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South Africa: Mercenaries

Volume 476: debated on Monday 2 June 2008

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he plans to update the guidance letter issued to South Africans in the British Army dated 20 February 2008 on South African legislation on mercenaries and membership of other nations’ armed forces; when guidance on this subject was issued to South African personnel in (a) the Royal Navy and (b) the RAF; whether South African personnel will be able to continue to serve in the British armed forces on a conditional or qualified basis on terms set out by the South African government when the legislation comes into force; what meetings have been held between (i) officials and (ii) Ministers and the South African government to discuss the issue; and whether South African personnel in the armed forces will be granted UK citizenship if barred from membership of the UK armed forces by the legislation. (206117)

Letters are sent out to serving South African personnel at regular intervals updating them on the latest situation with regards to the South African legislation on mercenaries and membership of other nations’ armed forces. The last letters to Royal Naval personnel were sent out on 31 January 2008 and letters to RAF personnel were sent on 15 February 2008. Further updates will be sent in due course if and when there are further developments.

We are urgently investigating the potential consequences for South African personnel currently serving in the UK armed forces, so that we can support those who may be affected. Our overriding aim is to secure the continual service of South African personnel in the UK armed forces and for them to be able to deploy on operations. We hope to send a team of officials to South Africa to hold face to face discussions with the officials who will be drafting the new regulations as it is the details of these underlying regulations that will allow us to understand what real effect the new Act, when it comes into force, will have on personnel.

Representations have been made by the Secretary of State for Defence to the South African Defence Minister, Mr. Lekota, on the potential implications the legislation would have on recruitment and retention of personnel into the UK armed forces. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to Mr. Lekota in August 2006 and followed this up with a telephone conversation in December 2006 and he wrote again in April 2007. Our high commissioner to South Africa, Paul Boateng, has also made representations to the Government of South Africa on several occasions. His last letter was sent to Mr. Lekota on 22 January 2008.

The Mercenary Act was discussed at the UK-South Africa bilateral Defence Staff talks held in the MOD on 3-4 March 2008 with the aim of securing a date for an officials visit at the earliest opportunity.

Under current rules eligible SA citizens serving in the British armed forces can apply for British citizenship if they have been resident in the UK for a five year period, or three years if married or in a civil partnership to a British citizen. Service in the armed forces, at home and abroad, counts towards the residential qualifying period. We are discussing other options with the Home Office should South African personnel be barred from membership of the UK armed forces.

We cannot say precisely what the implications of the legislation are for our people until the details of the regulations are divulged to us.