered to vote in 1991, soldiers are bound to become involved in potential clashes as people try to return to areas where they are unwelcome. If the Minister of State for Defence Procurement catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps he will bring us up to date with the arrangements being set up by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for the elections.

In the early stages, it was thought that people would have the right only to go back and vote in their original towns, but it is now proposed that they have an alternative—to vote where they currently live. That will present all sorts of difficulties for the 1 million or so Bosnians now living overseas, and the House would welcome the opportunity to be told about the election arrangements.

Whatever the results of the elections, it is clear that IFOR will not be able to withdraw completely by the end of its mission on 20 December. Judgments will have to be made after the elections on the scale and pace of the reduction in the peacekeeping forces. That makes some successor force almost inevitable. We believe that it should continue to be a NATO-led force and that it should involve the participation—at least on an equal basis—of the principal countries involved in IFOR.

Precipitative withdrawal before a lasting peace was established would be disastrous for Bosnia. That is why, even if our armed forces are overstretched without commitment, they must continue—perhaps on a smaller scale.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My hon. Friend asked who ultimately would meet the cost of the British contribution to IFOR in Bosnia. Will he continue to ask questions about the cost of an on-going presence in Bosnia? Will he join me in speculating as to whether the costs that we have to meet from the defence budget might be holding up other decisions such as that in respect of the requirement by the RAF of a replacement maritime patrol aircraft, which is particularly important to British Aerospace? The project would create thousands of jobs and benefit hundreds of firms in the north-west. Does he feel that current costs may prejudice the taking of such an urgent decision?

Mr. Colvin

No. I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting in yet another plug about a procurement decision of considerable interest to his constituency, which will affect jobs in his region.

However, other factors are far more significant for the defence budget. For example, the rumours—and they may be no more than that—of cuts in the defence budget of some £400 million, which may have exercised the minds of members of the Cabinet who were discussing the matter this morning, are more relevant.

The House should note with some disapproval that only six months after the House debated last year's defence estimates and approved the expenditure for the year, the Government lopped some £600 million off that budget. I very much hope that if and when the House approves this year's defence estimates—immediately after the summer recess—the Government do not then cut the figure still further. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister of State will address that if he is called to speak.

In conclusion, the House will want to see the Dayton process bear peaceful fruit. Our forces in Bosnia are second to none in their contribution to that end. They have earned the respect of other nations in IFOR and they deserve and are receiving the wholehearted acclaim and support of the House and the nation.

4.42 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

First, let me associate myself with the concluding remarks by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). I am pleased to participate in today's debate on the excellent report by the Select Committee on Defence under the chairmanship of the hon. Gentleman. On behalf of the Opposition, I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House who served on that Committee.

It is appropriate that the House should debate Bosnia when so many British troops are participating in IFOR and we are just over half way through the Dayton peace process. Indeed, today's debate is particularly relevant at this critical stage in the preparations by various groups in Bosnia for elections there in October. Only last month, I had the opportunity to visit Bosnia for the fifth time to assess whether any changes had been made since the Select Committee published its report.

I join the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside in saying that no visitor to Bosnia can fail to be impressed by the calibre and the professionalism of our forces. They are simply world class and their value as peacekeepers and enforcers is now universally recognised. I refer not only to the Army, the Navy and the Air Force but to the men and women of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary who take our stores out to Bosnia and who are now stationed in Split harbour. They are often forgotten and they deserve our thanks.

It was also impressive to see the NATO integrated command structures, which have been honed and practised for almost 50 years, working so effectively and harmoniously. In the south-west region, the Canadian and Dutch troops operating under the command of a British general—General Mike Jackson—could be British in every military sense, such is their integration and their understanding of the command and control structure. Even the troops of non-NATO countries, such as the Czechs—who aspire to NATO membership—and the Malaysians, have no difficulty in adapting to the NATO structure. That bodes well for the future. It is certainly encouraging that our taxpayers' money has not been wasted—deterring aggression from the east in the past and now attempting to bring peace to various parts of the world.

I was also impressed by the change in rules. Those of us who saw the operation of British troops under UNPROFOR were at times unhappy. There was a feeling that they did not have the necessary rules of engagement or equipment, but that has now changed. The more robust rules of engagement, backed up by the larger numbers, and the different mission objective, supported by a heavier deployment of weaponry, have meant that the IFOR operation has been much more effective in its peace enforcing role.

To put it bluntly, the presence of a large, imposing Challenger tank sitting on the roadside sends a significant message, especially to people who have become almost blasé about the use and presence of force. They understand force; unfortunately, they have had to live with it for four years—but the projection of power remains important. That is one lesson that we have all learnt from our experiences in Bosnia.

The Select Committee referred to a number of shortcomings, especially in the provision of certain basic utilities such as water, welfare facilities such as telephone provision and the medical facilities available to our troops. I am pleased to report that when I was in Bosnia just last month, I thought that considerable improvements had been made. Obviously, there are still difficulties, and I shall return to them in a moment.

At the main camp at Banja Luka there are problems with the water supply, but it must be appreciated that the water supply also serves the civilian communities. At times of peak demand, problems are created by an extra 5,000 people using that water. Our troops have said quite rightly that, if there is any difficulty in supplying both the hospital and the troops, priority will go to the civilian hospital. That is right and we all understand it. We appreciate that there are problems and our soldiers accept that.

Having said that, I believe that there is one aspect on which there is a slight difference between the two sides of the House although, by and large, we have a consensual approach to the operation in Bosnia. The Government's "Front Line first" policy is one of the reasons why we are having difficulty in supplying basic utensils in Bosnia. The supplies that are needed for a small, static war are very different from those required for a large, mobile war. If Ministers read the historical records and reports on the subject at the turn of the century by Sir Charles Calwell, they will find that that problem was understood then. Troops based in the same position—even in a small war—for perhaps 12 months will obviously require more support and supplies than troops moving on every two weeks and becoming used to a more challenging life. I hope that Ministers will take that lesson on board.

