HL Deb 15 May 2000 vol 613 cc36-49

4.36 p.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on Sierra Leone which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence. The Statement is as follows.

"With permission, I would like to make a statement about Sierra Leone. In his statement last week my right honourable 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 this task has been the securing of Lungi Airport which, as the Foreign Secretary said, will be extremely valuable in allowing UN forces to build up to their mandated strength over the next month. We have seen evidence of this in the recent arrival of two additional Jordanian companies, numbering some 300 personnel. This remains the clear and unambiguous position on the deployment of British forces. It was re-affirmed by the Prime Minister on 11th 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 in support of UNAMSIL, the presence of UK troops on the ground has helped stabilise the situation in Sierra Leone. We are providing technical advice to the UN as to how matters might be further improved. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the Armed Forces on the work 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 the situation, in particular, 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 under the protection of the Indian battalion in the east of Sierra Leone. While this is welcome news, we continue to work for the safe release of all those currently being detained by the RUF.

"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 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 First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment is currently shouldering the main burden in Lungi. But 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 enuring long-term peace and stability in Sierra Leone. UN forces have been doing a difficult job under uncertain and dangerous circumstances, disarming large numbers of ex-combatants despite not being up to full strength in terms of numbers of personnel and equipment. Our presence has helped to increase confidence and has contributed to the stabilisation of the situation.

"As a result of our force's presence 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 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 the 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, particularly with India, Jordan, Bangladesh and Nigeria, urging them to bring in troops as soon as possible in order to reinforce UNAMSIL. We would expect that once the UN mission has been reinforced by these troops, our role at the airport would no longer be required. I can assure the House that UK forces will stay no longer than is necessary.

"However, even when our forces do withdraw, we will not be ending 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., which we announced in April.

"We will also continue to contribute military observers to the UN mission, and if required, technical advice to UNAMSIL and other support.

"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 these 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 around the world. But there is no question of the UK taking over the UN mission or of being drawn into the civil war".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank the Minister most warmly for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend in another place.

On Friday, while the noble Baroness did not answer many of the questions we asked, she gave us a very good sketch of what was going on in Sierra Leone. I am afraid that what the right honourable Member has said today has really not added anything to that.

My noble friends and I asked the noble Baroness a number of questions which I must now press. The first can be dealt with quickly. Who is to pay for all this? Will it come out of the Ministry of Defence budget or the Foreign Office contingency reserve? I hope most sincerely that the Ministry of Defence will not have to pay for it.

Secondly, I must return to what was a decent little skirmish between the noble Baroness and my noble friend Lord Attlee on the rules of engagement. Without intruding on private grief as to how it went, my noble friend did not press the matter but I am afraid that I must now do so. What are the rules of engagement in Sierra Leone? The Statement is less than clear about that. In what circumstances will British troops become involved? What if United Nations troops are attacked? That was a point which I raised on Friday, mentioning Zambians. I cannot remember whether Zambians are actually there. If a unit of the UN is attacked but the British forces are not, do they stand back and do nothing or do they become involved in the conflict?

Those British forces have now done what they set out to do. British citizens have been evacuated and Lungi airport has been secured. Why, therefore, will they remain? What is the purpose of that? Reports show that British troops are patrolling in Freetown itself and in the countryside in support of the United Nations. That does not seem to be limited solely to the aims for which they have gone there.

With those units has come a very large task force. Will Sea Harriers be involved and in what capacity? I am rather worried about the thought of keeping 1,800 Royal Marines on HMS "Ocean" for a month. I think there will not be very much left of the inside of HMS "Ocean".

The period of deployment for which the British troops are there needs to be clarified. Is it to be four weeks, as we are told? What are they to do in that time? Will they then withdraw, regardless of the conditions? If they stay, what will be the effect on other countries planning to send troops as part of the United Nations force? It is inevitable, and always has been, that the British are carrying the bulk of the burden. That will not encourage other countries to send their people out at once. When we come to the end of the four weeks, how will the British troops get out? All those are vital questions to which I hope we shall have some replies.

I must remind the Government of what happened in Bosnia. There, UN troops stood by while local inhabitants were massacred. Do British forces have a mandate to prevent that?

