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The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government have always made it clear that if new evidence were to come to light, it would be examined with scrupulous care, thoroughness and compassion. To date, we have seen nothing that causes us to doubt the integrity of the verdict of the RAF board of inquiry, or that would prompt us to hold a new inquiry.
Mr. Swayne: Given the volume of new evidence that has emerged, especially in connection with the software involved, and the number of eminent persons who have expressed disquiet about the verdict, is it not now time to reopen the matter? After all, would it not clear the air? What is the Ministry of Defence attempting to hide?
Mr. Hoon: The MOD is not attempting to hide anything. I have examined every single submission made to the Ministry on the subject. There is certainly a mass of material, but none of it discloses any new evidence as such. I accept that many people who have looked at the evidence have said that they would have reached a different conclusion from the one reached by the board of inquiry, but that is not a sufficient reason to overturn a board of inquiry and order a new one. Only if there was real, relevant new evidence would that be the appropriate course of action.
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): Is the Secretary of State aware of the extreme disquiet felt by hon. Members on both sides of the House and in the other place about whether we can really have a verdict based on blaming the dead? Will he come with an open mind to next month's meeting with the Mull of Kintyre group?
Mr. Hoon: I do have an open mind on the subject. I have set out what I consider to be the proper course to adopt, which is that it is not right to disturb the finding of the original board of inquiry in the absence of any significant new evidence, or because it is possible for different people, perfectly properly and with an entirely open mind, to reach different conclusions. Only if it could be shown that there was new evidence would it be right to reopen the board of inquiry. I certainly have an open mind in respect of new evidence becoming available.
Mr. Hoon: I am sorry, but that is absolutely not right. The board of inquiry was instructed properly, according to the rules governing such inquiries that prevailed at the time, and the board pursued the matter perfectly properly. My hon. Friend seems to imply that it should be possible to reopen any decision or judgment at which a board of inquiry has arrived simply because, later, others take a different view. That cannot be right and it cannot be the right way in which to deal with such matters.
Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford): The Prime Minister finds time to see a very strange group of people, from Bernie Ecclestone to Liam Gallagher. How come he could not find time to receive an all-party delegation from both Houses, including several Privy Councillors, who were seriously concerned that there may have been a breach of natural justice in this case?
Mr. Hoon: That is obviously a matter for the Prime Minister. However, if the hon. Gentleman had phrased his question in a slightly more sensible way, I might have been willing to give him a rather more serious response. Nevertheless, the reality is that the Prime Minister is engaged in this matter, and that he has answered a number of questions on this issue in the course of his responsibilities. I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman seeks to catch the Speaker's eye on a future occasion when the Prime Minister is answering questions, he will be able to raise that issue with him.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I remain in regular contact with the United States Government on a range of issues, including Iraq. I exchanged views most recently with Mr. Cohen, the Secretary for Defence, in the margins of NATO informal ministerials, in Birmingham, on 10 October.
My right hon. Friend will know that the Iraqi sanctions are being flouted on a massive scale, particularly in the case of oil, and that that information is well known to the Americans. What action is being taken to enforce the sanctions?
Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Given the differences between British policy and French policy on Iraq, how will the Government's objectives be helped by the new European Union military arrangements, particularly if, as reported in yesterday's The Sunday Telegraph, the director general of the military staff is to be French?
Mr. Hoon: The military arrangements that are the headline goal are not anticipated to be used in the context of enforcing the no-fly zones in Iraq, which is what British forces with their American counterparts are engaged in. I am, therefore, not sure that the premise of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question is at all relevant. Nevertheless, it gives him an opportunity to air once again the anti-European phobia that too many Opposition Members seem to be suffering from.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Our announcement on 10 October indicated a small increase in the total number of troops deployed in Sierra Leone. The number will vary depending on the training task under way, but it is likely to be slightly over 400.
We also made it clear that, under our memorandum with the United Nations, we are ready to deploy a rapid reaction force in support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. As an early demonstration of the seriousness of that commitment, we are taking advantage of the completion of an exercise in the Mediterranean to divert an amphibious ready group comprising elements of our joint rapid reaction forces off Sierra Leone for a limited period during November. The group will include HMS Fearless, HMS Ocean, three Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and 42 Commando embarked. While in the area the group will be able to practise procedures and to conduct a detailed reconnaissance, both of which will significantly reduce the time needed to deploy should the rapid reaction force be required in future.
Mr. Thomas: I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. Can he assure the House that, while clearly doing everything possible to support the United Nations peacekeeping force, we are not going to see mission creep or find ourselves in the situation of British forces taking the fight direct to the rebels?
Mr. Hoon: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The primary purpose of British forces going to Sierra Leone is not only to train the forces of the Government of Sierra Leone, but to demonstrate that the current deployment is there for training purposes. The 400 whom I mentioned earlier are there to assist the Government of Sierra Leone in developing forces of their own that can be used to take on the rebels. The deployment there of the
Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): I support the training mission, which is essential for the long-term stability of Sierra Leone. It is also right that the United Kingdom should provide additional forces to assist the United Nations effort. Without them the success of the training mission cannot be guaranteed. However, instead of a separate command, would it not make much more sense to place the additional British forces under the United Nations command? The withdrawal of the Indian and the Jordanian troops is generally accepted as weakening the UN effort. How will we persuade other countries to contribute to the UN effort if we are not willing to contribute to it ourselves?
Mr. Hoon: I do not accept that analysis of the problem. The training that we are conducting is quite separate from the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone. We have offered extra headquarters staff to UNAMSIL to give it some assistance in deploying its forces as well as provided substantial assistance to the Government of Sierra Leone. We believe that the best way of assisting that Government is to make sure that they have forces on which they can call to resist the rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): We clearly have obligations to a Commonwealth ally that is seeking to achieve democracy. We also have obligations to the United Nations which, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, is potentially facing a crisis of confidence with Jordanian and Indian forces leaving as the fighting season begins. Is it the Government's clear view that our reinforcements are in Sierra Leone only for confidence building and to tidy matters up in the short term and that there will be no move--substantial or otherwise--from a training to an active intervention role?
Mr. Hoon: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. May I make it clear that we announced on 10 October that the training will continue certainly until April of next year? We recognise the importance of providing a substantial body of trained troops to the Government of Sierra Leone. The early training teams have been very successful and have provided soldiers whom the Government of Sierra Leone can use. We also wish to extend the training so that, as well as providing trained individuals, we ensure that the Government of Sierra Leone can call on trained groups. That means more than simply providing individual soldiers with weapons, uniforms and boots, but providing them with the equipment that will be needed if they are--as we hope they will--to take the fight to the rebels.
Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green): Earlier Government policy hinged on an effective UN force being in place with the right numbers to be able to keep the peace. However, that force has proved ineffective. As the Secretary of State knows, it will not take the action that is necessary. Now, with the departure of the Indians and the Jordanians, it is beginning to look even more ineffective than it was when British forces
Mr. Hoon: May I deal with the premise behind the hon. Gentleman's question? There is no suggestion at the moment that the UN force is not effective. It has preserved peace in Sierra Leone and there is no sign that the rebels have taken any new ground. Indeed, it is clearly central to our policy that that force should be effective.
We have been able to help--as I said, we have provided headquarters staff to guide the UN force--and we believe that that is an effective way forward. However, it is important that the Government of Sierra Leone should have effective forces on which they can call. The early training teams have done a tremendous job in making soldiers available to that Government. We believe that they need more soldiers, but those soldiers should be trained not only as individuals, but as formed fighting forces. That work is likely to start fairly shortly. Ultimately, we want the democratically elected Government of Sierra Leone to control their own territory.