HC Deb 15 May 2000 vol 350 cc23-38 3.35 pm
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

With permission, I would like to make a statement about Sierra Leone.

In his statement last week, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary informed the House about the serious security situation in Sierra Leone and the implications for British citizens and others for whom we have consular responsibility. He said that the British Government had taken the precautionary measure of deploying military assets to the region. British forces were deployed to allow for the safe evacuation of British nationals and other entitled personnel. Essential to that has been the task of securing Lungi airport, which, as the Foreign Secretary said, will be extremely valuable in allowing United Nations forces to build up to their mandated strength over the next month. We have seen evidence of that in the recent arrival of two additional Jordanian companies, numbering some 300 personnel. That remains the clear and unambiguous position on the deployment of British forces. It was reaffirmed by the Prime Minister on 11 May, and it remains our position today.

I am confident that the House would agree that the deployment of UK forces to Sierra Leone has been an outstanding success. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation, UK forces have evacuated almost 450 people. The airport was secured quickly and effectively. Although we have consistently made it clear that UK forces will not be deployed in a combat role as part of UNAMSIL, the presence of UK troops on the ground has helped stabilise the situation in Sierra Leone and we are providing technical advice to the UN as to how matters might be further improved.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the armed forces on the work that they have done so far. It is a remarkable demonstration of their flexibility and speed of deployment, identified as key requirements in the strategic defence review. Both President Kabbah and Kofi Annan have welcomed the contribution that British forces are making.

The situation in Sierra Leone remains volatile and we must all be concerned about that—especially for the detainees. We have received reports that a number of UN personnel have been released, and I understand that the British officer, Major Andrew Harrison, is fit and well and is under the protection of the Indian battalion in the east of Sierra Leone. Although that is welcome news, we continue to work for the safe release of all those currently being detained by the Revolutionary United Front.

Freetown remains calm, but tense. Outside Freetown, clashes between Government troops and the rebels continue. For the moment, the rebels appear to be on the back foot. The Government of Sierra Leone and the UN forces have retaken the initiative. The arrival of Jordanian reinforcements at the weekend has been a significant boost to the UN mission. Reports to me this morning from the Chief of the Defence Staff have been encouraging.

The forces we have deployed are those we consider necessary to carry out their primary task effectively. The 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment is currently shouldering the main burden in Lungi. However, the maritime forces we have deployed—including our amphibious capability—provide vital flexibility for the joint force commander in what remains a volatile and potentially dangerous situation. If attacked, our forces have the rules of engagement and firepower to allow them to respond robustly.

In that context, while our forces remain, we shall do what we can to assist the UN mission. Its success is essential to ensuring long-term peace and stability in Sierra Leone. UN forces had been doing a difficult job in uncertain and dangerous circumstances—disarming large numbers of ex-combatants despite not being up to full strength in numbers of personnel and in equipment. Our presence has helped to ensure confidence, and has contributed to the stabilisation of the situation.

As a result of the presence of our forces, we have been able to give significant assistance. British officers are providing advice to UNAMSIL; they are giving technical military advice to the Government of Sierra Leone and, indeed, to the UN in New York. We have assisted the UN with the transport of vehicles into theatre by air. We have airlifted 230 Jordanians by helicopter from the airport at Lungi to Hastings, where the Jordanian battalion is strengthening its position.

I recognise that there have been questions about the length of our commitment. The UN plans to build up its forces to their authorised level of about 11,000 over the next month. We are in contact with those countries that are contributing troops to the UN force—in particular, with India, Jordan, Bangladesh and Nigeria—and are urging them to bring in troops as soon as possible to reinforce UNAMSIL. We expect that once the UN mission has been reinforced by those troops, our role at the airport will no longer be required. I assure the House that UK forces will stay no longer than is necessary.

However, even when our forces withdraw, we will not end our political or diplomatic support for the UN and for Sierra Leone. When it is safe to do so, we will continue with our programme of assistance to help train and build effective, democratically accountable Sierra Leonean armed forces that we announced in April. We will also continue to contribute military observers to the UN mission, and if required, technical advice to UNAMSIL.