In 1993, after the Somalia conflict, the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee produced a report in which it said that before the United Nations became involved in an area of conflict, that should be tested by the Security Council against the following key considerations: first, whether the UN has a role for itself in the conflict in question; secondly, whether the objectives of the proposed military intervention are realistic; thirdly, given the likelihood of escalation into more and more intervention of a political and military kind, whether the Security Council is prepared to recognised the full consequences. It then went on to state: Finally, and most crucially, if the Security Council is so committed, are Member States prepared to mobilise the resources, manpower cash and equipment", and so on. Have the Government considered all those matters, as they should have done?

I have one or two other small questions. What is General Guthrie doing there? The noble Baroness told me on Friday that his visit is coincidental and that he is travelling round the countryside. But it does seem a bit of a coincidence.

Even Brigadier Richards seems to present a problem. He is in Sierra Leone primarily as adviser to the lawful government and to help the United Nations forces to get things right. Command of British forces was given to him as an add-on. He must be suffering from wearing too many hats. It is not easy for him.

I suspect a lack of total co-operation between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. Can the Minister reassure noble Lords that those two departments are singing the same tune?

I must and do pay great tribute to what British forces are doing. However, we have not been told what it is. I wonder whether the Government know.

4.50 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for kindly repeating the Statement made in another place. We, on these Benches, fully support the actions taken by the Government. The collapse of the UN mission in Sierra Leone would have the most disastrous consequences for the whole of central Africa and for the United Nations.

Those of us with long memories may recall what happened between the wars with regard to the situation in Abyssinia which heralded the end of the League of Nations. I believe that most of us would hate to see any such parallel drawn in the period after the Second World War. However, there are questions which need to be asked.

The increase in morale among government troops and United Nations troops as a result of the appearance of the British Parachute Regiment and supporting naval and military forces has been remarkable. It is clear that both government forces and UN forces are fighting with a degree of commitment they simply did not show before. That, by itself, is an astonishing tribute to the organisation, effectiveness and efficiency of British troops, which I am sure all in this House profoundly welcome.

Can the Minister confirm the most recent indications that, as a result of the intervention of Charles Taylor of Liberia, 150 hostage UN troops have now been released, or have the figures increased in the past few hours? Does the Minister agree that perhaps one of the less fortunate aspects of this welcome release of hostages is that Mr Taylor is a close ally of Foday Sankoh, who was the leader of the rebel movement? Can the Minister tell us whether she has any more up-to-date information about the whereabouts of Mr Sankoh? Perhaps I may suggest that it would be better to stop calling him "the leader of a rebel group" and call him what he is; namely, a bandit who has helped to betray his own government.

I strongly agree with the question posed by the Opposition spokesman on defence, the noble Lord, Lord Burnham; we need to press a little further on the issue of the rules of engagement and on whether the UN mandate might be strengthened. Given the breaking of the peace agreement by one of its major protagonists, it becomes more and more clear that we are looking not at a peacekeeping effort but at a peacemaking effort.

My final question is lengthy. It seems that the strategy of Her Majesty's Government—I may be misinterpreting it, but it seems a sensible strategy—is to hold Lungi airport and the surrounding area in order to ensure that reinforcements to the UN troops already in Sierra Leone can be made over the next few weeks. I understand that the governments of India, Bangladesh and Jordan have all confirmed their willingness to send additional troops. That is good news. If the UN can be built up to force, it may be able to re-establish an element of law and order and end the terrible atrocities occurring in Sierra Leone.

However, as I understand it, there is one serious problem. To get to the airport, those countries will require heavy lift equipment which is not available to them. From reports which I have not yet been able to confirm, I understand that that equipment would be available from the United States but that the price being asked is beyond the means of those poor governments to meet. Is it not an essential element in the strategy of United Nations peacemaking and peacekeeping that the wealthy member states of the UN begin to understand that their responsibility must be to provide essential equipment to enable the poor member states of the UN to do what they are doing; that is, to offer their soldiers who are risking their lives? It would be absurd and wrong for the wealthy member states of the UN not to do what they can do; that is, to ensure that those troops get to Sierra Leone within the next month in time to rescue the situation.

4.55 p.m.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank both the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for the welcome they gave the Statement. Having just listened to his right honourable colleague in another place, I am bound to say that I was not tremendously surprised by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. None the less, I was disappointed in the tone he took.

It is not surprising that the Statement did not particularly add anything to what I announced to your Lordships on Friday. Another place did not have the benefit of a defence debate. I was therefore able to bring your Lordships more up to date than those in another place. I thought that that was the right thing to do. If that was a judgment with which noble Lords wish to quarrel, I hope that they will say so. I thought it was correct and what your Lordships would have expected.

