|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his reply. With long delays reported at passport offices outside London--for example, at Liverpool 10 weeks for postal applications and at Glasgow five-and-a-half weeks--is the noble Lord aware of the widespread anxiety of people who have arranged holidays abroad this summer? What he has just said in some ways improves the situation. Do the causes of the delays include the breakdown of a new computer system and the time spent on a new procedure for children under 16?
Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of a case in the north-east last week where a group of disabled children was at risk of being prevented from going to Disneyland because of passport delays and that, following representations, the head of the Passport Agency made a personal intervention, making two telephone calls on a Sunday to one of the organisers which resulted in the children going on their holiday? Will my noble friend join me in congratulating the head of the Passport Agency on that particular occasion and agree that that represents the acceptable face of bureaucracy?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, by and large the Passport Agency does extremely well. It is very heartening to see that what is apparently an inflexible bureaucracy can respond flexibly and sensitively to the particular instance. There have been computer-related difficulties but, by and large, the story is a good one and it is not always fully reflected in the newspaper headlines.
Lord McNally: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is the new regulations relating to children under 16 which cause panic in some households--certainly in the McNally household? Can the noble Lord clarify whether all children under 16 need new travel documents or whether, where they are on passports that remain valid, they can still travel on that documentation? Certain newspaper reports indicate that all children under 16 will need travel documents this summer, which I believe causes some of the panic and rush.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, where a child is on a passport that does not need renewal, no new application for a child's passport needs to be made. It is because children on new applications must have separate passports that there has been an increase in the number of applications. I do not think that there is need for panic. There is a need for prudent thought. I believe that most people book their holidays in advance. It is a sensible precaution to check a passport and make application at least four weeks before the date of travel.
Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, can the Minister explain why the change relating to children has been made? What prior notice was given, and what is now being done to rectify an obviously difficult situation? In a recent case of a different kind that affected my
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his remarks. The reasoning behind the introduction of children's passports was that they provided a certain degree of extra security. If a child is on his or her parents' passport, there is simply a bare description. It has been found that if a child has a separate passport it is an additional security, sometimes in the interests of the child and very often in the interests of checking whether those who come to this country are who they claim to be.
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just that passports take a little longer to process but that this year it is taking six times as long as last year? Concern has also been expressed that these very serious backlogs are being addressed by lowering the security checks being made on passports and the recording of those checks. Is that so?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, it is not. In response to the noble Lord's question, we are not lifting or diminishing security checks but encouraging a sensible use of discretion--for example, in relation to the concept of a person of similar standing who is required to sign the application and photograph. There have been delays. I repeat that in terms of meeting travel dates the success is very remarkable. Last week we processed 133,000 documents, which is an increase of 20 per cent over last year.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is not surprising that the Passport Agency meets a very high proportion of travel dates because a great number of people apply for their passports in very good time? However, does that not mask the increase in the time taken to turn round an application for a passport? One cannot get away from that. The situation is much worse this year than it has been in the past. Does the Minister also agree that the reputation of the Passport Agency certainly between 1994 and 1997, when I served at the Home Office, was high, and its record for turning round passport applications was also exceptionally good?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that the noble Baroness is right. Most people have the sense when booking their holidays to check their passports. I believe that we are in agreement in that respect. The turnround time now in London is six working days. We should be looking to 10 working days for each of the agency's offices. Difficulties have arisen in part from the increase in application numbers, which the noble Lord, Lord McNally, identified, and in part from the problems of introducing computer systems in two centres. I do not pretend that the picture is entirely satisfactory. I believe that I have made that plain. We hope to reach the 10-day target by September.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am happy to do that. I am in entire agreement with the observations of my noble friend. It is not the fault of the staff when delays occur; it is not the fault of Ministers either--at least not Home Office Ministers. The fact is that some people panic unnecessarily and do not adopt the prudent steps which the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, identified. It is no good abusing people who are trying to do their best in difficult circumstances. Sometimes the position has been exacerbated by ill-informed media stories. The situation is not as bad as has been described. I repeat, we hope confidently to achieve a 10-day turnround by September.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, highlighted a particular problem about obtaining passports in case of emergency. What particular arrangements are in hand when passports are required for family visits abroad, perhaps for illness or other reasons, and will the noble Lord publicise such information?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, if one wants to make a family visit abroad, normally it is possible to plan ahead in the way identified. On occasions that is not possible; there may be family emergencies. As has been indicated by a number of questions and observations from noble Lords, I believe that the Passport Agency does its best to meet those urgent cases. But what one does not want is everyone claiming that his or her case is urgent. That simply clogs up the entire system and does a disservice to everyone.
