HC Deb 17 June 1998 vol 314 cc300-22

[Relevant documents: First Report from the Defence Committee of Session 1997–98, on Peace Support Operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (HC 403), and the Government's response thereto (HC 535).]

11 am

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

It can perhaps be said that the Select Committee system goes back 500 years. Those 500 years of experience have been distilled into the miserable powers with which we are conferred—and we do not even exercise those powers. The Defence Committee, which I am privileged to chair, has had a busy 12 months. There have been 28 formal meetings, five foreign visits—to the United States, Germany, Bosnia, Bonn, for a small group of us, and NATO–15 domestic visits, including to Northern Ireland, and 23 informal briefings. I have pushed the Committee very hard. We have had a total of 72 meetings so far and there will be two more tomorrow. We have been dealing with a labyrinthine bureaucracy that makes the Ottomans seem the personification of open government—although my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces is a great exception to that scientific rule.

I am very pleased that we are debating the first of our reports on peacekeeping operations in Bosnia. The device of allowing Select Committees to be reported is a marginal addition to their limited powers. Our report was timely when it was written. It was written very soon after our return from Bosnia—perhaps hastily would be the wrong word to use—because we felt that key decisions were being made at the turn of the year on the continuation of the stabilisation force and that it was necessary very swiftly to produce a report based on our experience and observations. Today's debate is timely in that key decisions are being made in the Security Council on the continuation of SFOR. The timeliness is important; I would like to think that it was deliberate, but knowing this place, I am not entirely convinced.

The report concerns the Defence Committee's fifth visit to Bosnia—although it was the first for the present Committee members. We therefore bring quite considerable knowledge of the situation in Bosnia to the report and have a right to offer advice on what should happen, bearing in mind the appalling lessons of the past and the many mistakes that were made by Governments throughout the world, especially those in the European Union and NATO.

I very much welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces. We are awaiting debates on two further reports; one—on NATO enlargement—has already been written. Government Members who are well programmed might say that the Government have a busy timetable and therefore have not been able to find time to ratify—if what we do can be dignified by the term, which, of course, it cannot—the reports. Those who are rather more adventurous might say that the lack of debate is unfortunate. I would say that it is a disgrace that the Government have not found sufficient time to debate a key issue to the future of eastern and central Europe, NATO and world security. I hope that time will be found before the recess.

The Committee is awaiting the production of our sixth report—we are not quite sure when it will occur—which is on the strategic defence review. The Committee has been on standby for January, February, March, April, May and June. Are rumours true that we shall be on standby in July, August and even September before we have the opportunity to produce our report?

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Will the Chairman of the Select Committee confirm the rumour that he intends that the Committee should sit through the month of August in order to question Ministers about the contents of the strategic defence review?

Mr. George

I have said publicly on several occasions that, if we have to suffer, then Ministers should too. It is fanciful for Ministers—and, why not, Treasury Ministers, too—to assume that they can hide somewhere in northern Italy, drinking expensive wine while we are advancing the cause of the Executive as a result of their oversight. Perhaps some package holiday back to the United Kingdom can be arranged for them.

If our Prime Minister wishes to pursue an ethical foreign policy—I can think of nothing more ethical than preventing genocide—and if he wishes to sustain the British ability to defend ourselves and to meet our treaty and alliance obligations, it is very important that our armed forces are of the right size and the present high quality, well led, well trained, well motivated, well equipped, have high morale, receive good political leadership and are not grossly overstretched. Those qualities must be maintained. Skills and morale do not descend from the sky; they have to be nurtured.

As the Secretary of State–1 am pleased that he is present—Ministers and members of the Defence Committee know, we cannot accept that what we have at the moment will remain in perpetuity. The skills in our armed forces could disappear; troops could leave due to gross overstretch. Our capable forces are a precious asset that must not be squandered. I am wasting my time by talking to Defence Ministers because I share their views, but I hope that those on the other side of the road realise that, although economic policy is important, the defence of our national interest is equally, if not more, important.

Our troops are so professional. Man for man, woman for woman, pound for pound—or, if ever we were unfortunate enough to get into a common defence policy, kilo for kilo—our forces are probably the best in the world. They are doing a superb job in Bosnia. One wonders what would happen if their presence there were greatly diminished. To illustrate their sheer professionalism, I shall cite one small example. Some of us visited the King's Royal Hussars, which were then based around Mrkonjicgrad. I cannot adequately express my admiration for that half regiment; they were brilliant. The range of tasks and the versatility that they displayed were quite staggering. Given their experience in Northern Ireland, they were as good at being infantrymen and paramilitary policemen as they were at driving tanks.

I am delighted to say that, on our recent visit to Germany, we found the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards ecstatic about their new Challenger 2s—the Rolls-Royce of world tanks. I just hope that Vickers does not do the same for Challenger 2 as it did for Rolls-Royce. The tank is superb. A disastrous decision has been made. [Interruption.] I shall not be partisan; my friends on the Opposition Benches know what I just managed to prevent myself from saying.

The King's Royal Hussars operate and drive around in Scimitars and Warriors. They even travel on horseback. They were immensely popular locally. Their military capability was superb, and they had an amazing civil assistance programme, which earned them enormous local praise. They improved water supply, established street lighting and rebuilt roads and schools—all that with half a regiment. We can be so proud of what our young men and women are doing there, but it is important that in the strategic defence review we are careful to ensure that those assets are not dissipated.

Let us make no mistake; if any of the options that were on the table for the future of SFOR had been implemented, the consequences would have been catastrophic. One option, which was obviously not serious, was total withdrawal with no follow-on force. Some people have argued for that, and the one piece of publicity that we had following publication of our report came from Simon Jenkins, a former adviser to the Committee concerning our Falklands report. Clearly, he thinks that it is not our responsibility to stay in Bosnia, and that we should get the hell out of there.

I believe that if that line were pursued, the consequences would be disastrous. A purely deterrent force, small and based outside Bosnia, would have been nonsense; a deterrent force of 20,000 would have been inadequate. I hope that it will be announced that there will remain a force of about the present size, because I am pretty certain that if those forces were significantly diminished, the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims would get back to basics—killing each other, dusting down their kalashnikovs and driving their tanks out of the compounds in which they are now retained. Revenge would be sought, with killings and masses of refugees—and of course, the forest fire would spread.

Will the Minister of State tell us what he intends to announce about the future level of British forces? I would like that confirmed. Can he say anything about the NATO contribution in general, what the balance between NATO and non-NATO elements will be, and what the United States commitment is? It would be helpful for that to be restated.