The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, asked who would pay for the operation. We are recording the costs involved. I can tell your Lordships that to date it looks as if about £3 million in extra costs have been identified. However, I am certain that further consequential costs will be identified. We have agreed with colleagues in Her Majesty's Treasury and the FCO to monitor such costs and shall decide attribution later.

A great deal has been said about rules of engagement. The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, told me on Friday that he would not press that question. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, decided that now is the time to do so. I informed your Lordships that there are robust rules of engagement. In my period in your Lordships' House—I am, of course, relatively inexperienced compared to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham—I have never heard your Lordships discuss rules of engagement in any detail. The reason for that is always that we do not want to undermine the operational effectiveness of our troops in theatre. If that has been true on previous occasions, it is equally true today. However, perhaps I can try to help the noble Lord a little further.

I repeat that there is no question of UK forces being deployed in a combat role in support of UNAMSIL. I repeat that, if attacked, United Kingdom forces have the rules of engagement and the fire power to allow them to respond robustly, and they will do so. The rules of engagement allow our troops to defend themselves in the way we would expect. I hope that the noble Lord is content with that answer. Although I may be willing to trust the noble Lord with more information, I am bound to tell him that I would not be willing to trust the RUF with further information on that issue.

Our troops remain at Lungi airport. I believe it was clear from the comments made last week by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary that not only are they there to secure the egress of British and other nationals, for whom we have consular responsibility; they are also there to secure the access of UN forces. That was made clear last Monday as it has been on every occasion on which Government Ministers have addressed these issues.

The noble Lord asked about the presence of the Navy. The task force is there to secure flexibility for British troops. Let us not forget that when British troops went to Sierra Leone, we had little accurate information on what was happening on the ground. It was judged essential that we had the support of the British Navy offshore. That was the unanimous recommendation of the Chiefs of Staff. I believe that noble Lords would be extraordinarily disappointed and anxious had Ministers not taken that entirely sensible, right and proper advice.

The noble Lord asked about the period of deployment. General Sir Charles Guthrie has said that United Kingdom forces would remain in place for around a month. In interviews yesterday I believe that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said much the same. It is reasonable to suppose at this stage that the Government believe that it is important to have British troops in place in Sierra Leone for about that length of time. Of course we hope to see the imminent arrival of Jordanian, Indian, Bangladeshi and Nigerian forces. I do not believe that because we have gone in, others who have committed themselves in international fora to sending their troops will now decide that it is no longer necessary to go. I simply do not believe that that will be the case. We are urging those troops to move into Sierra Leone and it is for that purpose that we have secured the position at the airport.

I believe that from the beginning the British role has been entirely clear. I am sorry that the noble Lord is worried about the position on HMS "Ocean". As I have said, the presence of the ship in the area is precautionary and the move has been made on clear military advice.

I believe that I can be a little more welcoming in response to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams. I agree with the noble Baroness that this has been a remarkable and effective operation by our British troops. I feel extraordinarily proud of them and I know that all my colleagues share those feelings. However, I have to say that I am sorry that the Official Opposition have perhaps decided to use this situation for political argument. I feel that that is inappropriate.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the most recent reports indicate that around 150 hostages—perhaps, more suitably, I should call them "detainees"—have been released. However, I must stress to the noble Baroness that that figure is unconfirmed. She will have seen press reports, but I am afraid that we do not have any confirmation on that point.

The noble Baroness also asked me a question about Mr Sankoh. I shall choose my words carefully. At this stage I can communicate nothing to the House as regards the whereabouts of Mr Sankoh. I hope that what I have said in relation to the rules of engagement has given some assurance to the noble Baroness. The strategy she outlined in her remarks is indeed the strategy that we have put in place. Furthermore, as regards her comments about the need for heavy lifting equipment, this issue is covered by the logistics element of the role Her Majesty's Government have undertaken. The noble Baroness is quite right here. When a mandate is being pursued on behalf of the United Nations, it behoves all countries that belong to the United Nations to do what they can to support such a mandate. The United Kingdom has willingly shouldered that burden.

Before I sit down, perhaps I may respond to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, on the point he made about General Sir Charles Guthrie. Last Friday I told the House that a visit to the region had been planned by the Chief of the Defence Staff some time ago. I think it would be unthinkable that the Chief of the Defence Staff should not go to the region and visit British troops engaged in operations. After all, he is their head of profession. Those troops would expect to see him and we are very pleased that he is there. Furthermore, we are glad to see that he is lifting the morale of the troops in the way that only Sir Charles can. I for one was delighted to learn that he was broadcasting from Sierra Leone over the weekend.

