HC Deb 09 July 2001 vol 371 cc527-8
4. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

What changes there have been in the global security environment and the role of the UK's defence forces with respect to peacekeeping since the 1998 strategic defence review. [1186]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

In February, the Ministry of Defence published its reappraisal of the future strategic context for defence, which reaffirmed the assessments made in the strategic defence review of a rapidly changing security environment. It confirmed the lack of an immediate and direct military threat to the United Kingdom but forecast a continuing need for our armed forces to engage in preventing conflict and restoring and maintaining peace.

Since 1998, our armed forces have been involved in a number of peacekeeping operations, including those in the Balkans, Sierra Leone and East Timor. Those recent experiences have demonstrated the excellence of our armed forces in a peacekeeping role and their valuable contribution to Britain's role as a force for good in the world.

We are not complacent, however, about the burden that peacekeeping operations place on our armed forces. That is why we continually reassess the levels of commitment, reducing numbers as soon as is realistic.

Mr. Borrow

When the strategic defence review was published in July 1998, it anticipated a greater peacekeeping role for our service men and women, and in fact the increase in that role has been greater than many of us then anticipated. What actions is the Ministry taking to ensure that that is recognised in the structures of our services, and how does the Minister anticipate that role will change—does he foresee an increase or a decrease?

Mr. Hoon

We have always recognised that the armed forces need to be trained to fulfil the most demanding of tasks—fighting wars—but it is the case around the world that those armed forces that are best trained for war fighting also happen to be the ones that are best suited to peacekeeping, because of the demands on them made in areas such as the Balkans. That is why we have kept careful control over the number and quantity of deployments. As was said earlier, it is important when considering a new deployment that we anticipate its end, perhaps by reducing force levels as the deployment continues. Since I became Secretary of State, we have certainly sought to reduce numbers deployed where we can, both in Bosnia and in Kosovo. We try to minimise our involvement, consistent with our obligations to the international community.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I warmly endorse the Secretary of State's comments about the absolute requirement for troops to be trained for the most demanding levels of warfare, but does he acknowledge that because of the extensive and, in many cases, welcome deployments of our forces, the intervals between deployments and the amount of high-quality training available to troops are becoming increasingly limited? That, in turn, could lead to a degrading of the truly exceptional capabilities of the British armed forces. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he will ensure—as much as he is able, given the demands made of our soldiers, sailors and airmen—that training time will be kept sacrosanct?

Mr. Hoon

The hon. Gentleman is right, and it is often overlooked, in the enthusiasm and, perhaps, the excitement of a deployment, that if forces are to remain in a theatre for any length of time, the personnel must be replaced. Other forces that have had appropriate training have to replace them, and those who have been deployed in a particular theatre must maintain the level of their training for the future. We keep that need in mind, although I do not pretend that it is always easy, given our present range of deployments. The chiefs advise me on the issue, and I certainly take that advice into account.

Forward to