I have made it clear that we are committed to the safe evacuation and protection of our nationals and to supporting the UN in its mission to restore stability in Sierra Leone. The deployment of British forces for a limited period on those tasks is a model of the rapid deployment concept that was at the heart of the strategic defence review. It has been much admired and acknowledged by all concerned. Our armed forces are doing an excellent job, which is acknowledged all around the world. However, there is no question of the UK taking over the UN mission or of being drawn into the civil war.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Let me reiterate our support for the Government in this respect: our thoughts are definitely with the service men and their families at this incredibly difficult time. Conservative Members offer them our full and unstinting support in whatever lies ahead for all of them. The whole House will be suitably proud of how they have operated, and of how we anticipate that they will operate, however long they are in theatre.

We in the House have a duty to give our forces clear objectives as well as support. In that, the Government have, so far, been found wanting. The undertakings given to my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary last week were different from the position in which we now find ourselves, which goes beyond the withdrawal of British nationals. The Government cannot allow that to continue and, to that extent, the statement is long overdue. We believe that it should have been made last week.

As I have pointed out, it now appears that, whatever reservations we have, British troops are in de facto full support of the UN forces and President Kabbah. Regardless of what others have said about us not being part of the UN mission, the reality is that we are in complete support of it and President Kabbah. Reports over the weekend show that British troops are patrolling Freetown and manning road blocks. We hear that special forces are operating in the countryside and that British officers are, to all intents and purposes, running the day-to-day operation of UN forces.

What role does the Secretary of State envisage for the Royal Marines, who are currently on board HMS Ocean? What can they be expected to do given the fact that, if they sit on board ship for four weeks, some of their capacity may deteriorate? Their deployment would widen the operation.

Will the Secretary of State confirm whether British air assets, which are currently on board HMS Invincible and HMS Ocean, will take part in any operations? Are Harrier aircraft, for example, likely to be used for reconnaissance or even close air support roles for the UN?

Regardless of our concerns, the objective now must be to make sure that British troops can operate untrammelled by any political indecision. Major-General Ken Perkins, who wrote to The Times today, said that the political masters must "not impose ridiculous constraints" on the forces.

The Government cannot artificially separate British combat troops from other British activities in theatre. Clearer rules of engagement are needed to allow British forces the flexibility to operate as the circumstances require, and to ensure that they are not locked into an artificial self-defence mandate that risks repeating the mistakes that were made in Bosnia, Srebrenica and even in Sierra Leone itself with the UN. The Secretary of State was not clear on that, so I urge him to clarify the position of our troops, which was too vague in the statement. Will he state what the rules are and how wide they can be stretched?

On the commitment to withdraw our troops within four weeks, last Wednesday, the Prime Minister spoke about deploying them for up to seven days. On Thursday, however, the Foreign Secretary moved that figure to four weeks. That slippage must be explained. Furthermore, it leaves us feeling rather cynical about the Government's capacity for decisiveness in the matter. When the Government said that they will withdraw our forces within four weeks, presumably they had in mind circumstances in which they could be withdrawn. In his statement, the Secretary of State referred to the build-up of UN troops. [Interruption.] Labour Members do not want to listen to questions, and seem to think that they have a God-given right to do what they like with our forces. However, that is not the case.

I have a simple question for the Secretary of State. Will he tell us whether the build-up of UN troops to 11,500 is the factor limiting the time for which we will be out there? Will our troops stay out there to complete that build-up, or do the Government expect to withdraw them if those conditions are not met? The Secretary of State must surely realise that the real worry will be how we appear to be making the UN dependent on British forces in Sierra Leone, with all the risks that that entails.

If nations due to transfer soldiers to the UN are led to believe that the UK will stay longer than four weeks, as seemed to be the case from the statement, is there not a danger that they will feel under less pressure to meet their obligations early on? What categorical statements has the Secretary of State had from nations due, as he said, to produce troops for the operation?

On overstretch, the commitment puts our rapid reaction force into Sierra Leone. What reserve does the Secretary of State have and, should difficulties erupt in places such as Kosovo, Iraq or even Zimbabwe, is he content that it is sufficient not to stretch us beyond our capability to follow those up?

The Foreign Secretary has been less than frank throughout the whole deployment. As a result, he has put our service men in difficulties, with varying statements from the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence creating problems. There are serious questions about the Government's role, which remain to be tackled at a later date. Today, however, the Government must stop all the sliding and messing around and give our troops a clear sense of what they must do, making plain that they may operate flexibly within the terms given to them in a way that will allow them to meet their objectives without any more shilly-shallying.