As we said in our report: We believe that the task of SFOR is not yet completed, and we support the continuing presence of a multinational force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Within that, of course, Britain must continue to play its significant role.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I am grateful to the Chairman of the Defence Committee for giving way to me. While he is discussing the configuration of SFOR, does he agree that the only reason why we can provide such excellent troops in their present shape is that they have retained a high-intensity war-fighting capability, which can then be flexed into other shapes, whereas if we had designed our troops around a peacekeeping or gendarmerie function, they would be nothing like as good at peacekeeping?

Mr. George

That is true. The example that I gave of the King's Royal Hussars consists of guys who have been in Northern Ireland and know about low-intensity operations, but who also exercise for a major war involving their tanks, and are capable of acting as paramilitary policemen. The training and experience within those individuals' competence coves such a range as to make them startlingly unique.

I believe that the continuation of SFOR will buy time—more time to see how the other part of the equation works—the restoration of civil society in Bosnia, and democratisation, with social and economic regeneration. That certainly needs time. I believe, as President Clinton said, that we need not a deadline, but a series of milestones. When those milestones are reached, there can be a diminution in the military presence.

I shall now make a few points about other matters, if I may, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Obviously Kosovo is in our minds. Milosevic has been described as both an arsonist and a fire fighter—the man who begins the crisis and then, it is to be hoped, comes round to put out the fire that he has started. The Balkans will remain an area of our continent beset with crises, and we must explain to our electorates why British forces are there. Their presence stems not simply from high ethical motives, but from our self-interest.

After the SDR is eventually published, I hope that our forces will not be significantly different from those that we have today. Yes, they must be geared up for the 21st century, but I hope that defence expenditure will remain at about 2.6 per cent. The last report of the previous Defence Committee, then chaired by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), whom I can call my hon. Friend, said that any further cuts in defence expenditure would endanger the defence of the realm.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

May I respond to that reference to myself, and add, for the benefit of the Secretary of State, whom I am delighted to see in his place, the information that the final paragraph of that last report on the previous defence White Paper was originally very tough and said that the cuts had gone so far but must go no further—I drafted that myself—but that another five lines that went even further were then added by the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who is now Chairman of the Defence Committee. I warn the Secretary of State that a couple of shots have been fired across his bows, and I hope that he reads the conclusion of the report carefully.

Mr. George

I thank my hon. Friend for those helpful remarks.

I have one further point unrelated to Bosnia, although it could be connected. From the press I understand that two of the recent rioters in Marseilles were serving British military personnel, one from the Royal Air Force and one from the Army. I hope that my remarks somehow waft their way over to their commanding officers to consider when they get out of the slammer. Unfortunately, they are not on Devil's island. I can never forgive the French for abandoning that magnificent penal colony, where those guys ought to be serving a sentence of three years, not three months. I hope that those men's commanding officers will pay attention to the press reports.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. George

Yes, but for the last time.

Mr. McWilliam

I hope that my hon. Friend realises that those men are probably in more trouble where they are now than they would be on Devil's island, where there is now a rather nice hotel.

Mr. George

Is that so? My travelling has obviously not been as extensive as that of my hon. Friend. I presume that those men's time in prison will not be such a wonderful experience.

In conclusion, the House can pay tribute to our armed forces, especially those serving in dangerous places in the world. Their presence there is important and appreciated. If the Prime Minister wishes to deploy British forces in trouble spots throughout the world, there must be a critical mass of our armed forces, and we are now at the point where that barely exists.

We have all read the press stories about the Treasury demanding our aircraft carrier programme, Eurofighter, or our Challenger 2 tanks. We have been waiting long enough for a decent tank, and it would be criminal to abandon the Challenger 2 after 70 or 80 years of waiting. If those press stories are remotely true, I think that everybody here, the full Defence Committee, and a large majority in the House of Commons will join the Secretary of State in telling the Treasury, "Hands off."

11.17 am
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

As the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), has pointed out, the report is now rather more than six months old, and proceedings this morning have been notable for two reasons. First, through the passage of time the report has become timely because SFOR' s mandate expires on 21 June, so by accident, what we say today may be of rather more relevance than it might have been a few months ago.

The other notable feature is that this is, I believe, the first time in the 11 years that I have been a Member of the House that I have heard an intervention by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) in a Defence debate without the words "Territorial Army" passing his lips. I suppose that that may be because, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he intends to tackle that topic with his usual enthusiasm later.

The hon. Gentleman would, of course, be right to raise that subject in the context of Bosnia. I guess that all hon. Members, when they have visited units in the Army, have almost always met someone in the Territorial Army who has either been to Bosnia or is about to go there.

I visited the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry territorials in my constituency recently, and I met one soldier who had given up his job in civilian life to accept a six-month tour of duty in Bosnia. That is typical of the enthusiasm of many in the Territorial Army for the opportunity provided by Bosnia, and it also reflects the fact that our effectiveness there has, on many occasions, rested on the fact that we have been able to call up from the Territorial Army people of competence and ability who were easily able to fit into the regular units to which they were assigned.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

Does the hon. and learned Gentleman think that the gentleman in question, who has given up his civilian career to go to Bosnia, will have a regiment to come back to?

Mr. Campbell

Rather interestingly, that was the question he asked me, and I was not able to give an unequivocal answer. I promised to raise the matter with the Secretary of State and the Minister for the Armed Forces. I have done so informally, and I take the opportunity to do so more formally. They will have deduced from the response from hon. Members on both sides of the House that a part of the strategic defence review which will receive as much scrutiny in the House of Commons as any will be that part which deals with the future of the Territorial Army.

I do not expect Ministers to tell us this morning what they will do with the TA—we can read about it in The Times every other week. Talk about open government—parts of the strategic defence review seem to be conducted in the pages of the broadsheet newspapers. We hope to have soon a White Paper which will allow us to focus on decisions, rather than responding to what often looks like well-placed speculation.

I want to concentrate briefly on what has been achieved by the NATO military presence in Bosnia under the guise of SFOR. The first and obvious thing has been stability. As a result of that stability, obstructionist police chiefs have been successfully removed, war criminals have been arrested—UK forces have participated in that—and mendacious propaganda outlets, such as television stations, have been shut down. Local armed forces have been brought firmly under control and—something that would have been inconceivable a year ago—two major elections have been held in Bosnia against a peaceful background.

I mention those matters because they were all key undertakings of the Dayton agreement. Such success as has been achieved must not be thrown away, and the achievements must be built upon. If we do not continue to do that, most observers recognise that there is still potential in the region for a resumption of the damaging and brutal fighting which precipitated the intervention of NATO some three years ago. Early withdrawal of NATO would serve only to create circumstances in which that brutality could re-emerge.

