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Shadow Foreign Secretary Francis Maude
"The most damning criticism of a ministers performance I have ever seen by a select committee"
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The BBC's Tim Franks
"There aren't that many flights to the region we were told"
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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Vaz criticised over Balkans absence
Keith Vaz
Mr Vaz says a visit by the Foreign Office is a priority
The Europe Minister, Keith Vaz, has come under fire for failing to visit the Balkans since he became minister with responsibility for the region in 1999.

The cross-party foreign affairs select committee said it was concerned about a lack of ministerial oversight of an area where the UK had devoted financial and military resources, and which was key to the whole stability of Europe.

A report by the committee said only the Trade Minister Richard Caborn had been to the area since the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last year.

We find it deeply regrettable the Foreign Office minister responsible for south-east Europe, has not visited the area.

Foreign affairs select committee
In the Commons on Tuesday, Thurrock MP Andrew Mackinlay told MPs: "Either there is a shortage of foreign ministers or priorities are wrong."

The committee's report is another blow to Mr Vaz, who is facing a second inquiry by the Parliamentary "sleaze" watchdog into his links with the controversial Hinduja brothers.

'High priority'

Committee members complained Mr Vaz had also shown a lack of understanding of Balkans issues when he appeared before them last month to give evidence.

Mr Vaz admitted its members were better placed than him to answer questions about the Balkans, because they had been there on a fact-finding trip.

But Mr Vaz told MPs at foreign office questions that a visit was now "a high priority" for him.

UK troops in the Balkans
Britain has committed soldiers and aid to the Balkans
"A number of foreign ministers have visited London," he said.

"I know you are cross but I can assure you this is a very high priority and I hope to give you some welcome news in the not too distant future."

The Tories seized on the report as evidence that Mr Vaz was unfit for office.

Shadow foreign secretary Francis Maude told BBC News: "If I had read a report like that about my performance, I would have crawled off into the darkest corner I could find and hoped that people forgot about me.

"It is the most damning criticism of a minister's performance by a select committee I have ever seen."

Committee chairman Donald Anderson said the criticism was only a tiny part of the report and should be kept in perspective.

Dialogue needed

The Foreign Office welcomed the broad thrust of the report but rejected the committee's comments about Mr Vaz.

A spokesman said: "He has been, is and will continue to be fully engaged in this important area of policy."

He said that Mr Vaz had made 50 overseas visits since 1999, including visits to Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary and Slovakia.

Map of the region
The minister had also attended a regional funding conference on the Balkans in Brussels last year and a peace implementation conference on Bosnia, also held in Brussels.

The committee's report also highlighted the potential of the insurgency by ethnic Albanian "extremists" in Macedonia to spiral out of control unless firm action was taken.

The report - which was finalised before the deployment of British troops on the border with Kosovo - said Nato had not acted "sufficiently rapidly or effectively" to stem the flow of arms and men across the frontier.

"The growing tension and violence in Macedonia have a frighteningly similar pattern to that experienced in Bosnia," the report said.

It called for an "urgent and more intense dialogue" with the Kosovo Albanians, both to promote change within the province and to curb it as a source of "violence and conflict" within neighbouring territories.

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See also:

26 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Vaz defends visa approvals
25 Mar 01 | Special Report
Macedonia: fears of a new Balkan conflict
21 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Cook condemns Balkans 'terrorists'
23 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Vaz: I will help new inquiry
23 Mar 01 | UK Politics
MPs warned on sleaze
21 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Vaz hands Blair a new headache
13 Mar 01 | UK Politics
Vaz cleared but questions remain
26 Jan 01 | UK Politics
Keith Vaz: Minister and networker
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