Another factor alluded to by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside and by the Select Committee was overstretch, and there is no doubt that that exists. If one keeps going back to Bosnia, one cannot help but see the same regiments and detachments, and that is a matter of concern. That overstretch has been manifested in two ways. First, there are worries about the reserves, a large number of whom are doing vital work. By and large, they are enjoying their work and they feel proud of what they are doing. I gather that there are about 600 reserves with our forces in Bosnia—a lot of troops.

The reserves were still unconvinced that the Reserve Forces Act 1996 will guarantee that a job is available to them when they return to civilian life. I hope that their fears are wrong and that the Act will provide that guarantee. I hope that Ministers will continue to monitor the matter, which has been raised with me time and again. I will be surprised if members of the Select Committee have not heard about it as well.

The second manifestation of overstretch, as outlined in the report, was that certain personnel—especially specialised personnel—were being sent back to Bosnia repeatedly. I met a reservist—a linguist—who had been back to Bosnia every six months for four years, and heavy demands are being made on other specialised personnel. If a person is being sent back to Bosnia regularly, it gives him insufficient time for training and recuperation, Or time with his family. That is vital for the morale of the forces.

For example, there appears to be a particular problem with the availability of armed recce regiments, such as the Light Dragoons, whom I met when I visited Bosnia previously. It has been suggested to me—I recognise the delicacy of the situation—that only two regiments with an armoured recce capability can be deployed to Bosnia. If that is the case, I hope that the Minister will look at the matter. I am not asking for a reply this afternoon, but the situation needs to be monitored. The Royal Engineers are suffering similar problems, and the Select Committee singled out them and the Royal Signals as corps that are beginning to find that they are being sent back time and again. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he will monitor that.

As the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside said, the military objectives of Dayton have been concluded—largely successfully. We are now into the next stage of trying to rebuild civilian society, and that is much more difficult. We want to resettle areas and get it across to people that peace offers a better life than war. We have had to change some of our military thinking, and we have reintroduced psychological operations. I have no problem with that, but it was a form of operation that the British Army lost its ability to conduct after Malaysia. It needs to be done, as we must get the message across to the civilian population.

What I find encouraging about the operation in Bosnia is the liaison between G5, the military-civilian role of the Army, and the Overseas Development Administration as they try to bring normality back to civilian life and the infrastructure. Our troops are doing a brilliant job in that respect, and they are getting a great deal of satisfaction from helping people to get their lives back to normal. I talked to people where the forces had brought together those who laid mines on either side and had worked with them to de-mine their own minefields. That is a positive long-term activity.

The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside referred to the efforts to reconnect water and electricity supplies, and the repairing of roads and the rebuilding of bridges—all of which are vital. Nevertheless, the small things that make civilian life worth while are also important. In this field, first-class arrangements are being developed in Bosnia between the ODA and the military.

I must pay tribute to the skilled work of the ODA's permanent representative, Dr. Gilbert Greenall, and I shall refer to the system that is so important to the military, to the ODA and to the people who benefit from it. The ODA and the forces have arrived at a system that is simple and speedy in delivery. If Army personnel come across a particular problem, they can make an approach to Dr. Greenall, who will visit the site and make an assessment of the problem. If the ODA's criteria are met, he has the facility to release money immediately to tackle the problem and action can be achieved in weeks, if not days. What might cost £20,000 in two months' time can be done for £2,000 sooner.

For example, I was shown the town of Mrkonjic Grad—I know Select Committee members visited it. In the town, a hospital was completely gutted and had had all its facilities removed. It is now being put back into civilian use. The Croats had driven out the Serbs—not a single Serb was in the town—but, under Dayton, it was given back to the Serb community, and 10,000 Serbs moved back. When they did so, they found that the Croat troops had looted the town and chopped everything up.

As the Serbs moved back, a public health risk was created because refuse was piling up and no facilities were available to deal with it. When the local mayor was approached by the Army and asked why they did not do something about it, he said that the refuse wagon needed to collect the refuse had had its tyres shot out and its battery removed. Our Army was able to alert the ODA, and Dr. Greenall was able to visit the area. Within days, money was given for tyres and a battery and the refuse wagon was on the road again. The Serbs were able to begin to look after their own affairs. That is the sort of urgent action that I thought was good not only for the recipients, but for our soldiers. They were seen as facilitators in trying to restore a civilian way of life.

I hope that the major indicted war criminals—Karadzic and Mladic—will be apprehended soon. It is not a question of if they will be apprehended but when, and I should have thought it would be in his own best interests for Karadzic to hand himself over to the authorities. That may sound strange, but it is only a matter of time before he is apprehended. He would do himself the world of good if he gave himself up.

I shall conclude by giving the same message as the Chairman of the Select Committee. So far, this mission has been a success, but the peace is fragile. Indeed, it may become more fragile in the light of the news that the United States has given authority to start training Bosnian Government troops and Croatian troops. If we walk away in December, there is every chance that the war will begin again. There must be some form of IFOR 2. I hope that our United States allies will stay in Bosnia. We shall use our best endeavours, as will the Government, to persuade the Americans that they must remain.

In the worst scenario of the Americans refusing to stay, I hope that, as long as the European nations of NATO feel that they should stay, our Government will contribute to the European NATO force. I accept that the current strength of the force cannot be maintained—the divisional-size force of 10,500 is too many—but we might be able to find sufficient troops for a brigade-size force of 7,000. I hope that we shall participate.

We cannot abrogate our responsibility. Too much blood has been shed. If we walk away in December, all that blood will have been shed in vain. We shall have to go the extra 12 months for peace. I am delighted that that point is supported by paragraph 68 of the Select Committee report. I endorse that part of the report and almost every recommendation made in it. Once again, I thank all members of the Select Committee for such an excellent job of work.

5.2 pm

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I am delighted to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). I thank hon. Members who said that we did a splendid job, which was in no small part due to the leadership and wisdom of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside. I am very grateful to him.