On the question of relations between the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, I can assure noble Lords that there is in place a strong, good and worthwhile working relationship. I hope that the presence of my noble friend Lady Scotland on the Front Bench with me today demonstrates that.

5.5 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can the noble Baroness—

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I believe that it is the turn of noble Lords on this side to speak.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, why?

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, we have heard the spokesman from this side, but we have not heard from the Back Benches.

Lord Bach

My Lords, perhaps we should first hear from my noble friend Lord Shore.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, I wished only to offer my congratulations and encouragement to my noble friend. She has made an excellent Statement. We have done our duty to safeguard our fellow citizens and others, but there is a wider duty that we must perform. My noble friend has made that very clear.

We cannot afford to allow the United Nations to be humiliated and rebuffed in the mission it has undertaken. If we need to commit more forces in order to safeguard the position of the United Nations, I for one would be prepared to support that.

However, I should like to make one point to my noble friend. I am not worried about our terms of engagement, but I am a little concerned about those of the forces of the United Nations. The entire situation has changed over recent weeks as regards the government of Sierra Leone, which previously were supposed to be a government of coalition and reconciliation. The second principal member has turned out once again to be an arch rebel and destabiliser. Frankly, I think that it would be most sensible if we could put out feelers for an early recall of the Security Council to see what other measures, both in its own interests and those of us all, might now be undertaken.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney for those remarks. On the question of United Nations troops, the fact is that troop numbers did not build up as quickly as had been originally anticipated. Now that the security of the airport is assured, we hope that it will be possible to see the pace of deployment accelerated, in particular by those countries which have already committed themselves; namely, India, Bangladesh and Jordan. As I indicated in the Statement, over the weekend we saw the deployment of some 230 Jordanese troops precisely because the United Kingdom had already taken steps to secure the airport.

As regards the position of the Security Council, this is of course a matter in which the UN will take the lead. It is the responsibility of the UN to ensure that this matter is kept under constant review. I am happy to say once again to noble Lords that the Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, has expressed his great pleasure as regards the United Kingdom role and deployment in Sierra Leone.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, perhaps I may put a question to the noble Baroness. The Statement announces the intention to "cover the withdrawal" and to "support the United Nations". Those two declarations are in fact mutually exclusive. We have just heard a plea from the noble Lord, Lord Shore, for imperial rule, more or less. The idea of Mr Cook as Secretary of State for India is something that would amuse me if it were not so sad.

Can the Minister explain what would happen if we were to allow Mr Sankoh, who was forced back into power by ourselves—that was surely the equivalent of making Dr Shipman Minister of Health or Kenneth Noye Chancellor of the Exchequer—back into power again? Forcing him back into power would be a great mistake. What Sandline did to keep the old democratic government in proper order went by the board. Everything collapsed and Sankoh came back.

Please can we have a definition of the Government's aims? Do they intend to go in to get British people out or do they aim a reimposition of an element of the imperialism so eloquently advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Shore?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the noble Earl has stated that it is mutually exclusive to hold to the twin aims of evacuating British and other nationals for whom we have responsibility and supporting the United Nations. I simply do not know how the noble Earl has come to draw that conclusion. The fact is that we needed to secure the airport in order to facilitate the egress of our citizens and others for whom we had responsibility. Having secured the airport, it would be unthinkable not to keep it secure for the access necessary to the UN. Those two seem to me to be mutually supportive objectives and aims, and no matter how much the noble Earl may shake his head and assert the contrary, I am afraid that in logic, for once, the noble Earl is wrong.

To turn to the question in relation to imperial rule, as we all know, the noble Earl has an excellent turn of phrase and can often be extremely amusing. But this is not a joke; it is a serious issue. It is not a question of the return of imperial rule; it is a question of doing what we can in the limited context. I described of upholding the United Nation's mandate. We are a responsible member of the United Nations and are doing what we can in the circumstances.