The Committee's report draws attention to the need for political reconciliation and economic reconstruction. The peace created by SFOR provides us with the opportunity to push ahead towards that reconstruction. The decision to continue the mandate is, I understand, to be predicated on the view that there is no fixed exit date, but there is to be an exit state; that is to say, at a point when civil society has been properly restored in the area, NATO forces will withdraw.

We must ensure, therefore, that our presence is designed to bring about that exit state at the earliest possible date. There is a risk—Cyprus is a clear example—of temporary postings or obligations becoming part of the status quo. To a limited extent, I accept one of the propositions contained in the article by Mr. Simon Jenkins, to which the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Walsall, South, referred; there is always a risk of deployments of this kind becoming part of the status quo. We must ensure, therefore, that during the period of deployment and the renewed mandate, we press ahead with those parts of the Dayton agreement which still require to be implemented.

The report highlights a number of key factors which need to be addressed urgently if civil society in Bosnia is to progress. For example, there is no proper definition of citizenship or passports. Discriminatory property laws block the return of displaced persons, and the concept of refugee return made up a key part of the Dayton agreement. It is well known that the police do not deal even-handedly with politically motivated crimes. There are numerous cases of wrongful arrest and abuse of persons in custody. The issue of civil policing must be dealt with quickly.

The restoration of a recognised domestic civil police will come about only by close co-operation with the international police task force. That restoration of civil policing in which all sectors of the community can have confidence will, in my judgment, make the greatest possible contribution to the restoration of long-term stability.

One senior British Army officer pointed out in a recent article: The restructuring of the police to the standards of western democracies is an essential step if SFOR is one day to withdraw successfully. I understand that the UK contributes 60 officers to the IPTF. I wonder if that is an area in which we could do a little more. We have a long-established tradition of civil policing in this country, and surely it would be right to try to extend our influence in these matters in Bosnia.

The international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia deals with those indicted for war crimes. Everyone accepts that that is a crucial process if the scars that the events in Bosnia have left behind are ever to be healed. It is generally accepted that the tribunal is short of funds and is unduly bureaucratic. One of the key recommendations of the report is that international bodies urgently re-examine the resourcing of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The report ends with a recommendation that the mandate for the successor force to SFOR should be based on a three year plan and be fully integrated with a comprehensive strategy for civilian implementation.

As I said, the proposals now envisage an exit state rather an exit date. That is a development in thinking since December 1997 and, although I was a subscriber to the report, thinking has developed—particularly across the Atlantic in the United States—that an exit state approach is the one that we should develop rather than the fixing of an exit date. The advantage of that is that more long-term strategies will be able to be pursued in areas such as mine clearance, the arrest of war criminals, the fight against corruption and the return of refugees.

The truth is that the implementation force and SFOR succeeded far beyond the expectations of those of us who supported their deployment. If one had said on the eve of the deployment of IFOR that it would have been able to restore stability as it did as quickly and as effectively, people would have expressed a certain degree of scepticism. SFOR has managed to take that process on and has maintained stability. The task for the follow-on force is to ensure that the stability allows the growth of the essential elements of a civilian society. That is why it is timely that we should discuss this report, albeit that the debate—as it were—is six months out of date. It reminds us once again that there are unfinished tasks in Bosnia.

11.27 am
Mr. Keith Hill (Streatham)

I very much welcome this debate. It is almost a year to the day since the House last debated the situation in Bosnia on an Adjournment motion in my name. Other hon. Members took part in the debate then. Since Bosnia represents the most significant act of deployment of British troops overseas and since the situation in the Balkans continues to constitute the greatest threat to stability in Europe, it seems appropriate that the House should return to this subject—at least at a 12-month remove.

The occasion for this debate is the excellent report of the Defence Committee on peace support operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I congratulate the Committee on its detailed and wide-ranging report. In particular, I congratulate the Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who, in his speech this morning, demonstrated his outstanding expertise on defence issues—the product of many years' immersion in the matter. He is absolutely right to point out the special contribution of British forces to peace support in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For reasons with which we are all familiar, the British Army has unique experience in performing at the cusp of civilian and military operations. Like my hon. Friend and all other hon. Members, I pay tribute to the achievement and reputation of the British forces in Bosnia. I welcome the Government's constructive response to the Committee's report, about which, I dare say, we shall hear more from my hon. Friend the Minister.

The first and major recommendation of the Committee's report, which was published in December last year, was that the presence of a multinational force in Bosnia be continued. That demand was at the heart of the debate in the House 12 months ago—it was supported by all those who spoke—when it was far from certain that the SFOR mandate would be extended beyond its expiry date in June 1998.

As we now know, the NATO permanent council decided on 18 February to continue SFOR's operation at current levels until the general elections in September, with some reductions after that date if circumstances permit. I note that the council will review the situation on the ground periodically and the SFOR mission every six months, but that no precise duration has been specified in the mandate.

Earlier this year, the United Nations high representative, Carlos Westendorp, said that he thought that the SFOR follow-up force should remain in force for three more years. I also note with interest that President Clinton has said that the mission should be tied to concrete benchmarks, not to a deadline, and that it must have clear objectives that, when met, will create a self-sustaining, secure environment, which would permit troop withdrawal. I am sure that that is the right approach, to which, I hope, the British Government will lend their support. The truth is that progress on the Dayton objectives has been painfully slow over the past 12 months. However, it is equally true—and universally recognised, not least among ordinary Bosnians—that there would have been no progress at all without SFOR.

The problems are obvious: the majority of common institutions are operating inadequately; illegal structures of government persist in the federation; there is a lack of strong multi-ethnic political parties and a structured civil society; and there are no functioning public corporations. If the UN high representative had not assumed sweeping powers, there would be no common citizenship laws, no customs union and no common flag—not even common number plates on cars. Human rights violations remain endemic and comprehensive plans to facilitate the return of the refugees have not been implemented—it is estimated that 600,000 Bosnian refugees remain abroad and that more than 800,000 Bosnians remain displaced internally.

Against that depressing backdrop, it is worth recognising that important, if limited, progress has been made, notably the shift, following the elections in November last year, towards a more moderate political regime in the Republika Srpska. The new Government, headed by Milorad Dodic, are supported by both moderate Muslim and Serb deputies. They have transferred the seat of Government from Pale to Banja Luka; they have decided to abolish all the laws adopted by the previous Parliament, which was dominated by the radical nationalists under Radovan Karadzic; they have promised strict implementation of the Dayton accords; and they have offered an operational plan to encourage Muslim and Croat refugees to return. Those moves have triggered the release of international aid to Republika Srpska—further grants and credits will be released as the commitments are implemented.