We visited Bosnia in April. It is a rapidly moving situation in a volatile part of the world. What we saw in April does not apply now. It was clear from the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields that some of the problems about which I was worried—humanitarian relief and the inflow of civilian money—are being tackled, but others remain. We were concerned because, although our forces had assisted the civilian populations, there was no evidence that international money was getting to where it was needed—out in the towns and villages. We were concerned, for instance, that there was no planting in the countryside because there were no tractors—the retreating sides had taken them. We were concerned that there would be no harvest. I am unaware of the current position, but I hope that serious work has been done to alleviate that problem.

We were concerned that, despite the fact that we had the best-fed troops in the field from day one—that is always so, and if anyone has tried "meals ready to eat" they will know why there are raids on our canteens whenever the Americans, French or anybody else can get near them—there were shortfalls. We found, for example, that because of logistics delays, equipment had been lying around for ages awaiting parts. Perfectly good bathroom and toilet facilities had been lying around for months because the connecting pipes had not been delivered. The computer and communications system to back up the logistics was not working, and if anything was needed somebody had to jump in the car and drive 40 miles across the mountains to drop a note in.

I pay the highest tribute to the men and women serving not only in the British Army, but in all the armies participating in IFOR. The hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside mentioned the fact that, when we went to see the Americans in Tuzla, there were a couple of Russian colonels in the American battle headquarters, and we were seen off by a Russian general under their command.

We asked our people, "What are the Czechs like?" They replied,"They are super, smashing, professional people to work with who are doing a great job and working extremely hard at it." I cannot praise them too highly.

Where we do have a problem is with the Dayton accord itself. I think that it was too ambitious. The out date of December is not achievable. Our military have achieved all the military tasks, but other tasks have not been met. The money for reconstruction work was not finding its way there, but I am glad that that is no longer true. There is still a long way to go.

The people in Bosnia—the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Croats—are lovely people. I remember holidaying there in the balmy days of my youth and meeting the people. The trouble is that they love us but hate each other. That will not change overnight. We know that from the history of the Balkans and, tragically, from our history in Ireland too. We must be prepared for that. Having spent the time, money, effort and lives that we have thus far, we should be prepared to spend a little more time to try to achieve some stability, because I do not believe that the elections will bring stability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) asked about war criminals. Our report was written in April, but the warrants were issued only last week. The context in which we wrote our report has changed dramatically. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields: if Karadzic and Mladic thought about it, they would walk across the lines now and say, "We give up." They will be caught, because they cannot hide for ever, and the crimes on which they have been indicted cannot be forgiven—ever. They must face up to the fact that they will be caught and punished, and correctly so.

I have witnessed things that will live with me for the rest of my life, such as the fact that a thug can walk into someone's home and say, "Get out by the morning or you are dead, and if you are not out by the morning we will burn the house down around you." On one visit, we saw body bags being taken out of a house—the horror of man's inhumanity to man. They are the same people. The only difference between the Muslims, Serbs and Croats is their history. Ethnically, they are the same people.

It is worrying that people hark back to the evils of the battle of Kosovo in, I believe, the 12th century. The Serbs have never achieved such greatness since, and they look forward to the future. Another worrying portent for the elections is that, unfortunately, the moderate opinions that are widespread in all the communities in Bosnia are not represented by the people who appear to want to stand as candidates.

We must try to reconstruct the country, we must try to keep it peaceful and we must do our best to help the people's future. British forces, whether they were in the Bosnian Serb sector, the Bosnian Croat sector or the Bosnian Muslim sector, were regarded as the guarantors of the safety of the people living in that sector. They were not playing favourites. That is true of all the units in all the sectors.

We must make the commitment that people will be given another chance to rebuild and to survive. We know that the ultimate objective of the leaders in Republica Srpska is to unite with Serbia to form greater Serbia. We know that the Croatian Bosnians and the Muslim Bosnians have their own problems. We know that the potential for fighting and division continues. We know that hunger and deprivation exist.

Our interpreters were local people. Some of the things that they did were amazing. One would find a local Croatian girl, employed as an interpreter, working in a Serbian area, voluntarily teaching two hours a day in the Serbian school because there was no schoolteacher in the village. Things like that are not talked about. We must support and develop them, but we can do so only if we make the commitment to the people not to walk out of there in December and leave them to their own devices.

The trouble is that it is an American presidential election year, and domestic American politics are intruding. It is essential for the future of IFOR that it is international and that any continued force has an American ground force element. It would not be credible internationally if it did not, and it would not be right if we did not raise that matter unequivocally in the House.

Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friend is one of the most technically competent Members of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) mentioned land mines. Those of us who heard Sir Hugh Beach of the all-party land mines group know the extent of the problem of identifying and doing something about land mines. Does my hon. Friend have any solution?

Mr. McWilliam

That is an important, thorny problem.

We were told that some youngsters in Sarajevo had learnt how to dig up anti-personnel mines and that they throw them in the river so that they go off there, and that someone else down-river catches the fish killed by the explosion. That is a stupid, highly dangerous thing to do.

Because of the construction of the forces that were operating—working on the Warsaw pact methods of organisation when there were hostilities—the average infantryman would wander out with 12 anti-personnel mines strapped around his body, instructed to lay them out as a defensive perimeter. When he withdrew, he was supposed to dig them out and come back. Unfortunately, what has happened does not accord with the Geneva convention, because there was, and is, no accurate map of the minefields. Some of such records as exist are in Split, and the Croatian Government there deny their existence.

The solution is to spend money training former Yugoslav army sappers of whatever persuasion to clear mines. We cannot do it; we do not have enough sappers to do that highly skilled job. The mines are extremely difficult to clear. The anti-personnel mines are plastic. The only metal in them is the size of an ordinary pin, so no normal detection method works. The Americans are using remote-controlled mine clearance vehicles, but they do not get them all either. The mines do terrible damage, especially to children. I would not willingly walk off a metalled road anywhere in that country at the moment; it is that unsafe.

A huge international effort is needed to clear the mines. The best people to do the work are the people who laid them, but they need training. We need to spend money on the manpower to train them.