The noble Earl will know that Mr Sankoh's appointment was part of the Lomé agreement; it was a part into which Mr Sankoh entered. Of course it is outrageous and appalling that he did not uphold the agreement and has effectively plunged the country back into civil war. But the noble Earl asks me to go on and speculate what may happen in various eventualities if Mr Sankoh were to do various things. It cannot be right for us to discuss such eventualities and I repeat what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. This is not a play in which we have a script and know to what end we are all going. This is military action on the ground. People's lives are at stake and I for one will not do anything that speculates in such a way that makes it less effective in operational terms to secure the safe return of all our British troops.

Viscount Slim

My Lords, I fully support the stance that both the noble Baroness and her right honourable friend the Secretary of State have taken over the rules of engagement; let the other side find out first.

However, I take slight issue with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham—I know he did not mean them—in relation to the Royal Marines on board HMS "Ocean". They will not be causing any problems; they will be training, keeping fit and getting as much sleep as possible because, if they are landed, they will get no sleep. They will also be planning for eventualities that may come. I say that because, when we read Hansard tomorrow, the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, may feel that his remarks make it appear as though matters of little consequence are happening on board that vessel. But it is right, when we do not know the end, to be flexible and to prepare for any eventualities that may come.

To repeat something I said on Friday, involvement in a city or a town eats up soldiers. Fighting in built-up areas and in streets requires plenty of reinforcements. We hope at does not come to that. But the Statement is about right for what is happening in Sierra Leone today.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for those wise words. Like him, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Burnham, did not mean to imply anything that he will regret when he reads Hansard tomorrow in relation to the Royal Marines.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I withdraw those remarks and apologise for my flippancy.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord did not mean anything untoward. I know that he has the greatest respect for our troops and I am sure that, like us, he understands that they are doing an important job. They are training and keeping fit, but they are also providing for any additional flexibility that may be needed should the occasion arise. Of course, we hope that that does not happen, but the flexibility is available on advice.

Perhaps I can assure the noble Lord that we will only fight in self-defence; that is, if we are attacked. I hope that the rules of engagement are absolutely clear to your Lordships. Of course, there are a lot of troops in place. Some noble Lords remarked on that on Friday. When one is securing the airport, it is necessary not only to have troops in the airport, but also to secure the access and egress of the airport and to secure communications between the airport and Freetown, which, as I explained, is difficult because of the geography of Sierra Leone. But I thank the noble Lord for his support.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, did the noble Baroness see the statement made by Solomon Berewa, the Attorney-General of Sierra Leone that, according to documents found in Foday Sankoh's house, he himself took 442 carats of diamonds between August 1999 and January 2000 worth around £150,000? Is not that the key to the situation? The RUF still controls the diamond-producing areas and as long as it derives revenue from that source it will continue to import arms illicitly from places like Burkina Faso, stemming from eastern Europe. We must deal with that question if Sierra Leone is ever to have permanent peace.

Will the noble Baroness therefore answer my noble friend's question in relation to the terms of reference of the UN mission? Is it there to enforce the peace, as it has started doing already? If so, will it assist the Sierra Leonean armed forces to recapture the diamond-producing areas and thus cut off the sources of revenue from which Foday Sankoh continues this war? Will the British commander also assist in the rapprochement between Hinga Norman and his commodores and Johnny Paul Karoma of the AFRC, which again are instrumental to the success of the government armed forces, since they should present a unified front against the RUF instead of being divided into three parts as they have been up until now? Can the noble Baroness also reply to the question of my noble friend regarding the heavy lift equipment? How did the Jordanians who arrived over the weekend get to Lungi? What heavy lift equipment is available for bringing the other troops which have been promised and which she says will arrive in the near future?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I would prefer to write to the noble Lord on the question of heavy lift. I do not feel able to tell your Lordships what heavy lift is available because I am not sure how much of our operational hand that will expose. I hope to be able to give the noble Lord details and put a copy of my letter into your Lordships' Library. But the situation being what it is, I prefer to take advice about any security implications that may arise on that question.

I agree with the fundamental premise of the noble Lord. We have in the past had exchanges on Sierra Leone where the noble Lord centred his remarks on what happened in the diamond trade. I agree that the whole issue of diamonds has fuelled this appalling conflict for many years. I am sure it is the issue of diamonds that led to the disgraceful, rapacious greed demonstrated by certain members of the RUF in particular but no doubt others as well.

To turn to the specific question, the UN troops are present to provide for the implementation of the Lomé agreement, which provides for the permanent cessation of hostilities, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of all ex-combatants. As part of that, the creation of democratically accountable armed forces to protect the country is necessary. Of course, when trying to reintegrate members of the armed forces into society, we have to look at the ways in which that can be done, and that will mean diverting people's attention away from the disgraceful trade we have seen in diamonds to things which benefit the country as a whole. But that is a long process.