Mr. Hoon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for supporting our troops' position, but—I too have a "but"—it is regrettable that he has chosen to try to make party political points this afternoon and, indeed, in several newspapers this morning. My statement today was wholly consistent with the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. It is a matter of considerable regret that the hon. Gentleman has talked about our service men and women being in difficulties, as there is simply no evidence of that. He has asserted that to make a rather poor political point which, on reflection, he may well regret.

The hon. Gentleman invited us to set out clearly our objectives. That has been done by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. I have repeated those precise objectives, so there really is no difference between them. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues examine what was said last week and study the text carefully, they will discover that what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said is precisely the same as what I have said today. There has been no change in the objectives.

On the specific concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman, he ought to know better than to ask about the deployment of special forces. He has supported the Government in the past. He knows full well that it is well established practice that Governments never comment on the deployment of special forces.

We have made it quite clear that the Royal Marines on HMS Ocean are there as a precautionary measure. They are to give forces on the ground greater flexibility, should they be required. Again, that is a wholly sensible deployment on advice of the chiefs of staff.

There is no need to go into greater detail on the rules of engagement. Our forces have been given robust rules of engagement that will allow them to defend themselves and ensure that they can do the job on the ground effectively. That is what the House would expect. I assure the House that those are the rules of engagement that were given—again, in complete agreement with the chiefs of staff and subject to the advice and consent of the commander on the ground.

We have made it clear that the build-up and reinforcement of UN troops will take place over the next month. We have discussed that carefully. The Jordanians already have forces in theatre. We expect further Jordanian forces to arrive very soon. Indian forces are under way and we anticipate contributions from both Bangladesh and Nigeria. That is a substantial programme of reinforcement of both people and equipment. We are confident that that will add significantly to the ability of the UN force to deal with a difficult situation on the ground.

Overstretch has become one of the hon. Gentleman's themes. We have tackled the problems of overstretch faced by the Army during the Kosovo campaign, reducing the Army's commitments from 47 per cent. at the height of the Kosovo campaign to 27 per cent. He knows that that has been done. He should also know that the spearhead battalion is specifically to deal with such emergencies; that is what it is there for. Indeed, we have already allocated a further force to act as the spearhead battalion in the event of that being necessary. He really should know that that has no impact whatever on the alleged overstretch of our armed forces.

I am extremely disappointed that, right across the weekend and continuing today, the hon. Gentleman has sought party political advantage from the situation. It has been a tradition that the Opposition support British forces in the field, and that means supporting those who take the decisions as well.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

May I add my congratulations to the forces that have been deployed in and around Sierra Leone, and of course the support of myself and my right hon. and hon. Friends for those who are in the field? However, is it not clear that a week is a long time in Sierra Leone and that United Kingdom forces are now doing much more than was predicted last Monday, to an extent that an early withdrawal would be deeply destabilising?

Is it not also true that the role of the United Nations is no longer that of keeping the peace? Should we not recognise that the presence of UK troops, whether by accident or design, has become essential to the success and credibility of the United Nations effort in Sierra Leone? In those circumstances, subject to there being no prejudice to our commitments and to obtaining from the UN Security Council a much more robust and effective mandate, should not Her Majesty's Government offer UK troops as part of the UN force in Sierra Leone?

Mr. Hoon

I repeat that the UK forces are doing precisely what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that they would in his statement this time last week. He said that they were present to ensure the evacuation of British nationals by securing the airport, in the process allowing for the reinforcement of the UN contingent in Sierra Leone. That is precisely what they have been engaged in and precisely what has been happening over the past week.

On the contribution that the forces have made to the UN in Sierra Leone, as I said in my statement, the situation on the ground has clearly enormously improved as a result of the presence of British forces, which has, for example, freed other UN forces for other tasks elsewhere in Sierra Leone by undertaking the responsibility of securing the airport. That has been an advantage. Certainly British forces have boosted the morale of the Government forces in Sierra Leone, which have had a good deal more confidence in going about their task in the past week than previously. The presence of our forces has contributed to that. However, we do not anticipate that British forces will become part of the UN force in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Does my right hon. Friend share my suspicion that some of those who are asking for clearer objectives are really saying, "Mission accomplished, let us fold our tents. Evacuation is complete, let us depart." If we had done that, the inhabitants of Freetown would have been left to an awful fate, and the UN would have been discredited. As Kofi Annan showed in his warm thanks to the Government and to our forces, had we not been there, the UN would have found it extremely difficult in future to launch such an operation.

