My Lords, today’s repeat of the Mali deployment Statement is very much welcomed because, whenever British forces are deployed, it is right—indeed, absolutely necessary—for Ministers to come to Parliament to explain the reasons, outline the objectives and answer questions. I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the noble Baroness is here to listen to the views expressed and to respond to questions the Statement made in the other place gives rise to.
Britain has rightly been described as a soft power superpower, and around the world many millions of people owe their quality of life today to support from Britain over many years now. In a report published in 2014 entitled Persuasion and Power in the Modern World, a Select Committee of this House chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, was tasked with examining the use of soft power in furthering Britain’s global influence and interests. The report is well worth further examination, stressing as it does the need for Britain to remain a top-rank player or face being outwitted, outcompeted and increasingly insecure.
The Mali deployment means we are sending our troops into the most dangerous UN mission in the world today. Our forces go with the respect—and more, the affection—of everyone in these islands. Our forces deploy to an area of the African continent that was in former times part of the French colonial interests. No matter the divisions and travails closer to home over Brexit, we go to Mali as part of the UN mandate —yes, we do—but we go in support of our French friends and allies, and that is how it should be: a common interest and a common responsibility to help bring peace and stability.
Our troop deployment is more successful thanks to the Royal Air Force at Brize Norton. Here I echo the words of Brize’s station commander, Group Captain Emily Flynn, who said that the deployment was a good example of the important and often unnoticed work that is carried out by personnel there. Brize Norton is the centre of a world network supporting Britain’s military operations across the globe and we should be proud of that.
We are told that our 300-strong Light Dragoons task group will be helping protect people from violence and encouraging political dialogue. Can the Minister tell us something about the latter role of encouraging political dialogue that our forces will engage in?
In the Statement, we are reminded that in South Sudan British forces were engaged in building hospitals, bridges and roads. This work, of course, requires the deployed forces to possess specialist skills in building and construction. Can the Minister say, thinking of that role, how we might engage in it in partnership with forces from other countries in Mali?
The Statement tells us that the region in which our troops are deployed is the worst place on earth to be an adolescent girl as it accounts for 7% of the world’s population of primary-age girls who are not in education. What plans, if any, do we have to help address this? I can still remember when, together with my noble friend Lord Murphy of Torfaen, I attended a lecture given by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown in Edinburgh almost 15 years ago, when he powerfully argued that the greatest gift and help that we can give the developing world is free education.
In a world ever more watchful of threats from terrorist violence, Mali, as the Statement emphasises, poses a real danger by creating a space for developing new terrorist threats. Without going into any great detail in a security-sensitive matter, can the Minister confirm that our forces will work closely with our allies, sharing intelligence gathering to the mutual benefit and protection of the citizens of the nations who have deployed troops in Mali?
Finally, as we approach the Christmas season, the whole House would echo the Statement’s grateful thanks and good wishes to our troops there. In this awful Covid time, when families across Britain cannot be together, that separation is even harder to bear for our service personnel and their families. Can the Minister assure the House that every preparation is in hand for our troops in Mali to be in contact with their loved ones here at home over Christmas? I am sure that I am not alone in believing that, if the families of our service men and women at home are happy, our troops, wherever they may be asked to serve around the world, will be happy and content. In an uncertain world, Britain’s soft power capability and our long-established and respected role as a peacemaker have never been more important or more needed.