We should not exaggerate the progress that has been made, but it is impossible to believe that such virtuous developments could have occurred, paving the way to greater normalisation, without the presence of SFOR. There has also been progress in Bosnia in arms control, in confidence-building and security-building measures and in restructuring and reforming the police. There has been some economic revival in the federation, to which the minorities have begun to return—to a lesser extent, they are also returning to Republika Srpska.

In last year's debate on Bosnia, I argued that only the return of the refugees—Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike—would bring long-term stability to Bosnia. I made the obvious point that refugees would not return while the indicted war criminals remained at large. This time last year, of 75 indicted war criminals in all parts of Bosnia, only nine had been arrested and only two prosecuted. That is another area in which progress has been made over the past 12 months, and in which British forces have played an important role and even forced the pace. Hon. Members will remember that, on 10 July last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in the House the arrest by British troops of the indicted war criminals Kovacevic and Drljaca, the latter of whom was fatally wounded during his capture. I understand that nearly 30 indicted war criminals are now in the hands of the international criminal tribunal at The Hague—a third of them are currently standing trial.

No one should underestimate the risks entailed in the pursuit of the indicted war criminals, both to the troops and of creating political instability, but the pursuit must continue—Karadzic remains a target for the international community—and must apply equally to Muslim and Croat, as well as to Serb, war criminals. Only SFOR can carry out that pursuit, which is a further reason why its mandate has rightly been extended.

Bosnia and Herzegovina represent an immense and continuing tragedy. With hindsight—which is, of course, always 20:20—it is now generally accepted that an early force projection by the west might have held the ring between the warring sides, so preventing the tragedy from unravelling. I think that that lesson has been learnt and I cannot commend too highly the resolute position that the British Government are adopting on the current crisis in Kosovo.

The persuasive powers of President Yeltsin have evidently not prevailed over Slobodan Milosevic. It is perfectly clear that the Serbian army and militias will remain in Kosovo, but it is intolerable that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should be using aircraft, heavy artillery and tanks against its own largely unarmed so-called citizens—the intention may not be ethnic cleansing, but the effects are starting to seem as if it were. If the international community has the means to stop such action, it should use them.

Stability in the Balkans would probably not be served by the secession of Kosovo from what remains of Yugoslavia, but Kosovo must subsist—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haslehurst)

Order. The debate is about Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although references in parallel to Kosovo are permissible, the debate is not about Kosovo.

Mr. Hill

I fully accept your reproach, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it is difficult to debate the situation in Bosnia, which has regional implications, without taking into account the situation in Kosovo. With your permission, I should like to outline the implications of President Milosevic's actions in Kosovo.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are debating the Select Committee's report on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The hon. Gentleman would be out of order if he pursued his intention.

Mr. Hill

I accept, of course, your reproach, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

SFOR's record in Bosnia has been outstanding—it has held the ring. Lessons for Kosovo can certainly be learnt from the experience of the projection of international force into Bosnia, and I am sure that the British Government and the international community will bear such considerations in mind. I hope that we shall hear reassuring words about further international action in the Balkans from my hon. Friend the Minister.

11.38 am
Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

On behalf of the Defence Committee, I thank the hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill) for taking such an interest in our report and for participating in this debate. I only wish that more hon. Members were present today, as the defence of the realm is a crucial matter. When I entered the House, probably more than a third of hon. Members had some experience of the armed forces—many compulsorily, some voluntarily. That wealth of experience is now missing, so I commend to the hon. Gentleman the parliamentary armed forces scheme, which is run by Sir Neil Thorne, a former Member of Parliament. If the hon. Gentleman takes part in future debates on defence matters, he should perhaps concentrate more on defence than on the politics in neighbouring countries—the scheme could do him a great deal of good.

May I also congratulate the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), the Chairman of our Select Committee. If patience is a virtue, he is certainly virtuous because, as the longest-serving member, his patience has been rewarded with the chairmanship of the Committee, which has a long record of consensus—one that will be maintained, I am sure, under his chairmanship.

I shall also use this opportunity to pay tribute to previous Committee members. Our membership was thoroughly devastated at the general election and other members left for other reasons. We must all acknowledge the valuable work that previous Committees did and pay tribute to new members. If ever there was a fresh leavening of the loaf, we have had it. In particular, I pay tribute to the hon. Members for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor) for the way in which they have adapted to the work. If the armed forces can put ladies in the front line, why cannot the Defence Committee also move with the times and introduce a female element? And very useful it has been.

I was looking forward to what would have been my fifth visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the Defence Committee, but instead I found myself attending the assembly of the Western European Union in Paris. My Chairman will no doubt be relieved to know that the worsening situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina and neighbouring states was the principal item on our agenda and we spent some time discussing what sort of force should succeed the stabilisation force. Everyone agrees that the continuing presence of British troops in SFOR and the contribution that British officers, in particular, have made to the headquarters are key elements in the administration of the Dayton agreement. Any successor force must include the British and, of course, the Americans.

Although Dayton has imposed a durable and expensive ceasefire and warfare may have ceased, no one could say that peace has come to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the authorities have been lamentably slow to honour their obligations under the peace agreement. How to achieve a permanent peace is beyond everyone at present and the growing tensions in Kosovo and Albania mean that the situation in the Balkans will get worse before it gets any better.

The Muslims signed the Dayton accord because they thought that NATO would intercede on their behalf and the Croats and Serbs signed it because they presumed that that would never happen. That extraordinary ambiguity is the basis of Dayton's success in maintaining the ceasefire. Now the time has come for a renewed or fresh mandate for NATO's continued presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which no one doubts will happen.

One welcome development has had a painful down side. The emergence of the precarious democracy in Republika Srpska has forestalled moves for a referendum on its future. The hon. Member for Streatham referred to that. We know that a majority of Serbs favour seceding from Bosnia-Herzegovina and joining up with Serbia. That too was President Milosevic's strategy and because he has so far failed to achieve the greater Serbia in that way, he has turned his unwelcome attentions to Kosovo.

Our Select Committee report makes many recommendations, but I shall touch on three that are relevant to the strategic defence review and one other. First, on strategic heavy lift, 1 found it particularly embarrassing to go to Marchwood military port to see the departure of our troops and equipment to the former Yugoslavia and to realise that they had to wait for a fortnight for the arrival not of British but of American and Ukrainian ships for the heavy lift to be made.

