HC Deb 17 June 2002 vol 387 cc8-10
6. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

What recent assessment he has made of the security situation in Sierra Leone; and if he will make a statement. [58675]

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)

The security situation in Sierra Leone since the holding of credible and peaceful presidential and parliamentary elections on 14 May has been encouraging. Our forces have played an important role in restoring stability, through their programme of advice, training and support to the Sierra Leone armed forces and Ministry of Defence. There is much work still to do, however, if we are to achieve our objectives of developing a professional, effective and accountable armed forces and MOD, which are sustainable without substantial external assistance. The UK-led international military advisory and training team will, therefore, continue to help build the capacity of the Sierra Leone armed forces and MOD over the longer term.

Mike Gapes

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his colleagues on the decisive action that our Government took two years ago to defend and secure democracy in Sierra Leone? May I also congratulate our armed forces on the work that they have been doing there? Will he indicate further how long it will take before we can be absolutely confident that this job is fully completed?

Mr. Ingram

My hon. Friend is right to give plaudits to our armed forces. The United Nations force—UNAMSIL—has 17,500 men in the country and it has also played a role.

We are only a month away from the elections that took place on 14 May and we have to make a proper security assessment. That is currently being done. The best outcome would be for Sierra Leone to become safe enough for us to seek a reduction in the number of our forces and then seek their withdrawal. However, as I said, IMATT, which is British led, will continue its work in the longer term. Clearly, it will play a role in the key issues of rebuilding the Sierra Leone army and providing back-up to the MOD in that country.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Does the Minister agree with the assessment of many of those who have served in Sierra Leone that there can be no long-term settlement to the troubles of that country until all the diamond mines are returned to Government control? Does he agree with that assessment? If so, what are the British Government doing about it?

Mr. Ingram

That question moves away from the military role that our armed forces and the MOD will play in all that. There are key components in making that country whole again and gaining control of one of the key—perhaps the key—drivers of the economy is paramount. We have to consider the way in which that can be best achieved.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

I am bound to say that the diamond mines have an impact on the security situation in Sierra Leone. They underline the heavy commitment that we may have to make if the situation in Sierra Leone deteriorates again.

The Army's commitments remain heavy and yet there is growing speculation that the Secretary of State will shortly announce cuts in the target size of the Army. Will the Government take this opportunity to end the speculation and reaffirm their commitment to a fully trained Army strength of 108,500, as set out in the 1998 strategic defence review, so that we can fulfil commitments such as that in Sierra Leone?

Mr. Ingram

We fulfil our commitments everywhere our people are asked to be deployed. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the leader of the Conservative party—when he had the role that the hon. Gentleman now undertakes—criticised what we were doing in Macedonia. He said that it was a step too far and that we could not deliver our objectives in 30 days and get out within that time frame. We did that, because of the capabilities and the planning of the military chiefs who deploy our people. We are more than satisfied that we can continue to meet our commitments. Clearly all commitments and the capability in reaching strength have to be kept under review, because we have to seek to meet the targets that we set. That is our objective.

In relation to the hon. Gentleman's first point, I answered the question about the security element of the diamond areas—not diamond mines—and I said that that was a key component. He clearly did not listen to my answer.

Mr. Jenkin

I remind the Minister that the original commitment to Sierra Leone was for a few months but, years later, we are still there. He also declined to recommit to the SDR target of 108,500 and, in fact, the figures published at the end of last month show an Army trained strength of only 100,900 and that the Government are working to a reduced target of 107,900. Why have the Government secretly abandoned the 108,500 target set in 1998 and how will he achieve any target given that Labour has managed to add a net total of merely 30 men to Army manpower over the past four years?

Mr. Ingram

A number of points are raised within that question. I know that it is not the place of the hon. Gentleman to give answers at the Dispatch Box, but if he is suggesting that we should not have continued to deliver in Sierra Leone because of all the other elements that he brought into play—the implication of his question is that we should withdraw because of manning strengths or if the situation deteriorates—I would like to debate that matter with him. There is no SDR target with the figure that he quoted. He has got that wrong as well.

Mr. Jenkin

The adjutant-general told the Select Committee on 1 November 2000: The figure we are working to is 108,500". The Minister is saying that that figure has been abandoned. How can we maintain operations in places such as Sierra Leone when the Government are quietly abandoning their recruitment and retention targets?

The 1998 strategic defence review said: Overstretch is trying to do too much with too little manpower…additional pressures from persistent overstretch contribute to higher exit rates from the Armed Forces. It promised to improve recruitment and retention so that our units are properly manned", boasting: That era of decline is behind us. Is it not the truth that the Government have completely failed to deliver Labour's promises on recruitment and retention in the armed forces? Overall manning is being cut; defence equipment programmes are being delayed or cancelled; ships are being scrapped or sold; Tornado and Sea Harrier quadrons are being—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The question is too long.

Mr. Ingram

I do not know which question the hon. Gentleman wants me to answer—[HON. MEMBERS: "All of them."] Well, I shall try to do that, but certainly not at the Dispatch Box now.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Just answer the question on Sierra Leone.

Mr. Ingram

The hon. Gentleman asked many questions; I am not sure, however, that there was one on Sierra Leone. He just kept dropping in those two words to demonstrate a relationship with his set question.

The figure that the hon. Gentleman quoted on the SDR was a notional figure. It is not the figure on which the working assumption has been based. If he reads parliamentary answers to parliamentary questions, he will discover the precise figures. I cannot give them off the top of my head, but I shall write to him with all the information that is on the public record.

The hon. Gentleman did not say—I never expected him to—what he would do in Sierra Leone. As I understand it, he is saying that there should be a very considerable increase in Tory defence expenditure. He has not given a figure, however, and perhaps he can help us on that.