What longer-term lessons does my right hon. Friend draw for the relationship of the United Kingdom and our armed forces with the UN in terms of training, communications and in ensuring that the UN is properly strengthened to carry out tasks in Africa and elsewhere?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend has asked me questions of a long-term nature that would probably be better addressed to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. However, the operation demonstrates the importance of ensuring that the UN has sufficient effective force and equipment in a theatre to enable it to do the job that was contemplated. One of the difficulties that the UN has undoubtedly faced in Sierra Leone is not having the authorised numbers—the numbers planned by the UN—available at the start of the operation. The actions of British forces have been designed to ensure that those numbers can be reached. Securing the airport will allow reinforcements to arrive relatively quickly.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he is entitled to the support of the House, as are our forces in Sierra Leone and offshore, at this difficult time? However, may I suggest that it does not help if he claims that the operation is a tremendous success for the strategic defence review? He is drawing on the particular capabilities and qualities of especially the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marines and associated arms, which have been built up over decades by successive Governments.

The right hon. Gentleman rightly and unsurprisingly gives evidence to the House that the contribution of British forces has helped to support the morale and confidence of President Kabbah's forces. However, one of the real difficulties resulting from any early withdrawal from Sierra Leone is that it will have exactly the opposite effect. I do not expect a detailed reply because it is clear that General Guthrie's report will be critical in this respect, but I hope that when considering what General Guthrie says about the actual military situation, the right hon. Gentleman and the Foreign Secretary will consider further what can be done to sterilise as far as possible any support going to the RUF from adjoining or other territories.

Mr. Hoon

If I gave the right hon. Gentleman the impression that I was claiming for the SDR the virtues of this rapid deployment, I apologise to him and to the House. However, the reality is that the SDR set out to build on the capabilities previously established. The deployment demonstrates—we have had discussion about the potential availability of both maritime and air assets—the importance of being able to deploy rapidly ground troops and supporting forces of a joint nature. The significant point about the SDR is that the conflicts that we face in future will most likely require rapid deployment.

I spoke to General Guthrie this morning, and I understand that he has had the opportunity of travelling round part of Freetown and seeing the British forces that are deployed there. I accept that his advice will be critical as to how the military campaign is continued. I anticipate that he will speak to representatives of countries that will be likely to deploy further force into Sierra Leone. When he returns to the UK, which will be shortly, we shall take further decisions in the light of what he has to report.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Has my right hon. Friend seen the outpouring of support from the Sierra Leonean community in this country and the pictures and reports from that country, showing how delighted people are at the role that Britain is playing to restore and defend democratic government in Sierra Leone? Would it not be appalling if any politician in Britain, by omission or commission, gave the impression that we were interested only in saving the lives of white Europeans, and that we could not care less about black Africans?

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In addition to the Sierra Leonean community in the United Kingdom, President Kabbah spoke personally to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to thank him for the contribution that Britain has been able to make. In the plans for evacuation, I want to make it clear that we had a responsibility not only to British nationals, but to all the countries, particularly Commonwealth countries, that did not have diplomatic representation in Sierra Leone, for which we undertook consular responsibilities. It was never our intention, even as part of the evacuation process, simply to evacuate UK citizens.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

What were the characteristics of Mr. Sankoh, the leader of the RUF, that commended him to the Government last year, and how has he changed since?

Mr. Hoon

The United Kingdom did not make a judgment last year about the character of Mr. Sankoh, and would not do so now. He is responsible for breaching the agreement that he entered into last July. It was not a perfect agreement, but it offered the prospect of peace and stability in Sierra Leone. It was not a perfect solution; it was the best on offer. For the purpose of trying to preserve peace and security in Sierra Leone, at least it offered some respite from the appalling civil war.

It is Sankoh who has gone back on that agreement. He and his forces are responsible for the appalling bloodshed that has occurred since, and that is why the international community, through the United Nations, must take the action that it is taking now. We made no judgment about his character last July. It was simply the best offer that was available.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will have read reports in the media that the Sierra Leonean Army and the Revolutionary United Front have been involved in some appalling atrocities, against each other and against the civilian population. Can he assure us that when the training programme finally begins after the immediate conflict is over, the SLA will be fully trained in the need to treat troops and civilians decently?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend touches on a picture in Sierra Leone that is quite different from the one that we are used to when we think about disciplined armed forces. In Sierra Leone, bands of people are loosely attached to particular leaders and can switch from one side of a conflict to another at a moment's notice. It is an extremely uncertain, unstable, volatile situation. That is why it is important that we announce the need for effective training. Part of that training will undoubtedly be to provide the necessary discipline and commitment to the decisions of a democratically elected Government. Those are the kind of contributions that I believe that British trainers can make to the armed forces in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

In his statement the Secretary of State made much of the role of the strategic defence review, and in an earlier answer said that the operation had had no significant impact on overstretch. Given that the SDR envisaged three parachute battalions, two of them in role, can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House how many soldiers are left in the other two parachute battalions, and how long it would be before one of them could be used in a similar operation? How long would it take to stand them up?

