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Bosnia

13. Mrs. Betty Williams (Conwy): How many British troops are deployed in Bosnia. [132997]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): Currently, we have about 2,300 troops deployed in Bosnia, serving with SFOR. We are on target for a commitment of about 2,000 troops by the end of the year. About 4,000 troops are deployed in Kosovo, 500 of whom were deployed for the election period. My right

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hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence plans to visit the Balkans region before the end of this year and intends to call on troops serving in KFOR and SFOR.

Mrs. Williams: How long does my hon. Friend believe that British troops will remain in Bosnia?

Mr. Spellar: Quite simply, that will depend on developments in Bosnia. To some extent, that will be influenced by the favourable developments in Serbia and the departure of Milosevic--a departure hastened by the strong action of allied forces last year and our strong commitment against him since then.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Is the Minister studying the recent election results in both Serbia and Kosovo? What change have they made to the Government's thinking about the troops being kept there? Will he reassure the House that the commitment is not unlimited? The troops have been in Bosnia for about eight years and it looks as though they could remain for a very long time to come.

Mr. Spellar: The hon. Gentleman would agree that the overthrow of Milosevic changes the situation. It is a favourable development on which we must build, but it would be premature to contemplate timetables. No one should underestimate the change in the region, which has been matched or even precipitated by the change in Croatia, where again a hard-line regime was defeated by a more progressive one that clearly wants to be part of Europe. We intend to build on those very favourable developments. It might be premature to set a timetable, but the changes begin to offer us some light.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): Will my hon. Friend ensure that the House's appreciation for the work of our forces in Bosnia is communicated to them? What message does he have for the new Government in Belgrade concerning the restoration of normal relations with Bosnia, to allow a de-escalation of the military presence in the Balkans?

Mr. Spellar: We intend to reopen the embassy there and to appoint a defence attache. Discussions are taking place with ourselves and other European countries. We should recognise, however, that the first priority of the new regime in Belgrade will be the reconstruction of the country. The new Government will have to focus on that, but we aim to work with them and help them in that process.

Far East Prisoners of War

18. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): When he will announce the outcome of his review of the case for ex gratia payments to former far east prisoners of war. [133002]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House last Wednesday, the Government's review of the case for awarding additional, ex gratia, compensation

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to former UK service personnel who were prisoners of war in the far east is still in progress, but we expect a decision to be announced very shortly.

Mr. Heath: Does the Secretary of State appreciate the strong support throughout the House for a group of people who have experienced privations that are unimaginable to most of us? It is much to be regretted that the Government have been sending mixed signals on the issue over the past few months. Can he assure us now that the question will be resolved, not within months or even weeks, but within days?

Mr. Hoon: I do understand the issue. My father served in India and in Burma during the second world war. I grew up in no doubt of the conditions in which many of our armed forces were held, of the appalling circumstances and, moreover, of the fact that many of those people carried that legacy throughout their lives; some continue to do so. Therefore, I am aware of the circumstances. I assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that the matter will be resolved as quickly as possible.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that, since the Prime Minister replied to my question last Wednesday, there has been greater optimism among the people affected that a settlement will very soon be reached? I hope that it will be reached very shortly. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the Japanese who should pay compensation, and that their refusal to do so has led to the position where the British Government are likely to do so? Should we not remember that some 25 per cent. of prisoners never returned because of the horrifying conditions that they had to endure, dying as prisoners of the Japanese?

Mr. Hoon: Some compensation was paid under the 1951 peace treaty. I accept that, understandably, those affected regard that compensation as inadequate, which is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister acknowledged the other day that this nation, the United Kingdom, owes those people a particular debt of honour. It is that debt of honour that we are reviewing. I hope that the optimism that my hon. Friend mentions is vindicated.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Does the Secretary of State accept that the far east prisoners of war were, as I have pointed out to the House previously, victims of war crimes? Will he give a commitment that any payments to them will be not means-related, but absolute ex gratia payments either to the far east prisoners of war themselves, or to their widows if they have since died?

Mr. Hoon: I am well aware of the implications of any decision that the Government take. All I can do is assure the hon. Gentleman that those factors are taken into account as part of the review that is yet to conclude.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are only 7,500 former far east POWs left and that, in the next few years, that figure is likely to

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drop substantially? Can we do quickly what the Tories failed to do for 18 years: get an announcement out of the way and get the money to those men before it is too late?

Mr. Hoon: I have indicated my appreciation and understanding of the problem. All I can say to my hon. Friend is that we are proceeding with the review as quickly as we possibly can.