The Government must tackle the problem of merchant naval heavy lift as part of the strategic defence review. I acknowledge that the previous Government successfully torpedoed our Merchant Navy through their fiscal policies, but if this Government do not tackle that problem, we will be in trouble. Although it can be assumed that we can hire the ships required for heavy lift on the open market, there is no guarantee that we will be able to get the crews required, so I hope that the Government will deal with that in the SDR.

On heavy lift by air, there has been a long debate and the previous Defence Committee produced a report on the subject, recommending a mixed fleet of the successor to the C130 Hercules—the C130J—and possibly the future large aircraft made by Airbus Industrie GIE. The latter is still on the drawing board and is unlikely ever to get off it. In fact, the Germans are now in discussions with the Russians and Ukrainians to develop the Antonov for heavy lift.

Also, according to frequent reports in the newspapers, it looks as though the Government will either purchase or lease the C17 from the United States. There are two versions of the C17; one military, the other civil. The Government should think carefully about the armaments on the military version. If we purchase the civil version, however, it will be completely unarmed, but some military defence will be necessary in the theatres of war in which it will be flying or it will be a sitting duck. The Government should think carefully before plumping for the civil version.

The second point is that, when the previous Government cut our armed forces by about 30 per cent., they cut defence medical services by about 40 per cent. The structure they put in place, in particular the military district hospital units, was good—they were simply undermanned. The SDR should also tackle that and consider the role that the Territorial Army could play in providing the expertise and skills required for field hospitals. If Britain were engaged in high-intensity warfare, we would not be able to set up the required number of field hospitals. Our Committee has looked into that matter and it is referred to in the report that we are debating. That is one area in which the Government must do something.

The third point on the SDR is the cost of our operations in SFOR. It is estimated that in 1997–98 the total cost to Britain will be £200 million. That is a charge that must go on the Consolidated Fund, not our hard-pressed defence budget.

One of the six common institutions established under Dayton to cover the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina was the Standing Committee on Military Matters, which was the last of the institutions to meet—last September in Sarajevo—but which has had a crucial role to play in long-term security and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in facilitating dialogue on security arrangements with the international community. Our Committee concluded: in order to promote greater stability, the programme should be developed away from its current bilateral status towards a NATO-based programme more fully integrated with the role of the SCMM, a role which in turn must be supported and developed into something closer to a partnership for peace. That is an important recommendation and I would like the Minister's comments on it when he replies to the debate.

In conclusion, I shall state the obvious—but it is always something that needs to be repeated. Visiting our troops on joint operations with the forces of other nations, with which one can draw comparisons, brings a mixture of satisfaction and pride—satisfaction in seeing a job really well done and being able, as a Committee, to do something to help them and pride in confirming that our service men and women are the best in the world and the best led.

I commend our report to the House.

11.48 am
Laura Moffatt (Crawley)

It is difficult to express my feelings about my visit to Bosnia and the subsequent production of our report. As the House has heard, the Defence Committee has previously visited Bosnia several times, but as a very inexperienced member of the Committee I made my first visit there under the careful supervision of our Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George), who kept a close eye on us. New members were given a great opportunity to express themselves. I am extremely grateful for that and for the comments made by the hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin).

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Defence Committee. The visit was a moving experience. It is difficult to believe that the industrial and economic base of Bosnia and Herzegovina was so badly destroyed that just 6 per cent. of it was functioning after the war—although we could see the devastating effect of that.

I want to concentrate on the medical services—an issue close to my heart. On our visit to 24 Armoured Field Ambulance, it was amazing to see the work that was done, but there are practical ways in which to do the job more efficiently. It is difficult for medical people to set up a whole new service in an area of which nearly a third has been destroyed. I was sensitive to the views of those who said that we would gradually have to reduce the service that we provide to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina so that they can develop their own medical services, but that will be difficult; medical people naturally want to help—and I commend them for doing so sensitively.

There are practical difficulties. Previous Committees commented seriously on the ways in which operations must be conducted in the field. As a result, a new containerised operating theatre was provided—the GIAT. There are still difficulties, however, as it is cramped, and anyone taller than 6 ft would find it difficult to work there. I urge the Ministry of Defence to continue to work with experienced users of that sort of operating theatre to try to produce the best facilities. The French and Canadian facility is better than that available to our medical service personnel.

Laboratory staff in the field must work in tented accommodation. As a nurse, I could see how difficult it was to keep those areas clinically clean or sterile. Like the report, I urge that we consider containerised laboratory services so that we can ensure that areas are clean and can provide the best service.

A much more serious problem for those who work in the medical services of both the reserve and regular forces is overstretch, although that word oversimplifies what I want to say. They have to adapt from life in the United Kingdom to serve as doctors, consultants, nurses, paramedics, laboratory staff and all the others who make up a good medical service, and goodness knows the service in Bosnia and Herzegovina is good.

There is no doubt that the previous Government's medical services reorganisation was a disaster. I have heard it said that the service was just underfunded, but the reorganisation was fundamentally flawed and it is causing great difficulty for those who attempt to work in the national health service at home and those who serve abroad.

As we travelled from one base to another, we heard dissatisfaction at the way in which the service is being run. Because the SFOR operation was winding down, many consultants felt guilty about huge waiting lists at home. The NHS is a hard-pressed service in which doctors, nurses and everyone else want to do their best, and I urge a careful consideration of how we work with the NHS through the Defence Secondary Care Agency to ensure that we get the best from our serving forces. They should feel that they are contributing, not that they are letting down their colleagues at home. Some felt that by going away to serve they might cause extra difficulty at home. I hope that that has been fully considered in the strategic defence review.

I found the visit very moving and I was privileged to go to Bosnia and to contribute to the report. Everyone in the House will be full of admiration for our serving forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The esteem in which they are held by the people of those countries is unbelievable. If our troops do that sort of job for us by helping to create stability in the region and contributing so much to peace, it is beholden on us not to let them down.

11.55 am
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I thank the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for his speech and praise his record as a doughty champion of our armed services. He is held in much higher esteem than most politicians by the services, and has written a seminal book on the subject.

There are, of course, no quick fixes. The Defence Committee has seen the situation on the ground. My own familiarity with it is different, and relates to earlier. There can, however, be slow fixes, and IFOR and SFOR can be regarded as a type of cast on a fracture. The cast must stay in place for a while, until the application of pressure can be eased. We shall never return to the multi-ethnic, multiracial, harmonious Bosnia of old. It is gone. If there was a time for peace with justice, that time was April 1992, and we and all the western democracies shall for ever reproach ourselves for acting so late.

