HC Deb 07 May 1996 vol 277 cc1-3
1. Mr. Timms

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what recent discussions he has had with his French counterpart on anti-personnel land mines. [26919]

3. Mr. Sutcliffe

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what is his policy on the use of land mines; and if he will make a statement. [26921]

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

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is today attending the Western European Union Council of Ministers meeting in Birmingham and much regrets that he cannot be here.

We shall work actively for a total worldwide ban on anti-personnel land mines and keep in close touch with our allies about that issue. We welcome the outcome of the United Nations weaponry convention as an important step in the right direction.

Mr. Timms

Will the Minister join me in commending the ban introduced by the French Government on the production, stockpiling and export of all anti-personnel land mines? Why have the British Government not done the same?

Mr. Arbuthnot

We need to balance the real need to protect our armed forces with the need to move towards reducing the humanitarian dangers posed by land mines. We believe that we have achieved the right balance. We are in close touch with the French and we believe that we are doing things similar to them.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Is that not a contradiction: on the one hand, seeking a worldwide ban; while, on the other, seeking to modernise our requirements? Does that not point to a lack of clarity in the Government's view?

Mr. Arbuthnot

When we seek to achieve a balance between two inherently conflicting aims—both of which are perfectly justified—it is inevitable that we shall not achieve one or the other in totality. There is a real need to protect our armed forces as well as to protect civilians from the increasingly damaging effect of the proliferation of land mines. For that reason, we have supported a total ban on anti-personnel land mines and we shall work hard to achieve that objective. We had hoped that that conclusion would come out of last week's United Nations weaponry convention. Unfortunately, we did not get that far. We would have liked to go further, but we were very pleased to progress as far as we did.

Mr. Menzies Campbell

Is the Minister aware of the recent International Committee of the Red Cross report which says that the military value of anti-personnel land mines is substantially overstated? Does that not give rise to the moral question: should any self-respecting nation deploy weapons that cause human agony to civilians on a scale out of all proportion to their military value?

Mr. Arbuthnot

Yes, I have seen and read that report. I disagree with its conclusions. We must remember also that we are trying to contend with the real issue of those countries that proliferate land mines indiscriminately rather than monitoring them and using them carefully in accordance with the rules of law, as this country does.

Dr. David Clark

Does not the Minister's answer expose the Government's recent announcement that they would ban land mines as a sham of the highest order? The reality is that, at a time when most other countries are seeking to ban land mines altogether, the Government are planning to modernise their stock by purchasing brand new and more effective land mines. Where will the Minister get the new land mines? Does he plan to commission British companies to produce them or will we import them from a third country? Has he no shame in escalating the production of that most deadly and barbaric of weapons?

Mr. Arbuthnot

Some 30 countries, including the United Kingdom, are hoping to ban land mines altogether. At the end of his question, the hon. Gentleman raised an issue that I freely acknowledge to be genuine, and that needs to be addressed, but we have not made a decision to upgrade our land mines. If we do not achieve a worldwide ban on land mines, as we would like, we shall consider at the appropriate time—which is not now—improving our land mines so that they incorporate a self-destruct capacity, which our present land mines do not. It must be sensible to make the land mines that we decide to continue to use—if we are forced into that position—less dangerous to the civilian population whom we are trying to protect.

Mr. James Hill

Does my hon. Friend agree that the British arms industry cannot be blamed for the circumstances in some parts of the world, such as Cambodia? More money needs to be spent on those gallant groups that are searching for and destroying land mines and trying to make sure that village paths are clear and people can till their fields. Is there no fund that can be used to make sure those people are able to continue that work?

Mr. Arbuthnot

My hon. Friend raised an extremely important point. I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom has contributed nearly £20 million to the clearance of mines in countries such as Cambodia. That issue is very much to the forefront of our thinking. The mines used by British forces do not pose a threat to civilian populations.

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