Bosnia is a beautiful country, and always was. It happens to be at the crossroads of conflicting civilisations, and it has been for a long time. By and large, however, the Bosnians got on pretty well until Germany forced recognition of Croatia far earlier than any country in that area should have been recognised. That is what blew it up. We all know that. It is too late now. There is no point in crying over spilt milk, but we are responsible in that we acquiesced in that decision. We must take that responsibility by ensuring that we make the commitment to continue peacekeeping in Bosnia.

I wish to conclude by quoting paragraph 80 of the Select Committee report. We conclude that in the wide range of post-Cold War scenarios in which the armed forces might be needed, either a prolonged peace-keeping mission like IFOR is too large a task or the Army is too small. We ignore that conclusion at our peril. It is either too large a task or the Army is too small. The extent of the overstretch that our forces feel is not fair or right, and it must be stopped.

5.16 pm
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) on the informed and balanced way in which he introduced the debate, and on the work that he does in the Defence Committee. In the absence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell), who would usually do this sort of thing, I warmly welcome from this Bench the decision to go ahead with replacements for HMS Fearless and HMS Intrepid, an announcement about which the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside spoke at the start of his remarks.

The hon. Gentleman did not speak exclusively about the role that our troops play in Bosnia. I shall speak more widely later, but before doing so I shall repeat what all hon. Members who have so far spoken have said about the excellence of the standards that British troops are maintaining, and the very effective way in which troops from different countries are combining and working with one another under the NATO umbrella. That is a matter for congratulation and pleasure.

Many hon. Members have spoken about Dayton, because it represents the background to what our troops may or may not be called on to do in future. Dayton stopped the guns firing. That was a very good thing, but it has other not so desirable aspects.

I vividly remember a special meeting of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe immediately after David—now Lord—Owen had been appointed to operate on behalf of the European Community. He had been in Croatia and witnessed one of the occasions when refugees were driven by the Serbs across into Croatia. Many of them were shot in the process. He had been extremely moved by the experience, and he made a long and passionate speech lasting nearly an hour and a half, much of which was unscripted—to the horror of his officials. He said that all the refugees must return to their homeland, that we on the continent of Europe must never allow such events to be perpetrated and that we would not rest until the last refugee was rehoused in his own home. Some of us were wondering who would achieve that.

The Dayton accord has authorised ethnic cleansing and separation with what the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside described, technically correctly but in reality not so near the truth, as a "unitary state". I fear that few, if any, refugees have returned, and I do not see them returning in the near future. Current events in Herzegovina, Croatia and Republica Srpska mean that the separation will last for a long time.

Everybody has said, rightly, that IFOR has been much more effective than UNPROFOR. That is simply because its mandate is much more effective, and that must be maintained. As my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats said in an article that he wrote shortly after a recent visit to Bosnia, the problem with UNPROFOR was that it had no choice between using a light tank and having a strategic air strike. There was no graded capacity for response. That is different in IFOR's case, and it is desirable to sustain that difference.

Many hon. Members have referred to war criminals. I agree that Karadzic and Mladic should come to justice, but it is not easy, and to pretend otherwise is silly. Who appointed Mladic? Who sustained Karadzic during the period of ethnic cleansing? The answer is President Slobodan Milosevic. So is not he a war criminal in the same way? The disagreement, which has been publicly aired, between the views of Carl Bildt and the Americans about what we should do now shows the practical difficulties and uncertainty about, first, the effect on the Serbs of seizing those two gentlemen and, secondly, the effect on the Muslims of doing nothing. One is caught between those two positions.

We must remember that, if Karadzic and Mladic are taken to The Hague, the people they will leave behind in charge will hold exactly the same views as them. I remember meeting Biljana Plavsic, the lady who has already practically replaced Karadzic officially. I sat in a tree while, 200 yds away, a mass grave of Serbs who had been killed by the Croats was dug up. I knew that she was a tough lady but on that occasion I felt that she was vulnerable. She told me how various members of her family had been killed. She does not disagree with Karadzic about anything and we must face the fact that there are deep divisions in the community which will not go away for a long time.

Several hon. Members have raised the issue of how long IFOR will stay. My hon. Friends and I find it unthinkable that IFOR should withdraw. As the Minister knows, the French Foreign Minister has already suggested extending IFOR's stay for at least two years. We should support that suggestion. As the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) said, it was never realistic to think that matters could be resolved in a year.

At the beginning of September last year, I was in the Pentagon on a Western European Union visit. We heard a presentation by a general about Bosnia and what the Americans intended to do. The President had said that it would all be over by December and I said, "Who are you kidding? That is not possible. Don't tell me that you will pull out just when, I hope, you are beginning to make a mark on stability in the region." The poor general was tied by official White House policy, but I could see that he was extremely unhappy because it was never realistic to think that it would all be finished in a year. Despite the fact that the matter is, as the hon. Member for Blaydon said, ensnared in American presidential election politics, I do not think that the Americans will withdraw, and I am sure that we will lend all our efforts to ensuring that they stay.

There are two arguments about staying. The first is that no announcement should be made until after 14 September. The second is that, according to the advice of the military, for planning reasons, the beginning of September is effectively the latest that we can announce what we intend to do. Staying would also have a positive effect on the election process.

Although most people recognise that there is official uncertainty, Governments have basically accepted that IFOR will continue, although it has not been officially announced. Staying would have a positive effect on the elections of 14 September, while the opposite would encourage—if they need encouragement—the nationalists, who will dominate the elections in any event.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to the extremely good work done by the Overseas Development Agency in conjunction with the Army. I agree that it has done some excellent work and deserves great praise for it. I have not been to Bosnia recently, but I expect to be a Council of Europe monitor at the elections. Most people who have been there recently believe that one of the notable failures arising out of Dayton is the failure to send a police force to Bosnia.

