It seems generally accepted that the international environment in which our country finds itself is one of the most difficult and complex that it has seen for many a year. It is difficult because international challenges—global terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, conflicts within and between states, illegal migration, rapid globalisation in some parts of the world and chronic underdevelopment in others—are increasing both in scale and severity. Their direct impact on Britain is increasing, too. Foreign policy is one of the most crucial means by which we can deliver on our domestic priorities. That international environment is complex, because its many different aspects are closely linked and are mutually reinforcing; they cannot each be dealt with in isolation, but must be tackled together.
Let me begin by setting out some of the most immediate and urgent challenges that we face. The Prime Minister has stated often that there is no more pressing diplomatic task for the country or the international community than to seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. If we can do so, it will benefit the entire region and remove a key source of global tension and division. That is why we are working closely with the European Union, the United States and regional partners, both to develop practical initiatives, such as strengthening Palestinian institutions and improving Palestinian security, and to restart the political process itself.
At the same time, we remain one of the world’s biggest donors to the Palestinian people; this year alone, despite our concerns about a Hamas Government in office, we have committed £30 million to the people of Palestine, and played a key role in developing the main international mechanism through which all donors can channel assistance while bypassing the Hamas-run Finance Ministry. We intend to contribute £12 million through that temporary mechanism.
There have been many discussions, with a variety of players; indeed, hardly a stone has been left unturned between states, organisations and anyone who may have influence and can exert it favourably. To be honest with the House, there have been many occasions when it has appeared that the soldiers’ release might be possible—even imminent—but every time that prospect has gone away. We continue to exert similar efforts.
Does the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that although it is entirely understandable that Israel withheld the $55 million a month of revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, and despite the increased aid through the temporary international mechanism, the reality is that public services in the Palestinian Authority are being starved of funds? Hospitals are closed, schools cannot function and day-to-day life is under severe threat. Is she confident that the viability of the Palestinian state can be maintained?
First, I accept that the loss of revenues flowing to Palestine has left a huge gap in its budget and I accept, too, the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the importance of the health and education services. As I think he knows, that is why we made a priority of funding those issues through the temporary international mechanism. I accept entirely, however, that that cannot make up for the loss of revenues, which is why we have put so much emphasis on, and are so anxious for, the emergence of a new Government—a Government of national unity. That could be the key—with the release of Corporal Shalit and others, for example—to unlocking the flow of those revenues again. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are discussing that issue with the Government of Israel and putting pressure on them to unlock that flow of revenues as soon as can be achieved.
Has my right hon. Friend also raised with the Israelis how the constant road blocks, the expropriation of land and allowing illegal Israeli settlers to continue to attack Palestinian farmers who are trying to harvest their crops is making the Palestinian economy even worse, and the fact that the British taxpayer will not be willing to subsidise for a long period the costs that the Israelis are imposing through their measures to deepen the occupation?
Yes, we have made such points to the Government of Israel on many occasions and if the need arises we shall continue to do so.
I have spoken recently on the phone to President Abbas about the developing situation, and about our hopes and our offer of support to him in putting together a Government of national unity. Yesterday, in London, I met the Israeli Foreign Minister, Minister Livni. We had a constructive meeting and talked about the moves of the President to build a Government of national unity and about the prisoners held by both sides in the conflict. However, just as I stood up to leave that encouraging meeting, we received the tragic and shocking news of the assassination of Pierre Gemayel. I am sure that the whole House joins me in expressing our horror and dismay at that act, and our deepest sympathy to the family of Mr. Gemayel and to the people and Government of Lebanon. We welcome the UN Security Council’s unequivocal condemnation of his murder last night.
I join my right hon. Friend in condemning the assassination of Mr. Gemayel. However, can she explain the moral difference between that assassination and the continual Israeli targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders, one of which recently led to the death of 18 members of one family, including children and a baby?
I think that everyone in the House, including my right hon. Friend, is aware of the extremely difficult situation and the terrible problems that are caused by all such steps, not least, as he rightly identified, when there is what is generally known these days as collateral damage into the bargain.
No one yet knows for sure who carried out this particular attack. It is imperative that an independent and thorough investigation begins at once, and we will offer whatever support is asked of us, just as we continue to support the work of the United Nations on the death of Rafik Hariri. We expect that report in the not-too-distant future.
Many people have already pointed the finger at Syria, but it is too early to reach definitive conclusions. Of course, the reason why so many are looking in Syria’s direction is because of its long record of destructive meddling in Lebanon. It is increasingly the will of the international community that there should be an end to outside interference in Lebanese affairs, as was mandated by Security Council resolution 1559. Indeed, as we have identified before, Syria faces a strategic choice. If the Syrian authorities are ready to play a constructive role in the region, we have made it clear that we will be prepared to work with them. However, if they support terrorism, promote instability and interfere in other countries, we will unite with our regional and international partners to seek to prevent that.