Mr. Hoon

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that the designation of the spearhead battalion is not necessarily and solely a designation given to a parachute battalion. The designation rotates around the armed forces that are in a position to complete the job. That is why, in answer to the question about the impact of overstretch, I made it clear that in the short term there is no impact on overstretch. The short-notice availability of the spearhead battalion is designed to deal precisely with such an emergency situation. That is the purpose of the battalion. The question of how many other members of a parachute battalion are available does not arise in the context in which the hon. Gentleman puts it.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

Does my right hon. Friend share my anxiety that the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Conservative spokesperson, appears to express dissent from the idea that United Kingdom forces should be acting in full support—I use the hon. Gentleman's precise words—of the United Nations? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not in Britain's interests that the United Nations mission should fail? That would be good neither for the future for Sierra Leone and the region nor for the ability of the United Nations to act elsewhere in the world on our behalf and that of other United Nations member states.

Mr. Hoon

I invited the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), who speaks for the Opposition on such matters, to reflect more carefully on his words. I am confident that when he reads what he said about the United Nations, he will have some further thoughts. Clearly, all hon. Members support the United Nations and its efforts to preserve stability around the world. It had and continues to have our support for the difficult decisions that it made and tried to enforce in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

The Secretary of State rightly referred to our armed forces' professionalism, which all hon. Members will endorse. He specifically mentioned the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment. Will he join me in praising the 230 members of the 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment from the Colchester garrison who are in Sierra Leone, along with 130 men and women from support units? How much longer will our forces have to act as the policemen of the world? Overstretch and back-to-back tours need to be tackled. I invite the Secretary of State to say that we will call upon other countries to put in their forces.

Mr. Hoon

I commend all British forces that are involved in the operation and, indeed, all British forces wherever they are deployed. They are rightly regarded as the best of their kind in the world and they are in constant demand. I acknowledge that; my job often involves saying that there is a limit to what we can do. We were consequently able to reduce the overstretch that resulted last year from the Kosovo operation. Those decisions have already been made. As I said in my statement, we are encouraging other countries to reinforce their existing contingents in Sierra Leone. We are wholly confident that they will do that.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

It should be a matter of satisfaction that British service personnel are upholding the authority of the United Nations and international law. The Opposition may criticise, but the majority of Labour Members are proud of what is being done. Why should we allow a bunch of outright murderous criminals and torturers to take over Sierra Leone? There is no reason for that to happen, and I hope that it can be avoided at all costs.

Mr. Hoon

I know full well from the reports that I have regularly received from those forces deployed to Sierra Leone that they are determined to do an excellent job both on behalf of the British Government and in terms of what they perceive to be the right action for their service careers. I am confident that one of the reasons for the current success of recruitment to the armed forces is the excellent job that our armed forces do as a force for good around the world.

On my hon. Friend's second question, we support the efforts of the United Nations to uphold the charter and the principles that guide this country as well the international community.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Since the 1st Battalion The Parachute Regiment is based in Aldershot, the Secretary of State will not be surprised if I express my admiration for the professionalism with which the spearhead battalion has undertaken its obligations. It is led by Colonel Paul Gibson, who distinguished himself in Kosovo. However, families obviously want to know when the episode is likely to conclude. Does the Secretary of State have genuine confidence in the United Nations' ability to deliver an effective force to Sierra Leone by the middle of next month? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) asked, what happens when British troops leave? Will the situation go pear-shaped again? In that case, we shall see television pictures that will horrify the British people. That will lead to demands to keep British troops in place, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) would like.

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the supporting forces based in his constituency. I am also grateful to him for raising the issue of families, because we all tend to emphasise the contribution that the forces make, but perhaps sometimes overlook the fact that they have families at home who, understandably and rightly, worry about the circumstances in which their husbands, generally speaking, are deployed. He is right to mention that and, certainly, much effort has gone into ensuring that the families are properly briefed on the circumstances in Sierra Leone.