When my right hon. Friend the leader of the Liberal Democrats was there recently, military people told him that having some British policemen there might be as valuable as having troops—in certain circumstances, even more valuable. As the United Kingdom has yet to send even one policeman to Bosnia, will the Minister way whether we are trying to do something about that? It would be a valuable contribution to controlling lawlessness, which is a deep and continuing problem in large areas on both sides of Bosnia.

As the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside said, the basic message to emerge from the debate is that we are proud of the work that our armed forces are doing in Bosnia. It is of great value. Although it costs a certain amount, a renewal of fighting would cost even more. That is why I repeat my basic point: we should decide now, in conjunction with our allies, that IFOR will continue for at least two years.

5.29 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I am not a member of the Defence Committee, but I have read the report and I admire its technical expertise. I have a great interest in the subject of today's debate. I welcomed the Defence Committee's conclusion about the future of IFOR and whether there should be a follow-on force. I believe that there will be a follow-on force. It has been raised as an open question, but I think that the decision makers have already made up their minds—and that they had probably made up their minds at the outset of the operation. The timing of the decision is no coincidence: it will come shortly after the United States presidential election. Once the election is out of the way, a follow-on force to IFOR will be announced.

I believe that whether there will be a follow-on force is not the real question—the real question is what the follow-on force will do and whether it will continue to work on what is essentially a minimal mandate. If that continues, it could lead it to acquiesce in what will be the creation of three apartheid statelets on the European mainland. Are we going to grasp the nettle and look again at the force's mandate and try to match the military force of IFOR with the political will to make a reality of the Dayton principles?

I have seen the British forces at work on a number of visits to Bosnia over the past few years, both as a member of UNPROFOR and as a member of IFOR. I went to Banja Luka during the Whitsun recess and I had a useful discussion with the British forces commander, General Mike Jackson. My impression of the soldiers has always been the same, whether in UNPROFOR or IFOR: they are extremely keen about their task, highly motivated and well informed, and extremely capable and good at the job that they are asked to do. They are succeeding in accomplishing their present mission with the same brilliance that they have displayed on other occasions.

However, I believe that they are capable of doing a lot more—they need the right kind of political direction and the right kind of political will behind them.

Hon. Members have mentioned the shortcomings of UNPROFOR, which preceded IFOR. We have to look hard at what went wrong with UNPROFOR because of the damage that was done to the reputation of the United Nations. We must not let the credibility of NATO be damaged in the same way by a future failure of the IFOR mission. I believe that if we do not look again at IFOR's mandate, the credibility of NATO will be damaged in the long term.

It is helpful to look back at the failure of UNPROFOR, which culminated just over a year ago in the fall of Srebrenica to the Serb ultra-nationalist forces. However, we now know that they were not purely Serb forces and that tanks from the Yugoslav army participated in that onslaught. Srebrenica was a United Nations safe area and it was defended by European soldiers—by Dutch soldiers—but they were incapable of stopping the onslaught, and we now know the consequences as they have been recently recorded in gruesome detail at the international tribunal in The Hague.

What could have been done to prevent Srebrenica and the other massacres in the preceding three or four years? How could we have rescued UNPROFOR from its predicament at an earlier stage? The answer was given by General Rupert Smith in August 1995, when he co-ordinated air and artillery attacks on the Bosnian Serb army. Contrary to everything that we have been told about the dangers of another Vietnam, the Bosnian Serb army was routed at the first serious use of force against it. If I had any doubts about that, they were dispelled when I visited Banja Luka earlier this year and I was told by the local Serbs how convinced and frightened they were at the time that their town was about to fall to Croatian and Bosnian forces.

Banja Luka is the largest town in the Bosnian Serb territory—without it, there could have been no real credible Bosnian Serb state. In other words, we were within a week of seeing the collapse of the Bosnian Serb regime and the complete defeat of General Mladic and of Radovan Karadzic. At the last minute, the offensive was halted—thanks, many believe, to British diplomatic intervention which persuaded the Americans to back off and which persuaded the Croatian and the Bosnian Governments to back off as well. It seems that British diplomacy could not save Srebrenica but it managed to save Banja Luka.

In the course of saving Banja Luka, we saved Mladic and Karadzic to another day—and the consequences of that plague us to this day in the form of an ultra-nationalist regime still in power in the Serb entity and Mladic and Karadzic still in control of the levers of power. That is the real crisis, the real problem, facing British soldiers now based in Banja Luka and it is a direct consequence of the shortcomings and failures of a year ago.

We have heard a lot of warnings about the dangers of mission creep in Bosnia, but I believe that mission erosion is much more dangerous: by failing to take on the continuing defiance of the ultra-nationalists, the credibility of the IFOR mission—and therefore the credibility of IFOR and, by extension, NATO—is being steadily undermined and eroded. Mission erosion has happened in the Serb suburbs of Sarajevo, where the Serbs were allowed to burn and loot with impunity before the handover to the Bosnian Government. That is still happening in the same suburbs today, with the few Serbs who bravely decided to remain being hounded out by thugs and Muslim nationalists because they are not getting protection from the international police task force, which is afraid to patrol at night because IFOR will not protect such patrols. That is mission erosion.

Mission erosion happened in Mostar when the European Union capitulated to threats and intimidation by the criminal gangs who control west Mostar. I remind hon. Members that gangs fired 18 shots at the car of the European Union administrator. The response of the European Union was to capitulate and to agree to the demands to shrink the main central district of Mostar. That is mission erosion—that is credibility erosion.

Sir Russell Johnston

While I agree with the hon. Gentleman, he should give a little more credit to the brave efforts of Hans Koschnik, the German European Community administrator, who did his utmost to try to bring the two communities together and only gave up in despair.

Mr. Macdonald

I concur with what the hon. Gentleman has said. My dismay is that all this good work was ultimately let down and undermined by the failure of European Union Governments to back the solution that he had put his name to, and for which he literally risked his life.