Recent press reports have stated that the Syrian Government will help the situation in Iraq only if we help them to regain the Golan heights. Will the Secretary of State give a categorical assurance to the House that we will not side with the Syrians in that dispute with Israel?
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that we are a long way from being confident that we have seen an end to difficulties between Syria and Iraq. The Syrian Government are well aware that, like the Iraqi Government, we would like to see the policing and sealing of the border between Syria and Iraq. Let us see what that delivers. Any other discussions, including territorial discussions, are a very long way down the road.
The same strategic choice faces Iran. We, with France, Germany and our other European partners, are leading efforts to encourage Iran to address international concerns about its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism and its dismal internal human rights record. Thanks in part to those efforts, the international community is now more united than it has been for a long time, and the Iranian regime has been presented with a clear choice. On the one hand, we have offered Iran the chance of an improved relationship with not only Europe, but the wider international community. That would give Iran help in developing a civil nuclear power programme, an energy partnership and a trade co-operation partnership with the European Union. It would give Iran help with joining the World Trade Organisation and with the first lifting of US sanctions since the 1979 resolution in some areas of real need. However, if, on the other hand, Iran continues to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Security Council, it should be in no doubt that that relationship will deteriorate and that the international community will wish to respond
If my right hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make a little more progress.
British soldiers and civilians alike are working in tough conditions and with considerable courage to try to help to build a better future for the Iraqi people, and the horrific murder of some of our servicemen and women in Basra on Remembrance day underlines both their courage and their sacrifice. Indeed, the appalling reports of killings and kidnappings which we continually hear are a clear sign that the fate of that country is hanging in the balance. As I have said to the House before, we owe it to our own forces and to the Iraqi people to hold our nerve in this critical period. There is no question of us cutting and running from Iraq. To do so would be an act of gross irresponsibility, abandoning the Iraqi people to bloodshed perhaps even worse than we see today.
I agree that we should not cut and run. Given that the Prime Minister appears very willing to discuss Iraq with the Iraq study group, and given the deteriorating situation in Iraq, can the Foreign Secretary explain to the House why the Prime Minister seems so unwilling to come to the Chamber and discuss the current situation in Iraq and future policy options, when the rest of the country is discussing this very issue?
I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s basic contention. We have done a little research because I had a slight feeling that the issue might be raised. Since March 2003 there have been 60 debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on the subject of Iraq, so the Government have been perfectly prepared to discuss these matters.
The Foreign Secretary will have noted that the Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Benches speeches today. That is because there is huge interest in the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops are risking their lives there hourly and daily. May I have an assurance from the Foreign Secretary that there will be further specific debates on the Floor of the House, not in Westminster Hall, and that we will be kept fully informed, as we have not been to date?
Absolute nonsense. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman necessarily always attends those debates, but I repeat that there have been many opportunities. It may well be that there will be more in the future, but he knows that that is a matter for the Leader of the House.
I am deeply grateful to the Foreign Secretary. May I return her to the subject of Iran? It seems that so often in the Chamber we speak about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and we rarely speak about Iran’s grisly human rights record, which she mentioned. Has she had any conversations with Iranian representatives about the plight of Ahwazi Arabs, who have been oppressed for many years by the regime in Tehran? There are at least 10 whose trials have been very dubious, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, yet who are up for the death sentence. Will she speak to the country’s representatives about its grisly human rights record?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is right—there are a great number of examples of difficult human rights issues in Iran. I readily confess that I am not completely familiar with the specific issue that he raises, but my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has undertaken to look into the matter if he contacts him, and we will make some inquiries on his behalf.
Although there can be no question of us abandoning Iraq in the present circumstances, that does not mean that things are standing still. Our approach has evolved significantly in recent months in response to a dynamic situation. All along, we have had a clear view of what should be the future of Iraq. We want to see a fully sovereign Government taking complete responsibility for providing security and governing in the interests of all the people of Iraq.
Despite the difficulties, Iraq has made a great deal of progress down that path. For the past six months—and it is only six months—Iraq has had a Government of national unity, democratically elected under a new permanent constitution. As I made clear to the House at the end of October, the process of transferring security responsibilities to Iraqi security forces is well under way. Prime Minister Maliki is determined to press ahead with that, and we are equally determined to help him to do so successfully and sustainably. We expect Najaf to be the next province to be transferred to Iraqi control in December. In our own area of responsibility, we expect Maysan to follow in January, and the progress of our current operation in Basra gives us confidence that we may be able to achieve transition in that province too at some point next spring. So there is a clear perspective looking forward, notwithstanding the very obvious difficulties that Iraq faces, but it continues to demand our wholehearted attention and our unwavering support.
