Parliament & politics: Land mines: MPs work overtime to ratify mine ban

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HARD-WORKING MPs may sit for an extra day to ensure that the international ban on land-mines becomes law in Britain before the summer, it was announced last night.

The Cabinet decided at its regular meeting that despite pressing demands for legislation in other areas, including bills on the Northern Ireland peace agreement, they would ratify the ban next month.

There were suggestions that Parliament might even sit on a Saturday to make the ban law before the anniversary of Princess Diana's death in August, but a non-sitting Friday seems a more likely option.

The move follows increasing controversy, as Government business managers refused to say when the legislation would be complete.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the issue was complicated by a legal dilemma. After ratification, British troops could risk breaking the law if they were asked to escort convoys carrying land-mines during joint operations with non-signatory countries, he said. The problem could arise in NATO exercises because the US does not plan to ratify until 2006 at the earliest.

But there was an angry reaction from Conservatives at recent suggestions that they might seek to block ratification by delaying the necessary Bill in the House of Lords.

The Tory defence spokesman, John Maples, confirmed that the Tories had offered their support to the Government over ratification, and said reports that they might delay the Bill were "nonsense".

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said in a speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs that the Government had led the way in working for an international ban.

He highlighted Britain's role in negotiating the convention banning land- mines and in signing it by the first available date - during last December. Britain was also half-way through destroying its stockpile of land-mines and had unilaterally imposed a moratorium on the use of them, he said.