European Security and Defence Initiative

20. Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): What contribution the United Kingdom is making towards meeting the headline goals of the European security and defence initiative. [133004]

21. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): What recent discussions he has had with his European Union counterparts about the European security and defence initiative; and if he will make a statement. [133005]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I discussed European security and defence issues with my EU counterparts at the EU Defence Ministers informal meeting on 22 September in Paris, and with all NATO allies at the informal meeting of NATO Defence Ministers in Birmingham on 10 October.

We discussed progress on elaborating the requirements of the Helsinki headline goal and member states' possible contributions to a pool of capabilities that could be drawn on in the event of a crisis. Contributions from member states, including the UK, will be formally identified at a capability commitment conference to be held on 20-21 November.

Mr. Wilkinson: As the capability conference is imminent, can the Secretary of State not come to the House later this week and say clearly which units will be earmarked from the British armed forces to fulfil the role under the ESDI? Is it not a very large role to deploy an Army corps for up to a year, sustained by 350 combat aircraft and no less than 80 naval vessels? Where are the extra resources coming from? Is there not a risk that it will damage NATO without any corresponding increase in capability, unless the money and resources are forthcoming?

Mr. Hoon: There is--the hon. Gentleman was no doubt alluding to it--a defence debate on Wednesday and Thursday this week. Clearly, it will be possible during that debate to discuss those matters in more detail, but I doubt that we would be in a position by Wednesday or Thursday to indicate to the House precisely what initial contribution we are offering as part of the capability conference. However, I make it clear to him and, indeed, to other hon. Members that what is proposed in relation to the headline goal is not a standing force. It is not a force that will permanently be waiting for some Petersberg crisis to be called into action. They are commitments of capability in exactly the same way as NATO allies contribute to NATO and to the United Nations where appropriate. We are seeking to persuade other European Union member states to have available the

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kind of rapid reaction forces that, as a result of the strategic defence review in particular, we can make available for international operations.

Miss McIntosh: May I congratulate the Defence Secretary on answering more questions than usual in his own right? Will he give the House an assurance this afternoon that the Americans will not see the ESDI as a threat to European defence and that our European partners will meet the commitments that we are expecting of them in this regard?

Mr. Hoon: I was assuming that the hon. Lady would disagree with the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) on this subject. Nevertheless, I can give her a clear assurance, as was given by Bill Cohen, the United States Defence Secretary, most recently at Birmingham that the United States Administration strongly support the development of European capabilities and want to see them improved. Indeed, had the hon. Lady studied the history of the US and NATO, she would know full well that for a long time the US has called for a more effective European contribution to NATO because, in strengthening Europe's contribution to NATO, we will be strengthening NATO itself.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North): This is my first public opportunity to congratulate you, Mr. Speaker, on assuming the Chair. I am very pleased.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the increasingly fanatical Euro-sceptic statements from the Opposition are seriously undermining confidence in, and support for, the A400M and Eurofighter, and that a proper criticism should be made of the equipment's capability and not of the fact that it is built by a European consortium?

Mr. Hoon: I am always lost in admiration for my hon. Friend's ability to draw in subjects that are not obvious from the Order Paper, but I certainly have some sympathy with his views. I wonder, in the unlikely event of the Opposition ever returning to government, which particular partners they would associate with in future. Clearly, they want to leave the European Union. They criticise every aspect of any decision taken in the context of the European Union and they reject the views and advice of the current United States Administration because they do not want the US to be content with a European development, so I wonder where their isolationist tendency is leading.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Perhaps the Secretary of State will get away from polemics and revert to the facts. Does he accept that any European defence initiative for a rapid response force must have the lift potential to be got to wherever the problems are as quickly as possible? That lift potential does not exist in Europe at the moment. Is it to be expected that we will rely entirely on the Americans to provide that lift potential, or how quickly does he envisage France, Germany and ourselves will be able to provide it?

Mr. Hoon: Perhaps I would not be tempted to polemics if the right hon. Gentleman, in asking such questions, were more likely to say how much he approved of the Government's position on airlifts. Had he started by asking how it is that, over many years, the Government

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whom he supported failed to invest in the airlift that is required to carry out international missions and said how well the present Government had done in making the necessary investment, I might have had a bit more sympathy with him. Nevertheless, I can assure him that by agreeing to lease four C17s, which will be in service next year with the RAF, and by committing to buy 25 A400Ms--a new European transport aircraft--we will put in the necessary investment for our armed forces to have the heavy lift required to get them rapidly into theatres where they are needed. I think that I agree with the right hon. Gentleman, although I would be greatly appreciative if he were a little less grudging in his comments.


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