What we are preventing now is the return of genocide. Every day the peace lasts, it strengthens. The conflict will not go on for ever. The situation is improving and we must thank our soldiers for that. From experience, I know that our soldiers lead the world, not only in war fighting, but in peace keeping, peace making and peace building. As I have said often before, we have the best little army in the world and I am confident that it will remain so after the strategic defence review.

Let it be said that there are costs—the casualties, the dead and the injured, especially in the early months and years of our involvement. To this day, there is the danger of a return of warfare. It is not a safe environment for anyone, including SFOR and British troops, as long as mines remain in the ground. The casualties, at a time of overstretch in our armed forces, also extend to soldiers' families. Often, especially in the early months, a battalion would return from duty in Bosnia to find that its casualties included 10 per cent. or more of its marriages. A soldier would gain a medal, but lose a family. What kind of a trade-off is that?

In one specific case, the casualties include a brave soldier of the Parachute Regiment who was arrested last October under the Official Secrets Acts. He still has not been charged, but his career and his reputation are in ruins. When the investigation is over, I shall wish to hold the Ministry of Defence police to account; nor shall my sword sleep in my hand on that point. He, too, is a casualty of our Bosnian involvement.

There is no point in living through such experiences unless we learn from them. As we contemplate a follow-on force, some serious lessons can be learned: one is that if we are going to threaten force, we must be willing to use it or our bluff will be called. Another is that whatever is done must be done within the context of international law, which, to be honest, is one of the problems in Kosovo at the moment.

We have learnt that the application of sanctions is a cruel and blunt weapon. They tend to hurt those whom they are designed to help: they reward the villains and the black marketeers and punish the little people. They did so in Iraq and it was certainly so in Serbia at the time of the Bosnian war.

The most important lesson is that there are issues of right and wrong as well as of national security. It is in the interests of our national security that we help to maintain the peace in Europe, but we must not forget the element of right and wrong, of doing what we should and believing that Bosnian lives matter. British lives have been sacrificed; if we walk away now, that will have been in vain. Sometimes it is necessary to do what is right rather than what is expedient and we must stay the course in Bosnia.

12 noon

Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

I, too, congratulate the Select Committee on its report. It acquired much knowledge and wisdom on a short visit.

United Kingdom involvement in SFOR is in the highest traditions of professionalism. I have seen UN peacekeeping forces at work on the Golan heights, and I have no illusions about the difficulties involved in such situations, especially when a multinational force is involved.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, we are involved in building peace, not merely keeping it; there is a distinct difference. In that context, it is especially timely that the Select Committee highlighted the need to buttress moderate forces in the region. Sometimes that is done overtly, as the report said, as in the timely interventions to protect civil rights in the so-called battle of the buses before the elections last November, and sometimes it is done more subtly, by reminding the population of the window beyond, which involves economic reconstruction.

The King's Royal Hussars played a commendable role in re-establishing dairy farms, distributing children's magazines in Serbo-Croat and in English, and supplying a radio service in and around the area of Sipovo. The rebuilding of civil society is a key element in the operations of any peacekeeping force.

I recently returned from a conference of young European politicians in Slovenia, where I met representatives from Sarajevo and Tuzla, who emphasised the need for support and encouragement in that rebuilding. Before the civil war, Bosnia-Herzegovina was a sophisticated, multinational, multiracial, multi-ethnic and, by and large, multi-tolerant society, especially in the urbanised areas.

SFOR, and the British troops that it contains, continues its commitment to the prosecution of war criminals. No one can be in any doubt about the logistical difficulties in apprehending those people and the practical difficulties for the tribunal in The Hague, but it is extremely important to press ahead. We should remember the post-war experience with Nazi war criminals. It is not always easy or even possible to bring such people to justice overnight, or even within two or three years, but anything that the defence force can do should receive our support and endorsement.

I am glad that the report draws attention to the continuing problems with human rights. In the traumatised situation of Bosnia-Herzegovina today, no one should expect all the functioning civil rights of a western social democracy, but we must expect certain basic decencies. One of my constituents, who served as a volunteer in the forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, was imprisoned, initially without charge, as a result of the political situation there, and we should draw attention to such cases.

The report is a snapshot of the aftermath of the civil war, and in its estimate of the cost and its assessment of the need for an over-the-horizon presence, it underlines how wrong Bismarck was when he said that the Balkans were not worth the bones of a Pomeranian Grenadier.

We need to educate and inform the public about our involvement in the Balkans. There is an understandable temptation to give up because of the apparent incomprehensibility of the region. I recently came across a 1912 cartoon of John Bull being sucked into the whirlpool of the Balkan wars of that time. We ignored the problem then, and the result was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo and the first world war. We cannot ignore it now, and that is one of the reasons why I welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's firm stance on Kosovo, and the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

It is important to remember that the Bosnian crisis has its origins in the situation in Kosovo. All parties are responsible for the break-up of Yugoslavia, and the lack of political leadership contributed to the situation that unravelled in Bosnia. In 1989, Slobodan Milosevic used the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo—a traumatic event in Serb history—to underline Serbian demands and to attempt to remove the region's autonomy, and that event precipitated the removal of Slovenia and Croatia from the federation and resulted ultimately in the spill-over into Bosnia of the conflict between Serbia and Croatia.

Unless we understand the interconnections of the areas and the increased importance of maintaining a presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we shall suffer the consequences. The Serb-Croat conflict and the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 sucked Bosnia-Herzegovina into civil war, and Kosovo could suck in Albania and Macedonia and, eventually, Greece and Turkey.

To sustain and to build peace, as we are attempting to do in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is never an easy option, but if NATO is to retain credibility, we must all continue our efforts in that direction. The report says: In summary, considerations of altruism and national self-interest lead to the same conclusion in respect of our involvement in former Yugoslavia. The price of peace would be far outweighed by the costs of a resumption of war.

12.8 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

When the Select Committee last visited Germany, every unit that we visited, including RAF Bruggen and 7 Armoured Brigade, told us of the difficulties of sustaining the current operational posture of our armed forces in their deployment in Bosnia, the Gulf and elsewhere.

My regiment was in Höhne but, sadly, we were not able to visit it, because the vast majority of the troops were supporting the eighth squadron tour in Bosnia. The experience of the Light Dragoons shows how our operational tour commitment, which is now indefinite, with the extension of SFOR, is beginning to undermine our military efficiency and capability.