On the withdrawal, we anticipate that reinforcement of the UN contingent in Sierra Leone to its authorised level will continue to produce the stability that we have seen very recently. I said, "for the moment" during my statement, because I recognise that the situation in Sierra Leone has been especially volatile, but we anticipate that the level of reinforcement—of both people and equipment—available to the UN will make a significant difference on the ground.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

May I express a certain unease in the genuine hope that my right hon. Friend will satisfy it? What is the analysis of where the rebels come from and where they get their support? Is not it true that Freetown and the rest of Sierra Leone are two different communities—Freetown very much being made up of the descendants of those who were involved in slavery? There is a rather different community up-country. Are we certain that the rebels—undoubtedly very cruel people—have not got a good deal of support up-country? On the question asked by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), what will happen when we exit? The two communities are very different, so how can we be certain that trouble will not continue?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend raises important questions about the nature of the rebel force. During the past few weeks, I have certainly tried to understand what motivates the rebels, whether ethnic divisions exist and whether there are intellectually definable reasons why the rebels are active at present. The reality is that they appear to be motivated by no more than greed and a lust for power. They do not control large parts of the country; they are extraordinarily unpopular in most areas. They control parts of Sierra Leone, but by no means all of it. It would be a false picture—if my hon. Friend sees it like this—to suggest that the area around Freetown is somehow controlled by the Government and the remainder is controlled by the rebels. The rebels control only parts of Sierra Leone and they have achieved that by ruthlessly intimidating the population, which is why they are so thoroughly detested.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

In the light of the Secretary of State's previous answer and his earlier response to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), and in the context of the Government's so-called ethical foreign policy, will he explain the basis of their distinction between Mr. Sankoh, whom they imposed on President Kabbah as Vice-President and Minister of Mineral Resources, and Senator Pinochet, whom they proposed to extradite to Spain?

Mr. Hoon

The right hon. and learned Gentleman makes a very dramatic, but completely erroneous comparison. The reality is that we did not broker last year's agreement, which was the best arrangement that the international community thought acceptable for Sierra Leone. Mr. Sankoh was not imposed on Sierra Leone; an agreement was entered into, but Sankoh has breached that agreement and plunged the country again into a destabilising and savage civil war. It is vital that we are able to secure a situation in which that agreement is upheld.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

I fervently hope that the deployment of troops and, ultimately, the UN mission will be successful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to be sure that we can stem the tide of conflict zones not just in Sierra Leone but in many parts of Africa, we must address the politics of the diamond trade, which is fuelling conflict and scarring the heart of Africa?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is right. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made that point in his statement last week. I referred a moment ago to what appears to motivate the rebels, and undoubtedly greed and the diamond trade is uppermost in their minds.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

How many British subjects are still in Sierra Leone who wish to be evacuated?

Mr. Hoon

None who wish to be evacuated are in Sierra Leone at the present time. We cannot be entirely sure how many remain. An estimate would be in the order of 400. Some will have made their own way out of Sierra Leone, so there may be less than that. As on previous occasions, not only in Sierra Leone but in other crises, our experience is that many people prefer to remain where they perhaps have a home and a business, and tough it out. Although we have strongly advised that British citizens should leave, I realise that a number of them will remain throughout the crisis.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Although British troops went in with a clear mission to extract Commonwealth and European nationals, their objective seems now to have changed to that of a support mechanism for the United Nations. Why cannot British troops be placed under UN command, so that it is clear that they are part of the UN? Is there not a danger that, if they remain separate from the UN, they may be asked by President Kabbah's Government to undertake economic objectives, such as securing the diamond-producing areas for his Government? We need serious clarity on what the British troops are there for in the longer term.

Mr. Hoon

There is clarity, and I am sorry that my hon. Friend believes that, somehow or other, the mission has changed. The mission has not changed. It was made clear by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary last week that the purpose of deploying British troops to Sierra Leone was to secure the evacuation of Commonwealth and European nationals, and at the same time to secure the airport for the reinforcement of the UN contingent. That remains the position, so nothing has changed. Those British troops have a particular and limited objective, which is precisely why they will not come under the control or command of the United Nations.

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

Is the Secretary of State paying attention to the lessons of other and earlier peacekeeping operations, which are that we either get all the way in or stay all the way out, that there is no third way, and that half measures risk lives unnecessarily? There is a case for a full commitment, but that could involve two fully equipped armoured brigades, which we do not have, or do not have available, after successive defence cuts. Bearing that in mind, is he happy with the situation in which we have a battalion plus of our finest soldiers in an African civil war without a single armoured vehicle?

