HC Deb 16 June 1997 vol 296 cc3-5
3. Mr. Crausby

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he last visited the former Yugoslavia to discuss the British contribution to IFOR. [2042]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

I visited the former Yugoslavia from 19 to 20 May and had very useful discussions with the multinational stabilisation force and with United Kingdom commanders and troops. I also had meetings with members of the Bosnian presidency and the entity Defence Ministers.

Mr. Crausby

When my right hon. Friend next meets his American counterpart, will he stress the importance of United States participation in European security, and also stress that our common policy on Bosnia should be "in together, out together"?

Mr. Robertson

When I met the American Secretary of Defence last week, I made it clear that the success of SFOR—the stabilisation force—is down not just to NATO and the NATO countries whose forces are serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to the other nations involved there, and to Ukraine and Russia, which are partners in this regard. That is part of the considerable success that we have achieved in the area, providing a unique opportunity for previously warring factions to rebuild civic institutions there.

I have reminded the Americans, and will continue to remind them, that the Dayton peace accords were a substantial triumph for western and, perhaps especially, American diplomacy. We should not rashly throw away the rewards that have been achieved. The main point at present, however, is that the burden of responsibility lies with the Bosnian leadership, which has not done enough. The international community will not be taken for granted. We went in together, we stay in together, we have succeeded together, and if nothing happens on the ground we shall clearly have to leave together as well.

Mr. Brazier

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends to their posts, to which I am sure that they will bring considerable energy and imagination. May I none the less urge the right hon. Gentleman, in the light of the answer that he has just given and the answer given earlier by his hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces about the defence review, to remember that the primary purpose of Britain's armed forces is the defence of this country and its vital interests in a very dangerous world? Peacekeeping is an activity, not the principal purpose.

Mr. Robertson

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the warm and appropriate welcome that he gave the new Ministers. I know that the point has been well taken on the Opposition Front Bench, however temporary that may be.

The hon. Gentleman is right: the primary role of our armed forces is the defence of Britain and Britain's interests. However, we also have a wider international responsibility. When I met our troops serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina a few weeks ago, I was proud of them and I was impressed by the job that they are doing on behalf of the international community, along with representatives of that community, in maintaining peace in a part of the world that has scarred Europe for many generations. Together, as an international community, we have provided a rare moment of opportunity for people to dig themselves out of the situation and build a permanent peace.

Mr. Dalyell

Could the difficult old question of local allowances for our service men in the British Army of the Rhine, who have had to leave their families behind in Fallingbostel or elsewhere, be reconsidered? When they go to Bosnia, they lose the allowances that they had in Germany. Can my right hon. Friend imagine the wry smiles of the men of B squadron of the Scots Dragoon Guards when they learn that the Canadians, with whom they are doing manoeuvres, get free telephone calls for as long as they like to Canada, whereas the Scots' telephone calls are financially restricted?

Mr. Robertson

I know of my hon. Friend's distinguished record of service with that regiment and I was extremely pleased to meet it in Baraci just before he arrived on the scene. His point was made to me there, too. However, the matter is not as uncomplicated as he suggests. Some of the troops from the 34 nations serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina have different allowances and benefit from different regimes, but the allowances paid in Germany are for specific circumstances which are not deemed to relate to service in Bosnia. I listened with great care to the points that were made politely and sensibly by our forces in that part of the world. We shall keep these issues under permanent review.

Mr. Martin Bell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that as a result of necessary and valuable service in Bosnia, men in some units, such as the Queen's Royal Hussars, have spent two and a half of the past five years away from their families? How does he intend to address the problem of overstretch?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am aware of the stresses and strains which face those who serve in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and other parts of the world where British forces are committed, never mind those who serve in the homeland. The problem of overstretch will be seriously addressed in our strategic defence review because it is fundamental to how well and how professionally our forces discharge the roles that we ask them to perform in the world today.

The strategic defence review is not some ploy by an incoming Government: it is a determined attempt to provide clarity and vision for the future of this country and to ensure that when our troops discharge the obligations that the people want us to place on them they are not hindered by the problems of overstretch that many of them face today.

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