I want to draw out one point for the Minister: the Prime Minister thinks that we can go on an adventure in Kosovo, without re-examining the state of the defence budget and thinking about the commitments that it is sustaining, but in my judgment, from what I have heard in the Defence Committee and from the feedback that I have received, the armed forces are no longer capable of sustaining another indefinite operational commitment. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will restrain the Prime Minister from thinking that Britain can take on a neo-imperial role and commit its armed forces around the world. If the Prime Minister wanted to behave like that, there would have to be another defence review and substantially increased resources would have to be put into the defence budget.

We have learned lessons from Bosnia, but some hon. Members have drawn the wrong lessons from it in respect of Kosovo, which is a different situation. We should not get drawn in, not only for reasons of foreign policy and international law, but for reasons of practicality and the state of the defence budget.

12.10 pm
Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

We have heard some interesting and well-informed speeches. It has been an eye-opener to hear so many speeches from Government Back Benchers calling for a proactive and obviously more expensive defence policy. Those sentiments will not have been lost on the Minister.

The Defence Committee, whose valuable work has highlighted key issues, has said that SFOR' s work is incredibly valuable, and we would all agree with that. There is danger of a return to war in Bosnia, but SFOR has succeeded in maintaining an effective ceasefire since late 1995, which is a not inconsiderable achievement. There has been less progress on the political front, but we always knew that that would take time and there are signs of hope. I want to deal with the consequences of British involvement in SFOR for defence policy in terms of overstretch, and with welfare issues for British troops serving with SFOR, which emerged from the Committee's report. We are told that, under the renewed mandate, SFOR is to maintain its current strength of 34,000 until after the elections in September. That strength will then decline—it is not clear by how much, but it is clear that American participation will reduce. Is there any plan to reduce British numbers?

At paragraph 18 of the report, the Defence Committee highlights the fact that reducing numbers without reducing the role would pose dangers for troops as well as for the peace process. Does the Minister think that a reduction in numbers in September, if it takes place, would he likely to pose dangers for the British contingent or for any other parts of SFOR?

Although continued American participation seems to be secure for the immediate future, Congress is clearly unhappy for various reasons, such as the timetable and the cost. We must acknowledge the serious danger that the United States will further reduce or even eliminate the role of its ground troops in Bosnia in the foreseeable future. For many of us, a largely unwritten condition of our involvement and the involvement of many of our NATO and other partners in Bosnia has been that American troops must be on the ground with us. That must remain a fundamental precondition of our involvement. In their reply to the report, the Government agreed that American forces should continue to play a significant role, provided force is NATO led … and that other allies participate". Does that mean American participation? For many of us, it does.

SFOR' s task seems likely to take several years and could become indefinite. Lieutenant General Pike, the British deputy commander, foresees a three to five-year role for SFOR, and there is a strong possibility that American involvement will cease before its task is complete. That task seems to have become open-ended, and the danger of that happening is predictable in such operations. I hope that the Government will reflect on that when formulating their approach to other problems in the Balkans.

Our armed forces have long-term commitments in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland. No assumptions are being made in the defence review about early troop level reductions in Northern Ireland and, clearly, no such assumptions could be made about reductions in Bosnia. It is distinctly possible that the Government will decide to commit further troops to the Balkans in Macedonia and Kosovo, so the level and the extent of our overseas commitments could increase. That does not take account of a hot war breaking out, as it nearly did in the Gulf a few months ago. It seems to Conservative Members that all of that has serious implications for manpower planning in our armed forces and in the strategic defence review. We shall examine the review closely, to see how it deals with those problems.

Welfare issues were highlighted by the report. The Committee said that the biggest grumble among our troops was about telephone calls. I realise that it is difficult for a Ministry dealing with a £22 billion budget to change down into a low enough gear to deal with such simple issues, but they are often at the heart of recruitment, retention and morale. The Government should address the matter more seriously than they have: one short telephone call a week may be enough for people who do not want to talk to their parents or their children, but it is not enough for married people with husbands or wives or families.

Hon. Members should think about soldiers who are allowed one short telephone call to their families each week while away from home for six months, serving their country. Those few minutes would be totally inadequate to deal with problems in the marriage or with one of the children at school. The report called for an increase, but the Government have effectively dismissed that out of hand by saying that the current arrangements are "fair". To many of us, there is no way that they are fair. Such people are serving their country a long way from home, for months at a time. I urge the Government to think again. The cost cannot be all that great, and wonders could be done for morale, and even for recruitment.

Threats of family breakdown are a serious cause of people leaving the services and the consequent recruitment problems. A small sum spent on telephone bills might save marriages and, in the long run, recruitment costs. If the Government cannot go as far as we and the Defence Committee would like them to do, could they at least be more generous with service men and women who have wives or husbands or children at home?

A Territorial Army officer who had spent six months in Bosnia recently told me about not only the short time allowed on the telephone, but the fact that the telephone system was incredibly unreliable. People would tell their wives to be ready with the children for a call at 5 o'clock on a Friday, but the call would not happen because the system was inefficient and did not function. What is the cause of that and what is being done about it?

Overstretch is producing serious consequences. Over two years, the average British soldier can expect to spend six months in Bosnia, six months in Northern Ireland and, probably, time overseas in training. Tours last an average of six months, with some for specialists lasting up to 12 months, and, because of our commitments, the period between tours in Bosnia and in Northern Ireland is often very brief. Many of our service personnel are away from home so much that they are often unable even to take all their leave entitlement, and they get only two weeks' home leave during a six-month posting abroad. All that means that service personnel spend much less time with their families than has been the case over the past 20 or 30 years. That imposes serious problems and strains on relationships.

Those are major problems for armed forces personnel and their families, but one of the main pressures that cause people to leave the armed forces comes from their families because of long absences from home. The costs are borne by the families, and often end in divorce, but they are also borne by us as taxpayers through the need for additional recruitment. May I ask the Minister, if I could have his attention for a moment, what the Ministry is doing to address those issues? Does he foresee the problem of overstretch getting worse or better? What level of attention and importance does the Ministry give to welfare issues? It seems to Conservative Members not to be as high as it should be. Our troops are, as always, doing a wonderful job and we can, as we always are, be justly proud of them, but extended peacekeeping missions abroad pose serious questions for defence policy. I hope that the Minister will address them. We shall examine the strategic defence review closely to see how they have been dealt with, and we expect the Government seriously to consider the welfare issues raised by the Committee and at least to make immediate changes to the cost and reliability of the telephone system.

While we are fulfilling commitments that result in extended periods away from home for our troops, we owe it to them and to their families to treat them with the utmost consideration. If we fail to do so, not only will recruitment and retention problems worsen, but we, as a nation, will fail to honour and value our armed forces in the dangerous and difficult situations in which we place them.

