HC Deb 12 May 1999 vol 331 cc309-13
Q2. Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 12 May.

The Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others and gave a speech in memory of John Smith, my predecessor as leader of the Labour party. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further meetings later today.

Mr. Brake

According to Chantrey Vellacott, which was recently described by a Minister as a leading UK accountancy firm, the Government's public-private partnership for the partial privatisation of London Underground will cost the taxpayer another £8 billion in extra financing costs. Can the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime not think of better things on which to spend their money?

The Prime Minister

First, the figures are nonsense. Secondly, we are determined not to repeat the mistakes of privatisation that were made by the previous Government. Thirdly, I am surprised that the Liberal Democrats are not in favour of partnership between the public and private sectors, since we are most definitely in favour of it.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Scottish Labour on achieving equal representation of men and women in the Scottish Parliament, which is now level with legislatures in Scandinavian countries in its representation of women?

The Prime Minister

We believe that devolution to Scotland and Wales—and, we hope, to Northern Ireland—gives us the best chance of a modern partnership in the UK for the 21st century.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks)

Today is the 50th day of NATO's air campaign in Yugoslavia. We support the Government in their aims of getting the Serbs out of—[Interruption.] We have always supported the Government in their aims of getting the Serbs out of Kosovo and getting the refugees home and, like the Prime Minister, we want the air strikes to succeed. Does he believe that the air campaign as currently conducted will achieve in full the five specific objectives that he set out in the House on 23 March and again at the NATO summit in April?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. Secondly, yes, I believe that it will succeed, but I have made it clear on a number of occasions that, as the Secretary-General of NATO said, we must plan for all contingencies.

In respect of the air campaign, I can give the right hon. Gentleman some of the news of the damage that has been done: 70 per cent. of Serbia's military oil has gone; over half its usable aircraft have been destroyed; more than a fifth of the armoured units inside Kosovo are down; yesterday was the most successful allied day yet in hits on targets and artillery in Kosovo; and 40 per cent. of surface-to-air missiles have gone. There has been massive damage to Milosevic's infrastructure, but we must carry on and, if necessary, intensify.

Mr. Hague

These statistics are testimony to the professionalism of our forces and those of our allies, but the Chief of the Defence Staff said yesterday that NATO's air assault had "not stopped" the killings—understandably, it has not been able to stop them—and added that that was extremely difficult to do with the air campaign we have". Yet stopping the killings—we have heard the most horrific accounts of killings in recent days—is, of course, the most important of all the objectives. Despite all our hopes for the air strikes, might not NATO soon confront a difficult choice—either to accept a compromise, which the Prime Minister has already rightly said he would regard as failure, or to pursue a different military course which will achieve these objectives?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it is true that many thousands of people have died in Kosovo; it is true that the humanitarian suffering of those people has been enormous. That makes me all the more determined to reverse this policy of ethnic cleansing, and to allow these refugees back home. As far as I am concerned, there will be no compromise in NATO's demands; there must be no compromise. It is not simply a question of defeating this policy of ethnic cleansing. It is not simply a question either of NATO's credibility. If we allow, right in the heart of Europe, a policy—effectively—of racial genocide to succeed, we will pay the price of it for many, many years to come.

Mr. Hague

Across this House we agree that failure is not an option; this must be seen through to success. The future of hundreds of thousands of people and the lives of tens of thousands depend on it. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that General Guthrie and his fellow officers in NATO have the men, equipment and freedom of action to pursue a strategy that they believe will succeed?

The Prime Minister

I certainly can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, throughout, we have worked extremely closely with our armed forces. I pay personal tribute to Sir Charles Guthrie, the Chief of the Defence Staff, for his magnificent work.

It is important always—perhaps especially at this time when, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, we are 50 days into this campaign—to go back to the fundamentals of why we are doing this. It is for the reasons that I have given: the appalling suffering, the thousands who have died and the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced. But let us remember something else. In Bosnia, where there was a strong case for saying that we acted too late—for understandable reasons, but we did—250,000 people died. Three and a quarter million refugees are still dispersed in various parts of the world, including 1.25 million in the European Union, as a result. That happened because we did not stop Milosevic then. We must stop him now.

Mr. Hague

There remains a major concern about timing. The Prime Minister will have seen the comments of Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson, the commander of NATO troops in Macedonia. He said that winter in Kosovo is a severe several months. I see a very, very miserable and hard winter if we have refugees in tents over that period. Given that assessment, does the Prime Minister agree that it is vital that NATO's objectives are not just achieved, but achieved before the first snows of the Balkan winter in October?