Mission erosion is occurring in the Serb-controlled territories where Muslims continue to be cleansed from their homes. Other refugees are prevented by force from visiting the graves of their relatives. Civilian crowds supposedly gather to prevent the visits from occurring, but those crowds comprise policemen who change into civilian clothes, grab clubs and return to threaten the refugees. Mission erosion is already occurring in that indicted war criminals—who according to the Dayton agreement should not hold appointed or elected offices—remain in charge of the Government and army of the Serb entity.

Although great efforts have been made to secure a ceasefire in Bosnia, I am afraid that the Dayton agreement will become a dead letter. I emphasise that that is the fault not of the British forces or of IFOR, but of the European Governments and of the Americans, who lack the political will to back those forces in Bosnia which wish to build a multi-ethnic democratic society. We must not forget that 200,000 Serbs still live in Bosnian federation territory—controlled by what some people refer to as the Muslim Government. And tens of thousands of Serb refugees from the Krajina have signed petitions in Belgrade seeking to be allowed back to the Krajina, even if it means living under the Croatian Government. People want to return to their homes: the pull of that region is very strong.

IFOR has managed to create a stable ceasefire zone in Bosnia, but that success is temporary. The space that has been created must be filled with democratic and multi-ethnic values and principles or in time it will be reclaimed by the forces of ultra-nationalism and ethnic cleansing. I believe that it is impossible simply to maintain the status quo and to allow a second force, IFOR 2, to assume the role that IFOR has played in the past few months. We either move forward into mission expansion or we go backwards into mission erosion.

Moving forward means three things. First, it means the arrest of Karadzic, Mladic and the other ethnic cleansing ringleaders. I acknowledge the difficulties associated with that, but if 60,000 NATO troops cannot arrest them, who will? Moreover, the outgoing commander-in-chief of the NATO forces, Admiral Leighton Smith, has said that he is willing to perform the task if he is directed to do so.

Secondly, if we are to move forward, elections in the Serb and the Croat entities must be suspended until they are guaranteed to be free and fair. There is no point in holding fraudulent elections. I believe that we should support the views of Ambassador Frowick regarding the need to prevent the Serb Democratic party from participating in the elections until we get rid of Radovan Karadzic.

Thirdly, we must see the gradual, but systematic and progressive, return of those refugees who wish to go back to their villages and towns. That must occur under the protection of IFOR, and then of IFOR 2. I believe that IFOR 2 will find that it must either help those refugees to return and provide protection for them, or prevent them from returning. That is the choice that it will face.

Finally, moving forward into mission expansion means that there must be the political will and resolve to enforce the Dayton agreement, which has been sadly lacking so far.

5.44 pm
The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. James Arbuthnot)

I congratulate the Liaison Committee on its choice of subject for today's debate. I have listened with interest to the contributions from all sides, and I am proud to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the tremendous achievements of the British service men and women who have served with such distinction in support of the IFOR operation, and previously with UNPROFOR.

In the course of the debate, my hon Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) and other hon. Members have referred to the Defence Committee's recent report on its visit to Bosnia. I shall respond to as many points as I can. I welcomed the Committee's visit, and I echo the comments about the high quality of its work. Visits by Ministers and Members of Parliament help to show our forces that they are very much in our minds, and that their excellent work is receiving the attention and acknowledgement that it deserves.

But let me first say a few words about the major part played by British forces in the highly successful IFOR operation, which has already achieved all the key military objectives in the Dayton peace agreement. The United Kingdom contribution to IFOR is a substantial one: initially, we provided some 11,500 troops on the ground, with a further 3,000 Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel offshore and in Italy. Subsequent adjustments to NATO's naval and air force levels, together with reductions in initial surge deployments and good housekeeping, reduced those totals to 10,500 and 1,000 respectively.

I can announce today that, following further good housekeeping measures and rationalisation of assets, made possible by the success of the operation and the benign environment in theatre, we have been able to reduce the numbers further. Our ground force contribution currently stands at around 9,200. Following the lifting of the arms embargo and the suspension of Operation Sharpguard, the RN and RAF contribution was reduced to some 500. The United Kingdom remains the second largest contributor after the United States.

The initial deployment of the United Kingdom contingent was, in itself, a notable success. Between 4 December and 18 January, some 6,600 personnel were transported to theatre, all by RAF aircraft. Their equipment went by sea. The decision not to move by land was vindicated by the significant delays experienced by other nations which chose that option.

In our case, despite difficult weather conditions at Split airport, the deployment was completed 24 hours ahead of schedule. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that that is a great credit to the movements staffs of all three services. Their hard work, and that of other support staffs, often goes unsung—indeed unnoticed—by the media who tend to concentrate on eye-catching stories on the ground in Bosnia. However, without them, the operation would not have been possible, let alone successful.

The success of our deployment, which owed so much to the splendid work of Lieutenant General Sir Rupert Smith and Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker—both of whom have been mentioned—contributed greatly to the remarkably efficient transfer of authority from UNPROFOR to IFOR. That was essential to ensuring that the parties respected the fragile ceasefire and got on with meeting their obligations under the peace agreement.

Most British personnel are in multinational division south-west. This British-led division has successfully presided over the largest transfer of land—the so-called anvil—under the peace agreement. From the very start of the IFOR operation, with commendable enterprise and resolve, British Army units seized the initiative and moved deep into Bosnian Serb territory. They thereby established themselves throughout their area of responsibility on both sides of the former confrontation line, in order to show presence and to secure IFOR's freedom of movement.

The divisional HQ has subsequently transferred to Banja Luka, in Republica Srpska, to reinforce IFOR's coverage of Bosnia as a whole and further stabilise the situation on the ground. It is the only IFOR divisional HQ in Bosnian Serb territory.

Building on the successful approach of our UNPROFOR contingents before them, British forces are performing splendid work at the local level throughout their area of responsibility. Besides implementing the peace agreement, ensuring freedom of movement, and providing general security, they are building up civilian confidence on all sides, helping to solve local problems and undertaking many local projects.

UK troops are also working in close co-operation with the Overseas Development Administration in a most highly praised initiative which is helping to restore normal life for the local people. Nearly 400 projects have been identified under this £4.5 million programme—more than 50 projects have already been completed. British engineers are helping to rebuild schools, hospitals, kindergartens, bridges and roads. They are also helping to restore essential services such as electricity and water.