Mr. Hoon

Although it is important that we learn lessons from earlier conflicts, it is equally important to recognise that no two conflicts are ever the same. It is important that we make judgments in the light of the particular conflict with which we are having to deal. For the moment, I do not anticipate the circumstances in Sierra Leone in which a substantial armoured brigade would be of any great assistance in the limited role that we have set for British forces, which is to protect and secure the airport, and to allow for the evacuation of British and other nationals. That is a precise role, and I disagree with the hon. Gentleman's view that it is impossible to find a middle way to deal with these issues, provided that we indicate clearly and precisely what we expect of British forces. We have done that, and I am confident that they can complete that mission successfully.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

Given the uncertainty that my right hon. Friend has again spoken about this afternoon, may I discourage him from following the Leader of the Opposition and tying himself and our forces, who are doing such a marvellous job, to a specific time scale for withdrawal, but rather to remain committed to the specific tasks? Furthermore, in light of the rapid deployment of our personnel, will my right hon. Friend put more effort into the continuing discussions to establish a Europewide rapid reaction force, so that we can operate in concert with our European neighbours in such crises and civil wars?

Mr. Hoon

I will heed my hon. Friend's warning, and ensure that I do not follow the strictures of the Leader of the Opposition.

I think this deployment demonstrates the importance of a concept for which Opposition Members have expressed some support—that of rapid deployment: sending forces quickly to a particular crisis or theatre. The importance of that was recognised at European level in the setting of the Helsinki headline goal. Obviously, the more all the European nations can fulfil that role, the more even will be the distribution of the burden—specifically that between Europe and the United States—and the greater will be the contribution that European nations can make.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Secretary of State did his best to excuse the Foreign Secretary's misjudgment in the Lomé negotiations, but no Member should doubt that it was the Foreign Secretary who insisted that the unspeakable Mr. Sankoh be released from detention, that his death sentence be lifted and, furthermore, that he become a Minister in President Kabbah's Government.

Does the Secretary of State accept that, although nearly all of us—indeed, probably all of us—wholly support the use of British troops to evacuate British citizens and people for whom we are responsible, and although I would support the giving of financial, technical and logistic assistance to President Kabbah, I do not believe that British troops have any business fighting in a civil war in Africa? They are coming very close to that, and the Secretary of State for Defence will find it a lot more difficult to get them out than the Foreign Secretary found it to get them in.

Mr. Hoon

I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's last point first. This was the final point that I made in my statement. We are not involved in a civil war; we are not taking sides in a civil war. Moreover, the Lomé accord was the result not of a British negotiation, but of a negotiation entered into by the parties. Those parties accepted that it was better, albeit difficult, to involve Sankoh in the process of government as the price that they must pay for peace and stability, rather than the continuation of an appalling civil war. It was a very difficult decision, and no doubt, with the benefit of hindsight, we might say that it possibly was not the most sensible decision; but at the time it was the best offer that was available.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman pass my congratulations to the forces on their astonishing skill at arms in so quickly making a profound difference to the military situation in Sierra Leone?

Will the right hon. Gentleman also answer two questions? First, does he intend to retain logistic support for the United Nations from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships after the main forces have departed? Secondly, will military advisers left by the Government and the United Nations be United Nations badge troops?

Mr. Hoon

We have already given the United Nations some logistic support, and a number of requests have been made to us. We assisted, for instance, in flying the Jordanian reinforcements from Lungi to Hastings, another airport where the main body of the Jordanian battalion is located. We have engaged in logistic operations of that kind, and will continue to do so. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a specific answer, because it will depend on all the circumstances as events unfold, and it would not be right for me to give such an undertaking at this stage.

As for the training forces, I do not expect circumstances to arise in which they will necessarily be UN cap badged. I made it clear in my earlier remarks that we would allow such a contingent to go into Sierra Leone only when we judged the circumstances to be safe, and it is plainly not safe at present for it to engage in training when a large number of people are still determinedly engaged in a civil war.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

A major plank of Government defence policy is close co-operation with France. Have the Government made a request for help from the French Government? If so, what was the response?

Mr. Hoon

We co-operate with a number of countries—with France, and with other countries around the world. In particular, we are currently co-operating with countries that have offered airlift, for example, to get reinforcements into Sierra Leone. We are discussing on a daily basis with countries such as Jordan, India and Bangladesh what kind of forces they will send into the theatre. That is a regular communication.