The Prime Minister

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that it is our constant preoccupation that everything we do, including the planning that we undertake, bears in mind when winter in the Balkans comes. Our aims are perfectly clear and they will be met. The aims can be very simply summarised: Milosevic gets his troops out, we get our forces in, and the refugees go back home. That has been the bottom line from the beginning of this campaign, and it remains the case.

Mr. Hague

These are the objectives, but may I press the Prime Minister once more on the question of timing? The Opposition support the objectives of NATO and we applaud the efforts of our forces, but we are concerned—as are many people in this country—that the air campaign has not succeeded so far, that preparation has not always been adequate and that time may be running out. Is it not the case that, if we wish to assemble and deploy troops in order to allow the refugees to return home before the winter, NATO needs to take any decision on ground troops in the very near future?

The Prime Minister

I will not remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said about ground forces some time ago. I will simply point out to the Opposition that these issues of planning are in our mind constantly. We understand exactly the point that is being made here.

I do not think that it is right to say that the air campaign is not succeeding. It is right to say that it has not yet succeeded in delivering our demands. However, we should look at what has happened to the military infrastructure in Serbia, and at what is happening on the ground in Kosovo, where, over the past two weeks, our efforts have intensified—and the weather in June is better than that in May, and that in July is better than that in June. I believe that it is important that we have a balanced picture.

I have already said that Milosevic does not have a veto on our options. He does not, and he never will. However, it is important that we carry on with the air campaign, and intensify it. The demands that we have set out have been very clearly held to. I am not the only one who is saying that there will be no compromise on those demands. I have a long list of quotations from every single Head of Government or Head of State of all the allied members, and they are all to exactly the same effect: there will be no compromise on our basic demands.

Mr. Marsha Singh (Bradford, West)

I am sorry to change the sombre mood of the House, but other life does go on. Will the Prime Minister, given his interest in football, join me in congratulating Bradford City football club on achieving promotion to the premier league after being out of the top flight for 77 years? Does he share my pride, and the pride of the Bradford people, in that great achievement?

The Prime Minister

Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend, and I look forward to Bradford playing Newcastle next season.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

May I draw the Prime Minister back to the central question of timing? After 50 days of conflict, time is beginning to press hard on the Kosovo situation. The coming heat of the summer months will create a breeding ground for despair, if not disease, in the refugee camps and, if we are required to use troops to get the refugees back home before the winter, a decision on deployment must probably be made within a fortnight or so. President Milosevic may not be limiting our options, but does the Prime Minister realise that delay could close off our options for us?

The Prime Minister

As I said to the leader of the Conservative party a moment ago, I am acutely aware of the issue of time, the issue of the winter and the need to plan for all contingencies. As for the refugees, it is worth pointing out that something miraculous has been achieved, mainly—or at least to a very considerable extent—as a result of the work of British troops in Macedonia and in Albania. We can be immensely proud of what they have done. As a result, we are able to cope with the refugees now.

However, when one of the refugees, who came to Oldham a few days ago, was asked whether the refugees were pleased to be in this country, that person said that they were very happy to be here, but they wanted to go back home. That is why the refugees are our main concern, and we must not let up for an instant until they are allowed back home.

Mr. Ashdown

It is precisely for that reason that I addressed that question. The Prime Minister is well aware that we have resolutely supported this operation, and he can count on our continuing support. He is aware, too, that although we hope that the bombing succeeds, we have always rather doubted that it would. Is it not the case that if, in the end, bombing proves insufficient, our will to deploy troops on the ground will determine whether the end of this is victory or compromise? I simply say to The Prime Minister: I think that we have two weeks to make that choice.

The Prime Minister

I cannot do much more than repeat what I have said. There is no veto by Milosevic on how we use ground forces. It has always been anticipated that we would use ground forces; the question is the circumstances in which we do so. We plan for all contingencies. It is important, however, that we recognise the success that the air campaign has had. We should continue it and intensify it; we should make sure that it is as effective as possible; and, as I said a moment or two ago, we should carry on planning for all contingencies.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

After my right hon. Friend's huge success in delivering on his election promises, will he consider a new pledge to introduce a £5 television licence for all pensioners? Such a pledge would be welcomed by old-age pensioners in Chorley and all over the country, and we could look forward to it.

The Prime Minister

I am sure that that would make me immensely popular with our pensioners, but it would probably make me less popular with the Chancellor. In the end, such pledges must be paid for, and the cost would run into several hundred million pounds. I am well aware that many pensioners feel aggrieved that there are different television licence rates for two groups of pensioners—those who are in sheltered accommodation and those who are not. I remember raising the matter as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament in 1983. The problem has always been the cost, and I am afraid that it will remain so.

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