The noble Lord and I have been exchanging comments over these issues for some two and a half years or so. But that does not detract from the wisdom of what he said; namely, that some solution to the problem has to be found. I believe that it is well understood in the United Nations that the diamond situation—I hesitate to use the word "trade" because that is a respectable word—and the disgraceful intercourse that exists in that respect must be addressed so as to bring peace to that unhappy country.

Baroness Whitaker

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on her strong presentation of the UK role. However, perhaps I may ask her a question about the evacuation process which, in general, has been carried out with exemplary speed by UK personnel. I have in mind the evacuation in relation to British nationals who are black. Complaints were expressed today on BBC radio that black UK people had been held back while white people were processed. There were also two examples in press reports of black people being held up when returning to the United Kingdom. Can my noble friend the Minister tell us what guidance is given to our authorities on the range of UK ethnicities?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I can say, unequivocally, to my noble friend that I, too, heard that claim made on a radio broadcast this morning and was appalled by it. Naturally, I have requested information about the validity of that claim from my colleagues in the Foreign Office. I am assured that there was no discrimination of any kind during the evacuation. I believe that; I believe that there was no discrimination of any kind. Some 442 people have so far been safely evacuated to Dakar by official means—that is to say, the means provided by British troops. But, of course, other people may have evacuated under their own steam and may have travelled by civilian means.

Our responsibility was to evacuate people for whom we have the consular responsibility—not just British people, but others as well—to a place of safety. Once in Dakar, it was for evacuees to make their own onward travel arrangements. Many did so and arrived in the UK soon after reaching Dakar, but many evacuees had little or no money. Those people were provided with hotel accommodation, while arrangements were made by our consular staff in Dakar for their onward travel to the United Kingdom. Foreign Office staff in Paris and London met those who were evacuated on Thursday and Friday. I can give my noble friend the assurance that there is no question whatever of any racial discrimination over evacuation.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I have had the strong impression in recent days that there are more reports than there used to be about the activities of the SAS, its equipment and even its intentions. This seems to me to be undesirable. Can the Minister assure us that there has been no change of policy as regards the release of information on that sort of subject?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, I can. I, too, have been rather disturbed by some of these reports. I was most disturbed to hear a reference to special forces from the noble Lord's right honourable friend the shadow Secretary of State on a radio programme this morning. I thought that that was an astonishing reference for a responsible member of the Opposition to make. I should tell the noble Lord that such reports are not "reports" in the accepted sense of being official reports from the MoD, the Foreign Office, or anywhere else. There is a great deal of speculation about what is happening. In line with our predecessor administrations—and, I hope, our successor administrations—we do not comment on the activities of special forces.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, I welcome the Statement. It seems to demonstrate that the expeditionary capacity, which is part of SDR, is being maintained. Can my noble friend say whether there is sufficient flexibility in policy to allow the UK to contribute significantly to the maintenance of training and the enhancement of the strength of the regular forces in Sierra Leone so that, when we have gone, people are not left in reliance upon the irregular forces, which seem to be very irregular indeed? Would not that role be particularly appropriate for our European partners; indeed, could we not ask them to take a more generous interest in the matter?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath is quite right. Recent events have clearly demonstrated the need for properly trained, effective and democratically accountable armed forces in Sierra Leone. We still have plans to send a UK military advisory and training team to the country, whose remit will he to deliver what the armed forces of Sierra Leone need to ensure a lasting peace. As I reported when repeating the Statement and as was announced in April of this year, we remain committed to that aim. But the team's arrival in Sierra Leone is likely to be delayed if the security situation is deemed to be too volatile. I am sure that my noble friend will not be surprised—indeed, I hope that he is reassured to know—that no firm decisions have been taken on when the bulk of those personnel will arrive in Sierra Leone.

I agree with my noble friend. All those who wish Sierra Leone well ought to be thinking about ways in which they can contribute to the civil well-being of the country. We must ensure that the armed forces, many of whom will have to be deployed in different ways in the future, are properly trained so as to secure a peaceful and democratic society in that country for the future.

Lord Burlison

My Lords, in line with the recommendations set out in the Companion, I have to tell noble Lords that the time limit of 20 minutes allowed for Back-Bench contributions has now been reached. We must move on.