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House of Lords

Friday, 14th July 1995.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Defence Estimates

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe) rose to move, That this House takes note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1995 (Cm 2800).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the annual debate on the Defence White Paper is invariably characterised by its high quality. During last year's debate, my noble friend and predecessor Lord Henley faced the intimidating experience of addressing this knowledgeable gathering for the first time in his capacity as the very newly-appointed Under-Secretary of State for Defence. This year, the timing of his departure to the Department for Education and Employment has set me precisely the same challenge. So perhaps I may start by congratulating my noble friend on his promotion; and by following in his footsteps by asking noble Lords to make at least some allowance for my newness to defence matters.

At the launch of this year's Defence White Paper, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Defence, Malcolm Rifkind, described it as very different in nature from its recent predecessors. It marks the end of the period of turbulence immediately following the end of the Cold War: five years of extensive and profound change for British defence as we, together with our allies, have worked to adapt our policies, the structure of our Armed Forces and the management of defence to the post-Cold War world—a world in which we are immeasurably safer, but in which we face increased uncertainty and rapid change.

As the White Paper makes clear, we have achieved much over those five years. The strength and capability of our Armed Forces underpins Britain's role in the world. We have a clear view of that role, and coherent defence and security policies to back it up. As a nation with global interests and responsibilities, Britain is and will continue to be a major participant in world affairs, willing and able to lead decisively rather than to follow, and using our assets and vast experience for the benefit of the world community.

We will further our interests through partnership with those who, like us, are willing to bear a share in promoting peace and stability. NATO is the bedrock of our security. We shall continue to play a leading role in adapting NATO to the post-Cold War world, enabling it to carry out new crisis management tasks and to extend security to our new partners in central and eastern Europe. At the same time, we shall work to develop the Western European Union as a vehicle for European military co-operation when NATO cannot or chooses not to be involved.

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But what of the present? In Europe and beyond, the welcome end of super-power rivalry has led to an unwelcome rise in instability. This has led to civil war and cross-border conflict, and the suffering which they bring in their wake. Britain's professional Armed Forces are, naturally, in high demand for international conflict prevention, conflict resolution, peacekeeping and humanitarian aid missions. At the moment there are well over 5,500 British servicemen and women serving on United Nations "blue beret" operations, with many more acting in support.

Our forces' achievements, past and present, in the former Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in the Gulf and in Cambodia, among others, are well known. The first half of 1995 has already seen them engaged, highly successfully, in a substantial new deployment as part of the new United Nations operation in Angola. And, of course, it has seen a major increase in their contribution to UNPROFOR, in response to the worsening situation in Bosnia. I expect Bosnia is uppermost in many of your Lordships' minds today, so perhaps I may talk about recent events there.

The Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Bosnia and particularly Srebrenica. The United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Wednesday night condemning the Bosnian Serb offensive and calling for the immediate release of the detained Dutch soldiers. This resolution also asks the UN Secretary-General to use all the resources available to him to restore the agreed status of the safe area in accordance with the mandate of UNPROFOR.

Following the Serb offensive on the town, some 40,000 civilian refugees fled to the Dutch camp at Potocari, just north of the town. Under the direction of General Mladic, most of them have been taken by bus to the Bosnian Government area around Tuzla. But the Moslem men have been taken separately to Bratunac.

We are very concerned for the safety and plight of the civilian refugees, who are naturally very frightened. Our immediate priority is to get humanitarian aid to them to alleviate the situation.

Noble Lords will also share my concern for the safety of British troops in the enclave of Gorazde. As of today, the situation remains stable: there is continued sporadic shelling, but there has been no increase in activity. I can assure noble Lords that we will take appropriate measures to safeguard the security of our forces. Your Lordships will not, of course, expect me to go into details about what we have in mind.

Some have called for our forces to be withdrawn from Bosnia. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has said, the situation is certaily serious, and there may be a point at which circumstances are such that it will be impossible for the UN troops to remain; but unless and until those circumstances do arise, we believe that it is right for them to remain.

UNPROFOR has achieved a great deal; not least the successful containment of a conflict which would threaten a wider Balkans war.

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Humanitarian effort has helped to save hundreds of thousands of lives and support continues for more than 3.6 million people throughout the former Yugoslavia, including some 2.7 million people in Bosnia alone.