"The agreement sets out in detail how all the Serb forces should conduct a phased, verifiable and orderly withdrawal from Kosovo. It provides, as General Jackson has made clear, an agreed basis for the
"The House will appreciate that this agreement is a major political and military vindication of NATO's policy, of its resolve and of its determination to end the horrific ethnic cleansing conducted by Milosevic and his troops and regime. It will pave the way for the eventual return of the refugees.
"We expect that the United Nations Security Council resolution will be passed shortly and that the necessary measures will all be in place for the rapid deployment of KFOR, but I must warn the House that we have been misled by Milosevic before. We have learned not to trust his words and we will need to see his troops on the way out of Kosovo. We will want to see verifiable compliance with the terms of the agreement before allowing NATO to suspend the bombing campaign.
"That is up to Milosevic. For our part, we look forward to being able to move to the next and very demanding stage and to the enormous challenges that lie ahead. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made clear, there is now a huge job to be done as the Serb forces go out, the international force goes in and we get the refugees home. We are ready for that task and British forces will be among the first to cross the border into Kosovo. All the House will, I am sure, be proud of that effort and join me in wishing them and their NATO allies every success in the difficult weeks and months ahead."
Lord Burnham: My Lords, the House will be most grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend last night. As he said in his closing words, a great deal has happened since then. The Minister was kind enough to ring me early this morning, when I was casting my vote, and to offer this Statement. I am sure your Lordships would agree that we were right to accept it because of what the Minister will be able to tell the House after the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and myself have spoken. I read the Statement in Hansard of another place and everyone will be glad to have heard it today.
I, and I am sure the whole House, wish to express appreciation for the work of General Mike Jackson and everyone involved in bringing the matter to its current state. It will be no surprise to hear another Statement tomorrow--there will be one early next week--because the House will wish to hear how events are progressing, and authoritatively from the Minister rather than from the newspapers.
In the past the Minister has accused me of asking impossible questions. I shall probably do so again today. However, in asking questions, I am only too well aware that many of them cannot be answered either for reasons of security or because events are happening so fast that the Minister does not know the answer.
When will the first troops go in? We see the suggestion in today's Evening Standard that the Parachute Battalion will go in tomorrow and that they will go up the road to Pristina from Skopje. The newspapers always mention the Paras in the way that at the time of Aden they always mentioned Colonel Mitchell. His battalion was the only one the newspapers could get near and therefore he received all the publicity. But there are many troops around Kosovo and we must not concentrate too much on the Paras, however well they operate.
Secondly, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that NATO will not repeat the serious mistake which happened immediately after the war, when Germany was partitioned. Within years we experienced the closing of the Iron Curtain, which prevented other nationalities from going into another part of Germany. That would be a most serious position and I hope that the United Nations Security Council and NATO itself will concentrate on that issue.
The right honourable gentleman the Secretary of State said last night that we could not trust Milosevic. I hope that that is his view and that the Minister will be able to confirm that plans are in hand to reverse the cessation of the bombardment and everything else that goes with it should things go wrong. Let us hope that that is not necessary, but it might be.
It is now time for rebuilding, but who will pay for it? In particular, speaking from the domestic stance, who will pay for the British share? Will the military costs come from the defence budget or will they come from the FCO fund which can be used for such disastrous occasions? If the cost is to come from the defence budget, we shall be in a very serious position.