I know that a number of Opposition Members have become obsessed with the position of France. France is an important partner of the United Kingdom in a number of different organisations, and will continue to be so.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

The Secretary of State has outlined the difficulties that the Government face. Having listened carefully not only to his initial statement, but to his replies to my hon. Friends, I find him slightly complacent. It seems to me and, I think, to many hon. Members, that the key to the seriousness of the matter is the fact that we have sent the Chief of the Defence Staff to Sierra Leone for four days. What will he do there? He has obviously not gone there to conduct a drill parade, or to inspect the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes stores. Presumably, he has gone there to evaluate seriously the extent to which we will make a major commitment there. If his advice to the Government is that we must make such a major commitment, what will the Government's action be?

Mr. Hoon

I would be a lot more persuaded by the hon. Gentleman's assertions of complacency if he backed them up. He has just had the opportunity to say why he thinks the Government might be complacent, but he singularly failed to do so. Such rhetorical flourishes assist no one.

The Chief of the Defence Staff was already due to visit Sierra Leone. [Laughter.] I am sorry that right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches appear to believe in the conspiracy theory of politics. It is obviously something that they have been nurturing over their three years in opposition. The reality is—I repeat it for their benefit—that the Chief of the Defence Staff was due to visit Sierra Leone. Before he set off on that visit, we discussed whether it would be sensible for him to go. He was keen to go there to see British forces in action on the ground—and quite right, too.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)

The Royal Marines on HMS Ocean have been off the coast of west Africa for three or four days now. The Secretary of State said earlier that that was a precautionary measure. I well remember that, after the Aden withdrawal, I spent some weeks off the coast of Aden cooped up in a commando ship. It is pretty frustrating. What plans does he have to get those troops ashore?

Mr. Hoon

I have to say that those troops have not been there for three or four days, but they are ready and available as a precautionary force, should we require them. However, there are no specific plans at this stage to reinforce the existing forces on the ground. We shall look at the situation as its unfolds, but, if it continues as it is, we might not even need those forces. They are there to provide greater flexibility to the force in Sierra Leone, should we require them.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

When the situation in Sierra Leone is juxtaposed with the Prime Minister's speech in Chicago last year, it is almost a classic case of where intervention, on the Prime Minister's terms, should take place. The RUF is supported by Liberia, which sells the diamonds that the RUF controls in Sierra Leone. Otherwise, they are a bunch of gangsters who hold their position in the country by force of terror. As President Kabbah was democratically elected, there is a classic case for intervention.

Our troops are now on the ground. Unless the Government grasp the nettle of making the decision to get out, having discharged their obligations to the British national interest, surely they must, if they are going to take on a wider national interest, make up their mind to commit fully to a United Nations mandate, with the UK, in effect, leading a UN operation to sort out the source of the problem: the RUF's control of the diamond fields.

Mr. Hoon

I have had tide of the fax which the hon. Gentleman helpfully sent to the Ministry of Defence in urging the Government to commit British forces to a UN contingent. I am afraid that he has had no more success in persuading me than he has in persuading his own Front-Bench team.

We do not judge that it is appropriate to commit British forces to the UN contingent simply because they are contributing successfully to the UN mission by ensuring the security of the airport. That valuable task is providing the UN force with enormous confidence. It is a task that they are deployed to continue and to complete.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Now that British forces have fulfilled their primary role in an exemplary fashion—namely, the evacuation of those British nationals who wish to leave—can the Secretary of State tell us who is paying for the enterprise? Is the money coming out of the sorely pressed defence budget, or is there a special account from which he can draw in the Foreign Office, labelled ethical foreign policy perhaps? Can he say what conceivable British interest, beyond the extrication of our nationals, merits putting British service men at risk over a prolonged period?

Mr. Hoon

We are keeping a close account of the costs—which, for the moment, are additional costs. We should bear in mind that some of those forces were already deployed on other exercises, so that they were already being paid for. Consequential costs are still being identified. We have agreed with both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and with the Treasury that we shall continue to monitor those costs, and that we shall decide later their attribution between different Departments.

As for the hon. Gentleman's final comments, the reality is that we are there supporting the United Nations. We are there to ensure the evacuation of British personnel, and to fulfil our responsibilities as part of the international community. Those seem to be objectives that most hon. Members, at any rate, ought to support.