Our announcement on 10 October indicated a small increase in the total number of troops deployed in Sierra Leone. The number will vary depending on the training task under way, but it is likely to be slightly over 400.
We also made it clear that, under our memorandum with the United Nations, we are ready to deploy a rapid reaction force in support of United Nations peacekeeping operations. As an early demonstration of the seriousness of that commitment, we are taking advantage of the completion of an exercise in the Mediterranean to divert an amphibious ready group comprising elements of our joint rapid reaction forces off Sierra Leone for a limited period during November. The group will include HMS Fearless, HMS Ocean, three Royal Fleet Auxiliaries and 42 Commando embarked. While in the area the group will be able to practise procedures and to conduct a detailed reconnaissance, both of which will significantly reduce the time needed to deploy should the rapid reaction force be required in future.
I welcome my right hon. Friend's answer. Can he assure the House that, while clearly doing everything possible to support the United Nations peacekeeping force, we are not going to see mission creep or find ourselves in the situation of British forces taking the fight direct to the rebels?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The primary purpose of British forces going to Sierra Leone is not only to train the forces of the Government of Sierra Leone, but to demonstrate that the current deployment is there for training purposes. The 400 whom I mentioned earlier are there to assist the Government of Sierra Leone in developing forces of their own that can be used to take on the rebels. The deployment there of the amphibious ready group is part of a demonstration of our commitment to the United Nations, pursuant to a memorandum that we signed with the UN in 1999.
I support the training mission, which is essential for the long-term stability of Sierra Leone. It is also right that the United Kingdom should provide additional forces to assist the United Nations effort. Without them the success of the training mission cannot be guaranteed. However, instead of a separate command, would it not make much more sense to place the additional British forces under the United Nations command? The withdrawal of the Indian and the Jordanian troops is generally accepted as weakening the UN effort. How will we persuade other countries to contribute to the UN effort if we are not willing to contribute to it ourselves?
I do not accept that analysis of the problem. The training that we are conducting is quite separate from the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone. We have offered extra headquarters staff to UNAMSIL to give it some assistance in deploying its forces as well as provided substantial assistance to the Government of Sierra Leone. We believe that the best way of assisting that Government is to make sure that they have forces on which they can call to resist the rebel forces in Sierra Leone.
We clearly have obligations to a Commonwealth ally that is seeking to achieve democracy. We also have obligations to the United Nations which, as the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said, is potentially facing a crisis of confidence with Jordanian and Indian forces leaving as the fighting season begins. Is it the Government's clear view that our reinforcements are in Sierra Leone only for confidence building and to tidy matters up in the short term and that there will be no move—substantial or otherwise—from a training to an active intervention role?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. May I make it clear that we announced on 10 October that the training will continue certainly until April of next year? We recognise the importance of providing a substantial body of trained troops to the Government of Sierra Leone. The early training teams have been very successful and have provided soldiers whom the Government of Sierra Leone can use. We also wish to extend the training so that, as well as providing trained individuals, we ensure that the Government of Sierra Leone can call on trained groups. That means more than simply providing individual soldiers with weapons, uniforms and boots, but providing them with the equipment that will be needed if they are—as we hope they will—to take the fight to the rebels.
Earlier Government policy hinged on an effective UN force being in place with the right numbers to be able to keep the peace. However, that force has proved ineffective. As the Secretary of State knows, it will not take the action that is necessary. Now, with the departure of the Indians and the Jordanians, it is beginning to look even more ineffective than it was when British forces were deployed earlier this year to support it. That leaves us with a vacuum that, as Labour Members have already said, may well suck us deeper into the conflict.
Will the Secretary of State answer a question that will help to give us clarity? What conditions in Sierra Leone must prevail in the mind of the Government for British troops to be withdrawn?
May I deal with the premise behind the hon. Gentleman's question? There is no suggestion at the moment that the UN force is not effective. It has preserved peace in Sierra Leone and there is no sign that the rebels have taken any new ground. Indeed, it is clearly central to our policy that that force should be effective.
We have been able to help—as I said, we have provided headquarters staff to guide the UN force—and we believe that that is an effective way forward. However, it is important that the Government of Sierra Leone should have effective forces on which they can call. The early training teams have done a tremendous job in making soldiers available to that Government. We believe that they need more soldiers, but those soldiers should be trained not only as individuals, but as formed fighting forces. That work is likely to start fairly shortly. Ultimately, we want the democratically elected Government of Sierra Leone to control their own territory.