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House of Commons

Monday 19 March 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Community Involvement (Armed Forces)

1. Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): If he will make a statement on his Department's policy on involving the armed forces in the community. [152698]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar): The armed forces are an integral part of the community. As the strategic defence review stressed, the armed forces serve the community by providing it with the defence it needs and by acting as a force for good in the world. They are also actively involved in the community--whether through their support of youth initiatives, their involvement in ceremonial duties, their participation in charity work, or their support to the civil authorities when the community as a whole is faced with an emergency.

Over the past few months, they have demonstrated their dedication to the community in an unprecedented manner. More than 1,000 drivers stood ready to ensure that fuel

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was delivered, essential services maintained and lives saved when the effects of the fuel protest threatened to get out of hand. Twice that number helped to defend lives and property from the most damaging effects of recent flooding. They performed those tasks as an integral part of the community they serve, working with the emergency services and other representatives of the community to promote the common welfare of the community as a whole.

The armed forces are already providing logistics advice to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to aid it with the disposal of slaughtered animals. We areof course responding promptly to any further specific requests for assistance that we receive from MAFF.

Mr. Gardiner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his response, and I am sure that the whole House is grateful to the armed forces for their work in such emergencies. Will my hon. Friend specify the details of the specialist assistance that the armed forces are offering to tackle the foot and mouth outbreak?

Mr. Spellar: Following the discussion with MAFF last week, the Ministry of Defence has agreed to provide MAFF with help in supervising the disposal of carcases of slaughtered livestock, focusing especially on the backlog of carcases that has built up. A logistics headquarters is being established in Devon to co-ordinate the activities of small teams drawn from the armed forces and deployed in the field. Those teams will reduce the burden on veterinary surgeons by helping to co-ordinate the efforts of the private contractors employed to dispose of the carcases. In doing so, they will speed up the disposal process and release vets to tackle the spread of the disease.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I am sure that all Members will join the Minister in warmly thanking the armed forces for their work in aiding the civil power and local communities. He has touched on the foot and mouth outbreak, but could he be slightly more specific? Will he tell the House how many members of the armed forces

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are involved at present, and whether he intends--if the crisis continues--to respond to any request by MAFF to use the armed forces on a larger scale, especially units of the Corps of Royal Engineers and the Royal Logistic Corps?

Mr. Spellar: Yes, we stand ready to respond rapidly to further requests from MAFF, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is always a case of striking a balance between the availability of service from civilian contractors and, in many cases, the geographical disposition of that service. At present, about 300 members of the armed forces are engaged, and about 50 two-man teams will be employed on local liaison work as well. The armed forces are already undertaking that work, but of course we recognise the scale of the problem and stand ready to respond.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): We are grateful to the Minister for explaining the work carried out in association with MAFF on the outbreak of foot and mouth. Will he explain any forward planning that might involve more members of the armed forces? Will that include not only the veterinary service and the Logistic Corps but an increasing number of Engineers, with their equipment? Will he tell us why the MOD is excluded from the Prime Minister's taskforce on foot and mouth disease, given that four other Departments are involved and when--obviously--the MOD will be crucial in the operation?

Mr. Spellar: Certainly we stand ready to provide assistance, including on the engineering side. However, there are considerable resources in the construction industry that can undertake such work.

With regard to membership of various committees,I think that I have been filmed going into Downing street to attend meetings on this matter. We are clearly involved and we stand ready to respond to requests from those who are dealing with these matters at first hand--which is exactly the appropriate relationship.

Joint Military Capability

2. Mr. Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): What measures are being taken to enhance joint military capability between the UK and its north American and European allies. [152699]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): Work is progressing in NATO on the defence capabilities initiative in the five key areas of effective engagement, survivability of forces and infrastructure, command and control, sustainability and logistics, and deployability and mobility.

We are also pursuing our commitments to the European Union headline goal, which will complement progress with the DCI to improve European military capabilities. Additionally, we are seeking greater capability and inter-operability with other nations through multinational defence co-operation.

Mr. Ennis: On the eve of his visit to the United States, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what message he will take to the American Secretary of Defence?

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In particular, will my right hon. Friend emphasise to Mr. Rumsfeld that the aims of the European defence security policy are consistent with the aims of NATO?

Mr. Hoon: There will be a series of meetings in Washington in the next few days to ensure absolute consistency between NATO's efforts to improve military capabilities through the defence capabilities initiative and European efforts to do precisely the same thing through the achievement of the Helsinki headline goal. That is the message that I shall take to Washington.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): Will the Secretary of State confirm that for this country to take part in any major operation involving substantial airlift or intelligence capabilities--in other words, any major operation--would require American support? At a time when we may be close to a major outbreak of fresh conflict in the Balkans, will he tell us what extra resources our European allies are making available to match the extra commitments that we shall make under the European commitment that he has just described?

Mr. Hoon: We have always made it clear that we would regard NATO and, therefore, United States support for such an operation as being the way in which we would undertake any major operation. A number of our European allies are certainly increasing their defence expenditure, but, equally, we have made it similarly clear that the vital matter is not simply how much money is spent--important though that is--but what it is spent on. That is precisely why it is so important that we pursue, through the DCI, improvements in NATO's capabilities, including heavy lift, as well as the absolutely consistent approach in the Helsinki headline goal to improve European capability. I take it from the hon. Gentleman's observations that he supports the efforts that we are making.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On joint military capabilities, some weeks ago I asked the Ministry of Defence what happened to Kosovo Liberation Army terrorists when they were arrested by KFOR and taken to Camp Bond Steel. Perhaps I am still waiting for an answer because, far from charging the terrorists, it would appear that the US contingent of KFOR was training them in the American sector and allowing them to smuggle armsand launch attacks across the borders of Serbia and Macedonia. What are the leaders of KFOR going to do about the situation in Macedonia? Are we simply going to abandon them to this attack?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that my hon. Friend appears to be misinformed. The United States has made it absolutely clear that it is giving no active or tacit support to any kind of terrorist activity. It remains entirely even-handed in the way it deals with terrorist activity, from whichever ethnic community it comes. I assure her that it is not engaged in activity of the kind that she describes.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): Does the Secretary of State agree that we may be about to witness a real test of joint military capability if the dangerous situation in Macedonia deteriorates any further? If that happens, does he agree that it may be necessary for NATO to do more than strengthen patrols on the border?

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At a time when the United States is indicating that it intends to withdraw troops from Bosnia, does not the situation in Macedonia provide an ideal opportunity for the European nations to show that they are serious about military capability and about Europe taking more responsibility for European defence issues?

Mr. Hoon: I can assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that those in the NATO capitals have been in regular contact in recent days about the increasing tension on the borders of Macedonia. There have been discussions, which continue, about the appropriate action for KFOR to take and who should initiate it. At this stage, I am not in a position to tell the House more than that, except to say that we regard the situation there with grave concern and we will take appropriate action when necessary.

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