HC Deb 22 June 1998 vol 314 cc689-92
8. Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

If he will make a statement on the number of British troops in Bosnia. [45229]

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

Last week, the United Nations Security Council, under resolution 1174, authorised the extension of the stabilisation force's mandate for another year. I can today announce that the UK contribution to the follow-on SFOR force will be around 4,800 troops in Bosnia and Croatia, together with some 350 personnel based in the SFOR headquarters and Italy. We expect to remain the second largest contributor after the United States.

Mr. Beard

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that it is vital that the forces stay in Bosnia as long as they are needed to prevent a reversion to the blood spilling that preceded the Dayton agreement? Can he say what steps NATO is contemplating to prevent further ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and to prevent Serbian expansion into Macedonia? Does he expect British ground troops to be committed to any such further NATO operations?

Mr. Robertson

On my hon. Friend's first point, he is absolutely right. Although Bosnia has left the headlines for the moment, there is little doubt in anyone's mind that, if it were not for the presence of NATO-led SFOR troops, there could easily be a return to the violence, hatred and bloodshed that we saw earlier this decade. When I go to Bosnia next Monday, I will be taking—I hope on behalf of the whole House—our commendations and congratulations to the British troops who serve so well, professionally and bravely in that part of the world, who have brought peace where there was war, and who, through their stabilisation efforts, are ensuring that democracy and a greater degree of inter-ethnic communality is beginning to emerge once again.

My hon. Friend mentioned Kosovo, which was part of the former Yugoslavia. Of course, we are worried about the violence that is erupting in that other part of the Balkans. That is why, in the past fortnight, NATO Foreign and Defence Ministers have paid such careful attention to that province of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The violence that is on-going there is completely disproportionate to the sort of terrorist threat that comes from the separatist extremists who are attacking the Belgrade authorities.

We will not tolerate that level of violence. That is why NATO has made it clear that all military options—excluding none—are being examined with a view to deployment if the violence will not stop and if President Milosevic will not return to the political process that would restore normal living to that part of his country.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I am sure that the Secretary of State agree with the individual soldiers will and airmen and the members of the chain of command who briefed the Select Committee on Defence on our recent visit to Germany about the effects of operational overstretch and their threat to our long-term military effectiveness. Will he restrain the Prime Minister from lobbying fellow world leaders to take on extra operational commitments without a proper increase in the defence budget? Will he explain how that threat to operational commitments and our military effectiveness will be helped by a cut of at least £500 million a year in the defence budget? Will he at least confirm that the commitment to Bosnia which he has announced today will be funded by the Foreign Office from the reserve, and not from the defence budget?

Mr. Robertson

Of course I am aware of overstretch and over-commitment. That is what I inherited from the previous Government, to whom the hon. Gentleman was a special adviser and who, by their hollowing out, contributed to the overstretch and created the over-commitments with which we must deal. The brunt of the strategic defence review was designed to address the problems that the hon. Gentleman's Government left behind for us to tackle. I am well aware of the need to balance our capabilities with our commitments, but we also have obligations on the international stage.

Although commanders in Bosnia and Germany would have told the hon. Gentleman and the Defence Committee about the problems, they would also have told him about some of the suggestions that have been made for resolving them. They would have told him, too, of their deep commitment to ensuring that the problems of Kosovo do not spill over into neighbouring countries, and into the wider region. In the strategic defence review, we have made sure that our country's foreign policy objectives will establish the capabilities of our armed forces. However, if that can be done by more efficient use of our resources, the country will expect us to do so.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Can my right hon. Friend say how close we are to achieving the desired objectives in Bosnia? If we are not there yet, will my right hon. Friend suggest what time scale he foresees for the finding of an acceptable solution, and for when we might see the withdrawal of British troops?

Mr. Robertson

It would be a wiser, or a rasher, man than I who would make predictions about the attainment of objectives in Bosnia. All I can say is that the figures which I have announced for our troop commitment to Bosnia show a reduction in the numbers that were there for the past year. As progress is made towards normalisation and democratisation in Bosnia, I hope that there will be further reductions. We are there not as a permanent, long-term occupation force, but to allow democratic and civilised standards to grow again in that country.

Progress is being made towards Bosnia-wide elections in September. Dramatic improvements are occurring: for example, the problem of having a common vehicle licence number plate has been one of the biggest issues dividing the entities during the past few years, but that has been introduced; a common currency has been established; and even a common flag has been adopted. We are, quite remarkably, moving towards the objectives which were set, and I hope that, in the foreseeable future, we will see British troops back here or doing similar work, with as much commitment and as many rewards, in other parts of the world.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

The Secretary of State has confirmed that the United Kingdom is providing the second largest number of troops in Bosnia. In the context of the strategic defence review, will we have a sufficient number of troops to meet any realistic and reasonable United Nations requirements of the United Kingdom, or will our United Nations commitments be tailored to the amount of money that the Ministry of Defence will have left after the Treasury has mauled its budget?

Mr. Robertson

We see here another Tory ex-Minister revisiting the scenes of his crimes. Their year out of office may be the longest the Conservatives have experienced, but the fact is that for seven years they raided the defence budget by more than 30 per cent. They cannot come to this place and lecture the Government about the amount of money that we intend to spend on defence.

We have conducted a strategic defence review, starting—as the previous Government should have done and were advised to do—with this country's foreign policy objectives and establishing, on the basis of consensus, the realistic capabilities that are necessary to meet all the eventualities that can be foreseen or might occur in the future. That is the sensible way to proceed, and there will be a sensible result. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will recognise that—because he is a fair man—when the review is published in the next few weeks.

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