Many other issues come to mind, but I believe that your Lordships will wish to concentrate on those that I have raised and other fundamental points. I repeat that I am most grateful to the Minister, to the Secretary of State, to all British and other armed forces and to others working around Kosovo.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made last night in another place and for updating us on it. I congratulate the British negotiators, in particular General Jackson, on the determination with which they have carried this through so far. We all recognise that the crisis is by no means over yet. We must ensure the reconciliation of
I wish to look forward and to remind the Government that in the course of this long crisis a number of long-term commitments have been made to the region, some by the British Prime Minister himself, and they must not be forgotten now that the fighting has stopped. Europe as a whole has committed itself to sustaining not only Kosovo and Bosnia, but also Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania, which have suffered the economic costs of the war for a considerable period. We also have a job to do in helping to rebuild Serbia. The Serbian Government have clearly been appalling throughout, but all Serbs do not share that responsibility. If in the long run we are to return Serbia to civilised Europe, there is much that Britain and other countries can do together to revive democracy in that painfully damaged country.
As the Minister will be aware, my party has throughout strongly supported the Government's action. We believed that it was correct and right for Britain and our allies to do so. I noted with puzzlement occasional wobbles among the Right-wing press. I am bound to say that I considered some of John Keegan's articles to be the oddest, particularly that in which he suggested that support in Britain from the right quarters would be stronger if only the NATO spokesman spoke "proper" rather than speaking with an East London accent.
The St. Malo initiative has been half hidden by this crisis. However, I think it is relevant--and perhaps the Minister might like to add to this--that while the Kosovo crisis has been going on the British and French Governments have been pushing forward with an initiative to strengthen European defence, and it is quite clear that the two are interrelated.
An American spokesman in Brussels last Friday said that we all need to understand that Kosovo is America's last European war: that if there is one region in the world which the Americans now feel they can leave to those in the region to look after it will in future be Europe; and that therefore the move towards greater European autonomy within NATO is a matter that we clearly have to take further forward. The projected move of the Secretary-General of NATO to become the Secretary-General of the European Council is clearly highly symbolic and I hope will also be effective in that regard.
Finally, as we hope to have resolved the crisis in Kosovo, I ask the Minister to say a little about whether the Government and their partners will be considering how other potential crises around Europe's borders might in future be met, and what implications they will have for our military planning and that of our allies. We have the unresolved problem of Cyprus; we have a number of problems in the Caucuses; and, above all, we have the Arab/Israeli crisis. We hope that they will
Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I begin by thanking both noble Lords for their generous remarks about General Jackson. I am sure that they meant to include a reference to the efforts so far made by the British Armed Forces, air, land and sea.
The noble Lord, Lord Burnham, asked when the first troops will be going in. I cannot answer that question. I can, however, tell him that it would be possible for British troops to go in tomorrow. The event that would bring that about would be the passing by the Security Council of a resolution, which I understand is already in blue form and which will no doubt be debated later today. It would then be up to the North Atlantic Council to approve an ACTORD. At his discretion, General Jackson would then be in a position to move his first troops forward tomorrow.
The noble Lord asked about partition. I can assure him that NATO's planning takes full account of the dangers of partition. We are determined that the outcome of these unhappy events of the past many weeks will not result in a partitioned Kosovo. To that end, there will be a unified control for all allied troops and also for non-NATO troops in Kosovo.
The noble Lord asked me about the role of the Russians. I cannot answer that question. These matters are still being discussed at the moment. They are being discussed in Moscow. I hope that the matter will become clear fairly soon. All sorts of figures have been bandied around as to a Russian contribution--anything of the order of approximately 1,200-10,000 men. I believe that it is a little improbable that we shall see the higher figure. As your Lordships will know, the Russians also have troops in Bosnia and they have local difficulties of their own. They are determined to contribute and they have worked in a very responsible and constructive way to reach the solution that we have so far achieved. NATO would certainly very much welcome their participation in KFOR as soon as they feel able to do so.
The noble Lord also asked me whether or not there are plans to reverse the cessation of the bombing if things go wrong. The answer is an unambiguous yes. The noble Lord asked me who will pay for the rebuilding. That, of course, will be a matter for negotiation with our partners in the EU and NATO. However, I can assure him that no costs will fall to the Ministry of Defence budget. They will be taken care of in other ways, with the well known generosity of Her Majesty's Treasury leading the way!
