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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): A Skyguard mobile tracking unit was deployed to a location at Dunster beach near Minehead, Somerset from 4 to 7 December to undertake covert monitoring of military low-flying aircraft, recording their heights and speeds. During the observation period, a total of 43 military aircraft were monitored; none was found to be in breach of regulations.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he cast his mind back a little further, before Skyguard came to Dunster beach? There was low flying over the nuclear power station at Hinckley Point, which, as the hon. Gentleman can imagine, caused enormous consternation in my constituency. Although the aircraft was just above the legal height, the Skyguard did much to reassure people that the Ministry of Defence was taking low-flying aircraft seriously. There is a large military installation in my constituency that shares the worries. In the height of a crisis, could Skyguard be used not only to reassure people, but to give warning of low-flying aircraft over important installations in the United Kingdom?
Dr. Moonie: I am well aware of people's anxieties when aircraft approach sensitive installations. Clear rules govern that. I found the Skyguard system useful. It is done covertly; no one is told of it in advance apart from local Members of Parliament who always ensure that the matter is kept out of the public eye. I have been struck by how seldom infringements of the rules occur. Our pilots act responsibly. Although I appreciate that low flying is a great burden, we do what we can to spread it and minimise the load. However, the current system ensures that we carefully monitor what happens and that rules are kept and not broken.
I took the opportunity to thank President Musharraf for Pakistan's support for the coalition against international terrorism and for the international security assistance force in Kabul, as well as his public commitment to restoring democracy in Pakistan. I made the point that those positive developments have helped to strengthen the relations between our two countries and that, as part of that, we were taking appropriate steps to restore our defence relationship. I also underlined our anxieties over the current tensions between Pakistan and India. We are urging both sides to exercise restraint and to engage in dialogue.
Mr. Thomas: I am grateful for that reply. A significant number of my constituents have family and friends in Pakistan and India. They are deeply concerned about the rise in tension between those two states, and they look to Britain to continue to help and for measures to reduce the tension. Did my right hon. Friend receive specific assurances on his visit to Pakistan that there would be an attempt to resolve the differences between India and Pakistan by negotiation rather than by other means? Will he also tell hon. Members whether he envisages a bilateral defence arrangement, which would help to reduce tensions between the two nations?
Mr. Hoon: I was left in no doubt of Pakistan's recognition of the need to take action against terrorist organisations operating from its territory. We welcome President Musharraf's speech of 12 January, and the action that he has taken since. We have long called for an end to externally supported terrorism in Kashmir, and we are doing all we can to see the job completed. Meanwhile, we have urged both countries to continue to give time for the diplomatic route to work. As friends of both India and Pakistan, we will continue to urge them to persevere with dialogue and address all issues outstanding between them. It is clear that violence and terrorism will not bring a solution in Kashmir, but I am grateful for my hon. Friend's recognition that defence relations may help to do so.
There will be a meeting of the defence co-operation forum in London on 5 and 6 March. That high-level meeting of officials is co-chaired by the Ministry of Defence's permanent secretary, and his equivalent from Pakistan. It reflects a similar defence consultative group in India that is chaired by the Ministry of Defence's permanent secretary and his Indian equivalent, which will meet in New Delhi on 25 and 26 February.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): There used to be close links between the British and the Pakistani armed forces, including exchanges between staff colleges.I understand that those links were stopped after the Pakistani nuclear tests. Have those links been reinstated,
Mr. Hoon: I anticipate that the meeting of the defence co-operation forum will lead to a framework for co-operation and contacts involving all three armed services. In addition, further contacts will include ships and other military visits, Pakistani access to United Kingdom military training opportunities, participation in bilateral exercises and visits by senior military and civilian defence officials.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The United Kingdom currently contributes some 3,000 personnel to KFOR operations in Kosovo as framework nation of the multinational brigade centre. UK forces take part in the full range of tasks carried out by KFOR. KFOR's main focus is the provision of a safe and secure environment in Kosovo, including the protection of minority communities and the countering of threats from extremist groups.
Mr. Crausby: Attention is rightly focused on Afghanistan, but will the Minister congratulate our troops serving with KFOR? Will he ensure that the prospect of a spell in Kosovo does not become detrimental to the retention of the young men and women serving in our forces?
Mr. Ingram: I would be only too happy to associate myself with my hon. Friend's views, and congratulate our forces on their very important work not just in Kosovo, but in all the other areas in which they are deployed internationally. I assure him that the expertise and knowledge gained on those deployments usually stand members of the armed forces in good stead for their future prospects in the service.
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Which other countries are likely to be heavily involved in the peacekeeping mission in Kosovo? We hear much about the UK's involvement, but I would be interested to know which of our European partners are playing an equal role.
Mr. Ingram: To give due justice to that question, it is better that I set out in detail all the individual nations that participate and all the contributions they make. The international effort in Kosovo is considerable: there are in the region of 42,000 troops in KFOR, 37,000 of whom are based in Kosovo. I shall provide the hon. Gentleman with a detailed breakdown of those deployments, which I shall place in the Library of the House.
The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The problem of recruitment and retention across the services is being tackled as a matter of the highest priority. Our aim is to maintain high levels of recruitment and retention through policies that meet our requirements and genuinely reflect the priorities of our people and their families.
Mr. Ingram: It would be wrong to deny that we face difficulties. That is why we have introduced an extensive welfare package which is constantly reviewed, and which is intended to deal with retention in the best possible way. As for recruitment, I could spend the next hour describing in detail all the ways in which we have tried to tackle it. If the hon. Gentleman is truly concerned, however, I suggest he should begin to appreciate the complexities and difficulties, and support the Government's initiatives rather than trying to talk down the armed forces.