HC Deb 02 November 1998 vol 318 cc546-8
11. Mr. John Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

What steps his Department is taking to encourage humanitarian demining. [55888]

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

Following my announcement a year ago, good progress has been made in increasing the assistance that the Ministry of Defence provides to humanitarian demining, notably through the establishment of a mine information and training centre at Minley and through the gifting of surplus military equipment to the Halo trust. To maintain the momentum, my Department recently organised a seminar to consider what more the armed forces might contribute.

Mr. Smith

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that reply. What help is he giving to support United Nations initiatives in this sector? Does he think that there is any scope for developing new demining technologies through the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency?

Mr. Robertson

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the UN's role in demining. Demining those parts of the world that have become contaminated by these weapons is a serious issue, into which the UN is putting all its efforts. To help it, a senior officer has been loaned by the MOD to the UN to provide specialist demining expertise to its humanitarian mine action programmes. We hope that that will have a major effect on what the UN can do.

My hon. Friend is also right to point to the way in which technology might be able to deal with some of the problems. DERA has already produced an effective and cheap system to destroy mines without having to use high explosives. The device is called FireAnt and it is hoped to produce it commercially in the near future. I believe that that will make a serious contribution to alleviating one of the most serious legacies of wars.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the unarmed military observers in Kosovo oversee humanitarian demining operations? If so, are contingency plans in place for their withdrawal in the event of attack? Will the implementation of such plans require a resolution of the UN?

Mr. Robertson

The verification mission that will go to Kosovo will have no role whatever in supervising or getting involved in humanitarian demining. It will, of course, face a hazard that was put in place by the Belgrade authorities in certain locations in Kosovo: they have put mines there. The verification mission will obviously take judicious care.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come when the ingenuity that has gone into making land mines can apply to their demining? Does he envisage a further special role for the expertise of the Royal Engineers?

Mr. Robertson

The hon. Gentleman of course has substantial military experience, which brings authority to his remarks on these matters. I have taken the strong view that military expertise in this sector is unequalled and that, if it can be shared in the humanitarian sector, it will do a lot of good in dealing with a problem that mankind increasingly faces. The Royal Engineers have expertise in this sector, which we have already used, but I am ensuring through the mine information and training centre at Minley that we bring together all the components in the British Army to ensure that they contribute. I have found no greater enthusiasm than among the military for dealing with this, the legacy of wars.