In central Bosnia, British forces are playing an instrumental part in sustaining the fragile peace which has existed there since the formation of the Bosniac-Croat Federation last year. They are supporting many hundreds of civilian infrastructure projects which are helping the people of Bosnia rebuild their homes and their lives in the most practical way possible.

There should be no doubt in our minds that their mission is worth while and their efforts should be allowed to continue. Her Majesty's Government reiterate their call for all sides to show restraint, to co-operate fully with UNPROFOR and to return to the negotiating table.

Noble Lords will be aware that the UN is forming a Rapid Reaction Force to improve the effectiveness of UNPROFOR and to enable force commanders on the ground to accomplish their mission within the existing mandate.

The UK has reacted swiftly and our significant reinforcement package stands as a testimony to our commitment to the safety of British and United Nations troops, and the importance that we attach to the continuation of UNPROFOR's mission in Bosnia.

In addition to the initial reinforcements which arrived in the region last month, we have also offered 24 Airmobile Brigade to the United Nations.

Some 200 logistic personnel are already in theatre. An advance party of over 400 personnel left today. Further logistic and engineering personnel are following by sea and air to prepare for the arrival of the main body. By the middle of August, it is planned to have completed the deployment of more than 4,000 men.

The Rapid Reaction Force will strengthen UNPROFOR's ability to defend itself. I must make clear, however, that the Rapid Reaction Force is not an offensive or strike force: it will operate under the existing UNPROFOR mandate. The Reaction Force is not an alternative to a political solution.

Before I move on, may I welcome the start Carl Bildt has made. We must take this opportunity to reinvigorate the peace process and strive for a political solution which will bring an end to the suffering of all the people in Bosnia. At the same time, I should like to express our thanks for the unstinting efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Owen.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Earl Howe: My Lords, Bosnia is just one example which demonstrates that the removal of the threat that we used to face during the Cold War has not led to any reduction in the importance to this country of our Armed Forces. They are, and will remain, world-class: the backbone of our security policy. Indeed, in future, we want to see them doing an even better job for Britain. To achieve that, we recognise the need to maintain our investment in them: in our servicemen and women; and in their equipment.

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For our Armed Forces, this year's Defence White Paper is unreserved good news. We cannot expect the international setting to remain anything but fluid. But, so far as concerns the Armed Forces, the big decisions have been taken. The Government now intend to inject a period of stability into defence planning and funding; hence our choice of title for this year's Statement, Stable Forces in a Strong Britain.

I am sure that that emphasis will be as welcome to noble Lords on all sides of the House as it is to our Armed Forces. Our commitment to setting a steady course for the future is reflected in the White Paper through three important themes.

The first is stability for the front line. In order to implement our defence and security policies, the fighting strength and capabilities of our front-line forces will be maintained, even if their commitments reduce. The White Paper makes it clear that this assurance applies equally to our forces' commitments in Northern Ireland. Our hopes for a permanent peace there remain high. The ceasefires declared by the terrorist organisations, which have now held for nine months, have allowed us progressively to introduce measures to reduce the profile of the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland. If we are able to reduce the Armed Forces' commitment to operations in support of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it will not be matched by cuts in fighting units.

Secondly, there is stability of funding. The 1994 Public Expenditure Settlement underlines the Government's commitment to defence. The stability of funding we have for the future, the changes we are making to the management and organisation of defence, and our determination to bear down hard on costs and drive out waste have allowed us to announce further capability enhancements. This year's White Paper sets out the new equipment projects we have been able to add to the defence programme as a result of these factors. Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State was able to announce the Government's decision to purchase 67 Apache helicopters for the Army and Tomahawk missiles for the Royal Navy. We want to repeat this success in future: ploughing money saved from increasing efficiency back into enhanced capability.

Thirdly, and equally important, there is stability for our people. It is essential that the services maintain their ability to recruit and retain men and women with the right personal qualities and skills; and I know that our servicemen and women are anxious to see an enduring package of conditions of service for the years ahead. This is what lies at the heart of the recently completed independent review of service career and manpower structures, undertaken by Sir Michael Bett. Sir Michael's proposals merit detailed study and development. This work will require considerable time and effort before decisions can be taken. We hope to make a definitive statement on the way ahead next spring.

Let me end by repeating that our Armed Forces are as important to this country today as they have ever been. We intend to make sure that they remain strong

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and effective—properly manned, equipped, trained and supported to cope with the risks and uncertainties of today and tomorrow.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Statement on the Defence Estimates 1995 (Cm 2800).—(Earl Howe.)

11.22 a.m.

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