The noble Lord asked me his final impossible question: whether or not we can guarantee a lasting peace. Of course we cannot guarantee a lasting peace. That is in the hands of others. I believe that it will be a very long time before anybody else starts down the course that Mr Milosevic has taken in that part of Europe.
The greatest hope that we all have for the future is the introduction of the stability pact, in which our Prime Minister has taken the lead--and I am sure that he will be followed by our EU and NATO partners--to make sure that that part of the world is not forgotten, in particular all the front line states which have suffered very serious economic damage as a result of the necessary activities of the past 11 weeks.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, began by stating that things are by no means over. He is, of course, absolutely right. I believe that I said at this Dispatch Box not very long ago that the fact that troops were entering an unopposed environment did not mean to say that it was a safe environment. I have to warn your Lordships that it is very possible that we shall yet see some British and allied casualties. All sorts of risks will face our forces going into Kosovo. Of course, we pray that that will not happen, particularly in the light of the fact that in this brilliant air campaign, which has lasted 11 weeks, not a single allied pilot has suffered from enemy action from start to finish.
The noble Lord suggested that the Russians will go in with the Italians. He may be right, but he is possibly being a little premature in that regard. As I said a moment ago, I do not believe that the disposition of any Russian troops that show up has yet been decided.
The noble Lord said that Serbia had to be rebuilt and asked who would rebuild it. Of course Serbia has to be rebuilt. However, I can tell your Lordships that certain parts of Serbia will not be rebuilt. Those are the military barracks, the military petroleum depots, the ammunition dumps, and all the other ingredients of Milosevic's military dictatorship. Their rebuilding will be down to the Serbian government, if they wish to spend their money on such activities in the future, which I very much doubt.
The noble Lord referred to Mr John Keegan's articles. Let me say one thing in defence of Mr Keegan. I am a great admirer of Mr Keegan. I admire him even more for his article in the Daily Telegraph in which he had the courage to admit that he had been wrong. I salute him for that, particularly as I have personally stuck my neck out, saying that I was convinced that air power could win this conflict; and it has been shown unambiguously that it did win this conflict. Many commentators thought that it could not be done simply because it had never been done before. He is the first person quite unambiguously to recognise that things have changed and that his original assessment was mistaken.
The noble Lord rightly suggested that one of the good factors to emerge from the recent conflict is the initiative of the British and French Governments to stimulate a European defence consciousness, which has been hugely advanced as a result of the military campaign of the past 11 weeks. The noble Lord referred to somebody quoting this as "America's last European war". I hope that it will be the last European war for
The noble Lord asked, finally, how crises would be met in the future, and the implications of recent events for the planning of this country and the countries of our allies. I hope that the noble Lord will forgive me if I give the British Ministry of Defence a pat on the back at this stage. I believe that what has been demonstrated is the good sense of the underlying principles of our Strategic Defence Review. I am glad to say that more and more of our European allies are seeing the good sense of restructuring their forces to deal with crises outside their own territories, a course in which I believe we have led the way in Europe.
Finally, I am able to tell your Lordships that NATO has approved the release of the military technical agreement. I shall be placing copies of it and the relevant map in the Library as soon as possible.
Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, it is very good news indeed that the Serb forces are now withdrawing and that the bombing has been suspended and, it is to be hoped, ended. Not least among the good news is--and I freely acknowledge it--the demonstration of the strength and cohesion of NATO in pursuing goals which all of us wished to see achieved. But we are dealing with a tragedy. If we can now say that Act II has come to an end, Act III, as I am sure my noble friend would acknowledge, in which the expelled Kosovars are now to return to their shattered homes, burnt out villages and smashed communities, will be a dangerous, difficult and far more prolonged experience than what we have gone through so far. Looking beyond that, to what might be called Act IV of the tragedy, the securing of peace and prosperity in the whole of that region will be an even longer and more difficult process to achieve.
I conclude by putting a question to my noble friend. Does he not agree that, while we have reason to be soberly pleased with what has been accomplished so far, we would be very wise to think hard about the lessons of this whole experience and, above all, to reflect on whether in the very long term we have yet found the right way to proceed when one country, within its own frontiers, behaves barbarously to a part of its population?
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page