Let me give the House just three examples. In towns such as Mrkonjic Grad, Sipovo and Banja Luka, British engineers are currently working to restore some 15 schools, the Neames bridge is being rebuilt, and, across the so-called anvil area, the scene of terrible destruction, engineers are working to restore the electricity supplies. That excellent work, which does not attract the applause it deserves, is giving the local people hope and confidence for the future.

The overall land operation is being most ably led by HQ ARRC, which is largely British-manned, and commanded by Lieutenant General Sir Michael Walker. The HQ's performance, in its first operation, is a source of great satisfaction to the UK and to NATO allies working alongside us.

The House will be heartened to know that our forces are demonstrating the virtues of initiative, determination and discipline that are the hallmark of the British armed forces and which have made them admired and respected around the world. They—and the country at large—can be justifiably proud of their achievements. Only last week, the IFOR commander, Admiral Smith, was fulsome in his praise of HQ ARRC, of General Walker, and of the performance of British forces as a whole.

I turn now to the Committee's recent report, introduced so knowledgeably today by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, and to some of the references made to it in the course of our debate.

I was grateful for the report's own acknowledgement of the contribution made by UK forces to the success of IFOR. The Committee recognised that they are continuing to do an excellent job. The Committee also paid tribute to our forces' professionalism, and adaptability in carrying out their "difficult task". I fully concur with that judgment.

The report does, however, voice a number of concerns over living conditions for our troops in theatre and the logistics support for the operation. Some of these concerns have been raised in the course of today's debate. I propose to address these points, in which I accept that there is some substance, but it is important to set this in the right context.

It is fundamental that operational factors must be taken into account in establishing priorities in the transport of equipment and stores to theatre. At the outset of the IFOR operation, the requirement quickly to deploy combat-capable troops to help secure the ceasefire in Bosnia outweighed the need for tactical base infrastructure. But as the mission has developed, it has been possible to devote greater priority to campaign facilities.

Any comparison in that respect with UNPROFOR must recognise that UNPROFOR had some three years to set in place its accommodation arrangements. Moreover, as I mentioned earlier, UK forces needed to move quickly into Bosnian Serb territory at the outset of the IFOR operation, in order to show presence on both sides of the former confrontation line. UNPROFOR had not previously operated in Serb-held territory. There was accordingly no existing base infrastructure to occupy. Furthermore, the area of the so-called anvil, into which British forces deployed, had suffered severe devastation and major population movements.

There should be no illusion that British troops on an operational deployment can expect to find all mod cons in the field, particularly in what was only recently a war zone. That said, where there have been shortcomings in conditions, action has been taken or is in hand to rectify them, as we have set out in our response to the Committee's report. Let me give a few examples.

Until late in the planning process, it remained unclear exactly where UK and other units would be deployed in Bosnia, and therefore what accommodation would be needed. Nevertheless, in anticipation of a shortfall, the purchase of accommodation units and Arctic tents was approved as soon as the peace agreement was signed, and in advance of the operation. Because of the lead times for delivery, accommodation units were not available in theatre at the start of the deployment. But construction has continued in recent months in order to ensure the provision of essential base facilities as the pattern of deployment has become clearer.

In the case of warm clothing, some units' specific operational roles included the possibility of an Arctic deployment. Those units were already equipped with winter clothing on their initial deployment. For other units, the purchase of warm clothing was approved in advance of the operation, but production lead times were up to six months. However, I am pleased to inform the House that the latest range of all-weather Army clothing, combat soldier 95, has just been released into service, and those units serving in Bosnia have been given priority for issue.

The issue of welfare telephones has been a source of much concern. When British troops first deployed into multinational division south-west, many found themselves in locations not served by the telephones installed during the UNPROFOR operation. The work undertaken to rectify that deficiency has been described in the Government's response to the Committee's report. A further tranche of telephone equipment was deployed to theatre last month, and the company which is carrying out that work expects to complete installation by the end of the month.

More than 95 per cent. of British troops in former Yugoslavia will then have access to welfare telephones. In the circumstances of this deployment, that is no mean achievement. The remaining personnel are located at sites where the permanent installation of telephones is not commercially viable. Arrangements have been made for such personnel to visit the nearest welfare telephone facilities regularly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside raised the question of elections and the OSCE work on elections. The OSCE has made arrangements with key capitals where there is a concentration of refugees for them to vote in absentia. Refugees are entitled to register to vote in absentia in their place of residence in 1991. If they wish to vote elsewhere, they must do so in person. OSCE arrangements are well advanced for the elections. IFOR is lending assistance wherever possible, such as with transportation, area security and planning support.

My hon. Friend also asked about the cost of the Bosnian deployment. In paragraph 28 of the Government's response, we say: The Government notes the Committee's recommendation that the additional costs of UK participation in IFOR should not be borne on the Defence Budget. A decision whether any costs should fall to the Reserve in FY1996/97 can only be taken when the implications of containing the costs of the IFOR deployment within the Defence Budget become clearer much later in the year. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend said about LPD replacements. These are good news for Barrow and for the many sub-contractors throughout the country who will benefit from these orders. They will help to sustain about 2,000 jobs in the United Kingdom, and they are very good news for the armed forces as well.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)

In connection with the new orders, can we expect any further announcements in the next week or so, bearing it in mind that a number of orders are pending and that parts of the armed forces, having taken the pain over redundancies and reductions during the past three or four years, are looking forward to gain from new equipment?

Mr. Arbuthnot

I have heard what my hon. Friend has said. I have no doubt that others will have done so, too.

