HL Deb 13 October 1993 vol 549 cc198-201

3.23 p.m.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy on the removal of British forces from Belize.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development announced on 13th May, the British and Belize Governments have agreed that the British military presence in Belize should change. We have now agreed with the Belizean Government that from 1st January 1994 the Belize defence force will assume responsibility for the defence of Belize. The British military presence will be progressively reduced and after October 1994 will take the form of a training operation, with troops deploying from the United Kingdom to Belize to undertake jungle training.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that whenever the people of Belize (who we have protected for 350 years) see British troops in the streets they beg them not to desert the country? They have heard the Guatemalan leader, as I did on the BBC World Service, saying that, whatever arrangements the Foreign Office and the British Government think they have made with Guatemala, once our troops have left they will march into Belize and take it over. They have a population 50-times the size of the poor little Belizeans. Is it not pitiful that, for the sake of saving £3 million a year or thereabouts, the British Government are reduced to handing over these people for permanent suppression? They cannot even afford to spend that amount.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I was much moved by the article that the noble Lord wrote in a most reputable newspaper on 5th September on the subject. I do not wish to bore the House, but I noticed on further investigation a number of uncharacteristic and inaccurate assertions in the article, some of which the noble Lord has just repeated. One was that we were leaving Belize, or reducing our presence there, for financial reasons. That is not so. It is because of—I now turn to the second inaccuracy which I would like to draw to the attention of the House—the greatly improved relations with Guatemala. They enable us to make such reductions. If the noble Lord doubts me, I would draw his attention to the fact that the new government of Guatemala have echoed their predecessor by recognising the right of Belize to exist as an independent nation.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that clarification. However, can he assure us that any arrangement with Guatemala on the security of Belize will be permanent and will not change along with the frequently changing governments of that country? Further, can he assure the House that there is no threat from Mexico, which has an historic claim to the north of Belize and, indeed, to the north Petén province in Guatemala? Are we satisfied that our troops can withdraw reasonably without any threat from that quarter?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am most flattered that the noble Lord feels that I have such extraordinary omniscience that I can give the guarantee that he requests. Such issues must always be a matter of judgment. We shall keep our position under continuous review. It is true that there is still an outstanding territorial claim which is unsettled with the Guatemalan Government. But we are sufficiently satisfied about the intentions not only of the previous government but also of their successor. That should at least give some degree of satisfaction to the noble Lord as to their intentions. I should also tell him that, after our reductions of existing numbers in the garrison have taken place, the Belizean defence force will be greatly strengthened by the use of loan-service personnel and the existence of training opportunities which will continue throughout the overwhelming majority of the year in Belize for British forces.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff

My Lords, the noble Viscount will be aware that it was the Government in which I was privileged to serve which, very unusually, gave the guarantee to Belize that we would keep troops there following its independence. Considering the state of relations with Guatemala at the time, there is no doubt that that brought much reassurance to Belize. In view of the history of Guatemala, the noble Lord, Lord Wyatt, is right to raise doubts about the situation. Can the noble Viscount say whether the United States, which has expressed views about the situation in the past, has expressed any view now? Have there been any consultations between HMG and the US as to whether they would be willing to give some sort of general cover to Belize in its very sensitive state and to support Belize if any attempt were made by Guatemala on its independence?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I wholly accept what the noble Lord says about the reassurance that the positioning of the garrison gave during the term of his responsibility for such matters. If I may say so, it is a great tribute to his judgment and to the effectiveness of the British Armed Forces that that happened. So far as concerns the second part of the noble Lord's question, we are in continuous discussion with our allies in the United States, who understand our position. We have undertaken jointly to ensure that the situation should be kept under continuous review. If necessary action has to be taken, we shall both take it.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in the light of the Minister's response that the decision was taken not on cost but on foreign policy considerations, is he really telling the House that, if the defence budget had not been under such pressure from the Treasury, the same decision would still have been taken?

Viscount Cranborne

Yes, my Lords.

Lord Annan

My Lords, surely it is not wholly a question of finance; it is the fact that our Armed Forces are desperately overstretched today with the commitments that they have in Northern Ireland, to the United Nations and elsewhere. Should we not be grateful if we can possibly in some place reduce our commitments so that the Army has some time to conduct training?

Viscount Cranborne

Yes, my Lords; that of course is true. I re-emphasise what I have just said to the noble Lord, Lord Chalfont. Had we felt that we needed to continue to provide the reassurance that the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, was able to give at the time, we would have done so.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is not the noble Viscount aware that the British forces very much value Belize as a training ground for various aspects of their activities, so that cost should not come into it at all? If cost does not come into the consideration, why on earth are we deserting Belize when all the people there long for us to stay?

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord has not been listening to what I have been saying. There will be a continuing training presence in Belize. We value the jungle training facility, which will persist and which we shall continue to maintain.