HC Deb 12 February 1997 vol 290 cc328-30
8. Mr. Cohen

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the changes in Government policy in respect of land mines in the past two years. [13961]

Mr. David Davis

Last April, I announced our support for a total global ban on anti-personnel land mines as soon as possible, severe restrictions on the use of anti-personnel land mines by our armed forces, the destruction of nearly half our existing stocks and the extension of our export moratorium to prohibit the export of all anti-personnel land mines to all countries.

Mr. Cohen

Would the Government like to be popular just before the election? Have they seen the opinion poll that showed that 90 per cent. of those questioned agreed with Princess Diana that there should be a worldwide ban on the construction and use of anti-personnel land mines? Instead of being a loose cannon on this issue, and following delaying and diversionary tactics in Geneva, why do the Government not give unequivocal support to the Ottawa process to get a ban on these hideous weapons?

Mr. Davis

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman wrote his supplementary question before he had heard my reply, in which I said that the Government's policy is to pursue a global ban on anti-personnel land mines. I can give him an impartial view of the matter. 'When Princess Diana was in Angola and this subject was on all the front pages, the gentleman leading the delegation, Mr. Mike Whitlam—the head of the British Red Cross—told the "Today" programme: I read the statement put out by the British Government last year … headlined 'Working towards a global ban on anti-personnel landmines' and at the time they brought in a number of measures which move the whole scenario further towards that end. So we were delighted when the British Government took those steps last year and certainly I am not aware that we were out of step". I agree with him.

The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about the Ottawa process. We take the view, as do the United Nations Secretary-General and others, that the conference on disarmament is the best place in which to progress it. If we find that the process allows us to achieve more progress with the countries of concern—the producers and exporters of large quantities of land mines, or those who use them irresponsibly—we will support it.

Mr. Wigley

I welcome the progress that the Government have made, and urge the Minister to go the rest of the way and do away with all stocks of land mines held by the United Kingdom. Does he agree that it was totally inappropriate for anyone to describe Princess Diana's involvement as that of a loose cannon? We would be better off having more loose cannons firing humanitarian salvoes than more loose land mines blowing off children's legs.

Mr. Davis

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's long-term interest in the subject; indeed, when I announced our policy last year it was in response to a question from him. The noble Lord involved said that he did not recognise the words attributed to him in the press, and I have every reason to believe him.

Although, to take up what the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) said, there is no political advantage in it, I was pleased to see all the coverage, because we have to recognise the fact that 20,000 lives are shattered or destroyed every year. We are trying to alleviate that problem.

I will reflect the question about our land mine use back to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). As he is aware, as the recipient of my answer, we will allow the use of anti-personnel land mines only by ministerial instruction, and only if it is absolutely necessary. We have to address the problem of how to change the policy of the countries that export, produce or misuse those land mines.

Last year, for example, we managed to get China to agree not to export undetectable land mines—the worst sort, because once in place they cannot be removed. That is the line that we are taking: the one that will give the best progress. To that end, the hon. Member for Caernarfon should know, as he is an honourable and honest man, that this country has been at the forefront of those that are acting to remove land mines from the countries most afflicted by them, and has spent £22 million on it to date.

Mr. Key

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's remarks, and I commend the Government on their policy, which is right both in seeking to establish international action and in supporting practical measures on the ground for the removal of mines. May I suggest, however, that £22 million over five years in humanitarian aid to the agencies removing those mines is. not enough and that it would be very well received if my hon. Friend agreed to double that amount? If he would like suggestions as to where the aid programme could be adjusted, I would be delighted to make some.

Mr. Davis

The Chancellor might have a word with me if I gave a commitment straight away, but I make two points to my hon. Friend. First, our land mine aid has accelerated rapidly in recent years, so to look at it over five years is slightly misleading; and, secondly, it is demand led: the more projects come up, the more we can consider doing. I spoke only last week to Mike Whitlam, the director of the British Red Cross, about that exact point.

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