12.19 pm
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Dr. John Reid)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) on his presentation of the Committee's report. I know how much work he and the Committee have done on this, as on a number of other issues. The presentation of his first report must be a milestone in his career.

I welcome the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) to the Opposition Front Bench. I know that he has views on, and experience of, defence and the armed forces as a result of his work as a parliamentary private secretary and, subsequently, Economic Secretary to the Treasury between 1987 and 1992—the period in which the cuts in personnel that resulted in the current overstretch were initiated. I hope that his time at the Ministry of Defence will grant him a less illusory perception of the work that the armed forces actually do. I shall return to the question of overstretch later.

Almost every speaker has placed Bosnia in the context of current events, relating personnel and other problems to the terrible and dangerous events in neighbouring states. Although the problems are concentrated in Bosnia, all those hon. Members would expect me to make a brief reference to events in Kosovo. The key to resolving the situation there remains political; but, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence said after the NATO Defence Ministers' meeting last week, President Milosevic must understand that diplomacy to end the Kosovo violence is being backed up by the threat of force. As for further measures—some of which we were asked to rule out by the Opposition Front Bench and other Opposition Members—we will rule out, or rule in, no options at this stage. Our objective must be to put the maximum pressure on President Milosevic.

I must tell those who, unsuccessfully, urge me to lecture the Prime Minister and tell him that we ought to diminish our share in world responsibilities that I will not do that. I think that what the Prime Minister says is absolutely right.

Mr. Blunt

Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Reid

I have only nine minutes in which to reply. With all respect, I must tell the hon. Gentleman that I cannot take interventions.

The NATO Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels last week directed NATO to conduct Monday's air exercise in Albania. I am glad to say that, far from shrinking from that, the United Kingdom was able—and pleased—to contribute six Jaguars and a Tristar to the exercise. I am sure that the House is proud that our forces took part in that international warning to President Milosevic that diplomacy would be backed by force.

In the wider context of Bosnia, let me say that the Government welcome the Committee's report and, in general, share its positive view. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have visited Bosnia on a number of occasions to engage in discussions with our commanding officers and troops. I visited our troops only a fortnight ago, and my right hon. Friend will visit them shortly. Like the Committee, I was struck by the steady improvements that had been made in the condition of the country.

The tragedy of Bosnia is obvious to anyone who goes there. It is a magnificent and beautiful country with tremendous potential, reduced to dire straits by the war. Thankfully, however, there have been steady improvements, and the restoration of normal life is inching forward. I am proud that our national contribution to SFOR continues to play a large part in the progress that has been made.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that, although the smiles, diplomacy, tact, courage and endurance of our soldiers on the streets of Bosnia are important, other things are important, too. Our tanks and AS90 guns, designed for high-intensity warfare, have provided invaluable support for our peacekeepers in Bosnia, where the might of heavy metal and heavy artillery is understood and respected. I accept what the hon. Gentleman said about high-intensity capability, weaponry and training: those elements should be part of our peacekeeping missions. But success has a price. I am not referring merely to the sacrifices made by our soldiers in Bosnia, although the House will note with sadness the death on Thursday of Lance Corporal Kevin Bell in an accident in Bosnia. Our condolences go to his next of kin—and, indeed, to all who have lost their loved ones in the service of their country in Bosnia and elsewhere.

The situation on the ground has been transformed since 1995. The fighting has ended; refugee return is picking up in Republika Srpska, among other places. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that some 7,000 people returned to their homes in April, and almost as many in May. Of course we would all like the figures to be higher, but they are very encouraging none the less. During my recent visit, I saw for myself both the successes and the problems of refugee return—for problems remain in such areas as Drvar and Derventa. We have made it clear that all parties must live up to their Dayton obligations to accept and manage refugee returns, and that the recent violence—particularly in Drvar and Derventa—is unacceptable. Of course SFOR will do what it can to help, but the problem is essentially political. We cannot force returns at the point of a gun.

There are a number of promising developments. For instance, Bosnia now has a new flag and a national vehicle registration system, and has agreed a new national currency. Although none of those developments would have taken place without continuous pressure from the international community, they are important steps on the road to normality. There are other signs of progress, some of which were mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Streatham (Mr. Hill), for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and for Blackpool, South (Mr. Marsden). Above all, the House will recall the pre-eminent role that British SFOR forces have played in the detention of war crimes indictees in Bosnia. Of the nine who have been detained over the past year, five were detained as a direct result of action by British SFOR troops, and two were detained with their assistance. I am sure that the House will join me in paying tribute to the courage and professionalism of the forces involved. The United Kingdom has also been heavily involved in the important task of de-mining, which is another positive development in the sorry battlefield that has been Bosnia.

The consclusion that I draw from all those developments is that the international community, and the United Kingdom, must remain engaged in Bosnia—but not indefinitely. It is critical for the people in Bosnia, especially the political leaders, to start taking responsibility for their own future as soon as possible. We must not perpetuate a dependency culture in Bosnia.

Mr. Maples

Does the Minister agree with Lieutenant General Pike that SFOR's commitment now looks like a commitment of three to five years?

Dr. Reid

We shall take the stages in Bosnia as they come. We cannot commit ourselves 10 or even five years in advance, or make predictions. What I will say is what I said in 1994, from the Front Bench where the hon. Gentleman now sits, that we could be in for a 10-year haul in Bosnia. The hon. Gentleman's predecessors—who were sitting on Government Benches—openly mocked me. I think Opposition Members have some prescience in these matters, which may not be shared throughout the House.

We have made it plain that we are not in Bosnia indefinitely. We have said that we shall assist, but that the benchmarks will be the state of affairs rather than a timetable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South referred to the size and shape of the force in Bosnia after 20 June. The United Nations has now extended SFOR' s mandate. The United Kingdom will play its part in the successor force, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce the precise nature of our contribution in the not too distant future.

Hon. Members have raised a number of issues. As we would expect, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) raised the issue of overstretch, as did several others. I know that the hon. Gentleman is very concerned about the effect on families. We are well aware of the problem. The hon. Gentleman will understand me when I say that we do not intend to take lectures on overstretch from people who were part of a Government who cut personnel by 32 per cent. and who spent £500 million only to leave us 7,500 troops short. The Labour Government, in one short year, have turned those figures round, and are now recruiting 67 per cent. more into the Army than the Conservative Government did in the previous year. We have reduced the shortfall by 1,000 in 12 months. For the first time in three decades and against a background of falling unemployment, we have increased the numbers coming into the Army.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the strategic defence review will give this matter a high priority. We recognise the role that our soldiers have played in Bosnia.