I hope that I have covered most of the points raised by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), one of which related to tour intervals. We fully recognise the strain that can be placed on soldiers and their families by too-frequent operational tours. We aim for a reasonable interval between them, but it has to vary from unit to unit, and according to Army commitments such as Northern Ireland and Bosnia. The long-term strength of the Army is, of course, kept under review in the light of changing circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned in particular tour intervals for Royal Engineers and Royal Signals units serving in Bosnia. I acknowledge that both those corps are heavily committed at present. We have taken steps to reduce the pressure in these areas in the short term by the use of reservists, and in the medium term by increases in Regular manpower establishments in specific areas. We are also reviewing our engineer support to other commitments.

A question also arises in relation to light reconnaissance units. I acknowledge that they too have a short operational tour interval. We are taking action to correct that with the creation of a third light recce regiment next year, and I am confident that that will improve tour intervals.

The hon. Members for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) and for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) and others asked about a follow-on force. IFOR has to concentrate on the task in hand, particularly during the run-up to elections, and much remains to be done to ensure that IFOR continues to succeed. It is right to put aside speculation as to what might happen next year, and apply ourselves at the moment to the challenges to be faced in the next six months.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Blaydon that IFOR experience demonstrates that transatlantic co-operation is essential, and it would be difficult to contemplate a United Kingdom contribution to any post-IFOR force without substantial US ground forces.

The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) made a wise speech, which I have come to expect from him every time I listen to him. He raised a point about war criminals, which was also mentioned by others. The Government strongly support the work of the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia. We have always stressed the importance of bringing to justice those responsible for serious violations of international law in Bosnia and elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia. The primary responsibility for handing over war criminals rests with the parties themselves, and we urge them to do so.

But IFOR also provides considerable support to the tribunal, and the tribunal has said that it is satisfied with this level of support. IFOR will detain any indicted war criminals with whom it comes into contact in the performance of its mission and if the circumstances permit. Although IFOR does not have a mandate to hunt down indicted war criminals, it is increasing its presence throughout Bosnia in preparation for the elections, and that will impose a further constraint on the movement of indicted war criminals.

I conclude by looking ahead. The IFOR mission and the UK contribution to it has been a conspicuous success, but much remains to be done. We must put aside speculation as to what will happen next year. Instead, we need to concentrate on what remains to be achieved this year.

Mr. Winnick

I apologise to the Minister and the House that I was absent for much of the debate, but I was here at the start, and intervened during the speech of the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin).

Will the Minister say whether there is an on-going debate about the possibility of a different Security Council resolution about war criminals—namely, that they should be apprehended? Perhaps in the next few weeks we shall see such a change. Perhaps the Minister will comment on press speculation along those lines.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I do not want to say more than I have already about war criminals, except to echo a point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, which I think was repeated this afternoon by the hon. Gentleman: that there can be no lasting peace in Bosnia unless indicted war criminals are brought to justice.

Four key challenges remain to be dealt with. We must assist the Bosnians in the reconstruction of their country, so that they can see the benefits of peace. We must facilitate the return of the 2.5 million people displaced from their homes. There must be free and fair elections. The organisation is for the Bosnians themselves, but they will need help.

In answer to the point movingly made by the hon. Member for Western Isles, the people of Bosnia must choose to live together. They have stopped fighting, but to date they have shown little sign of reconciliation. These tasks are primarily for their civilian organisations and, most importantly, the people of Bosnia, but, within the limits of its military task, IFOR will do all that it can to assist for the duration of its mission.

United Kingdom forces will continue to play their full part in this, and I have every confidence that they will do so to the impressively high standards that they have achieved from the outset of the IFOR mission. They will tackle their demanding task with all the more courage and determination in the knowledge that they enjoy the confidence and support of the House and the country at large.

6.9 pm

Mr. Colvin

With the leave of the House, I shall briefly respond to some of the remarks made by hon. Members this afternoon.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister of State for the speedy way in which he responded to the recommendations of the Committee and our call for welfare telephones, bottled water, better logistics and medical facilities in theatre. That was greatly appreciated by our forces.

My hon. Friend referred to the very successful rapid deployment of our forces. That reiterated what the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the Opposition spokesman, said, when he drew attention to the need to be prepared to deploy rapidly to any part of the world in support of United Nations or NATO operations. I remind Her Majesty's Government that we still have difficulty over heavy lift, transport, and some of the deployments to former Yugoslavia could not have been undertaken without assistance from our American allies. That goes not only for airlift, but for heavy lift by sea.

When I went down to the military port at Marchwick in my constituency to see our troops depart, I was told that they were waiting for American transports to arrive to convey them to Bosnia. That should be dealt with—and I know that Her Majesty's Government already have plans for the lease of two ro-ro ships.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to overstretch. No one else has mentioned it, but it has a tremendous impact on the recruitment of service men and women. We are short of staff in all three services, particularly in the infantry, which has some 4,000 vacancies. We must bear that in mind. I was pleased that the Overseas Development Administration was acclaimed for the work that it is doing in the former Yugoslavia. We had first-hand experience of that work, and congratulate Dr. Greenall on his achievements.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), who is our technological expert on the Committee, had a number of things to say about the Dayton accord and whether it was too ambitious. He and other hon. Members questioned whether the deadline of 14 September was over-optimistic. The important thing is that that deadline puts pressure on everyone to deliver. I only pray that the elections, when they take place, are seen by everyone—especially the Bosnian people—to be free and fair. If they are not, we shall still have a difficulty.

It is unthinkable that IFOR should withdraw before there is a satisfactory conclusion. Although no one will make any promises, I think that it is an open secret that there will be an on-going presence—IFOR 2, perhaps. It is essential for it to be a NATO presence. We must not revert to the old United Nations command structure that proved so unsatisfactory.

Let me say in its defence that the United Nations had never had to mount such an operation before; nor, for that matter, had NATO. NATO had been prepared for an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the former Soviet Union in rather different circumstances, but its command and communication structures showed themselves capable of responding to a completely new situation. That is greatly to NATO's credit.

This afternoon, the House has demonstrated the same consensus and unanimity as that traditionally achieved by the Select Committee. I only wish that that was a more regular feature of our exchanges on other matters.

Question deferred, pursuant to paragraph (4) of Standing Order No. 52 (Consideration of Estimates).