The middle east is inevitably likely to dominate many of our discussions today, but British soldiers and civilians are engaged elsewhere around the world, building peace, supporting democratic institutions and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.
I am enormously comforted by my right hon. Friend’s words about the security situation in Iraq, but we both know that emerging democracies need continued support. Will she reassure me that when we leave Iraq because it no longer needs military support we will continue to support that emerging democracy through what will be difficult times?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. As she knows, there is no one better fitted than our skilled and courageous Foreign Office staff and public servants in a wide range of institutions to help to provide such advice and support.
The people of Darfur have suffered immensely in the past three years from unacceptable violence, daily insecurity and profound humanitarian misery. Millions have had their lives disrupted and often much worse. The UK has been leading the international community’s efforts to resolve that crisis. Last Thursday’s agreement in Addis Ababa on a peacekeeping force for Darfur and a resumption of the political process show that there is increasing international consensus on the way in which we should address the ongoing, deplorable violence in Darfur. We need the Sudanese Government to agree that peace, stability and prosperity in Sudan will continue to be a top priority for them.
The Foreign Secretary has been characteristically generous in giving way.
Earlier, the Prime Minister spoke about the need to take a look at the proposal to construct a no-fly zone over Darfur. However, given that that proposal was originally endorsed by the United Nations as long ago as 2004, and that with every day that passes without that protection we witnesses an increase in the number of dead, dying and destitute in the region, does the right hon. Lady not agree that it is imperative that much greater urgency be attached to the matter, and that the zone is established quickly and enforced regularly so that people receive the protection that they need?
I gave way to the hon. Gentleman because he takes a great interest in the issue, which he has raised on many occasions in the House. I take his point entirely, and I assure him that we will look at it again. I simply say, however, that we have concentrated on trying to put an international force on the ground so that it can effectively counter some of the problems that have arisen. I take his point, too, about the no-fly zone, but although there were great hopes last Thursday that the new agreement would indeed be implemented and would hold, there are indications that that may not happen as speedily as we hoped. That must be the focus of our efforts, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will certainly bear in mind the strong point that he made.
In Afghanistan, NATO faces its greatest test. Success in its mission is crucial for its credibility in future. With our NATO allies, the UK is engaged in a struggle to turn a failed state into one that provides for its people and functions as a part of the international community. What has been achieved is rarely reported. Since 2001, more than 4.5 million people who fled their homes have returned. Men and women have turned out in their millions to vote in free and fair elections; 6 million children are now in school, over a third of them girls; 72 new hospitals and clinics have been built; and 35,000 children who would have died are alive thanks to immunisation programmes. British soldiers, alongside the Dutch and the Canadians, are supporting the Afghan Government’s efforts to bring security to the south of the country. It is a tough job, which they are carrying out with incredible professionalism and bravery.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for her generosity. The point that she made about our NATO allies was quite right, but will she tell the House what support she and her Department can give the Defence Secretary to persuade our allies that national caveats have affected operations on the ground? She will know that General Richards made a request for five infantry support companies from some of our NATO allies, but their national caveats prevented them from taking part in Operation Medusa, so they could not help to save 12 Canadians from being shot. Real lives are at stake, and there is a serious problem for British commanders on the ground. The Government and the Opposition are as one on this, but what is the position of our NATO allies?
I am sorry, I must make progress.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the outstanding work that military and civilian personnel from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development, the police and other organisations are doing in Afghanistan and, indeed, Iraq. I hope that no one objects if I single out from my own Department Stephen Evans and his team in Kabul, Nick Kay and his team in Lashkar Gah, Ros Marsden and her team in Basra and Dominic Asquith and his team in Baghdad. Our diplomats rarely receive the recognition that they deserve for doing a difficult and often dangerous job in those countries and others across the world.
Those are a few issues that are rightly at the forefront of our minds, but in focusing on what is most urgent we must not lose sight of the important underlying factors that drive and exacerbate global insecurity. Here, too, Britain is making a difference. Last month, we took the lead in tabling a resolution at the UN General Assembly on an international arms trade treaty to end the irresponsible trade in arms worldwide that fuels conflict and ruins lives. Since the last Queen’s Speech, a great deal has been achieved in the fight against global poverty. At Gleneagles, G8 Governments pledged to increase aid by $50 billion a year by 2010, with half going to Africa; to cancel debt worth another $50 billion; and to provide AIDS treatment to everyone who needs it. During our presidency of the G8, we were instrumental—in fact, key—in securing those agreements. Last year, the UK provided £5.9 billion in official development aid, making us the third largest donor in the world. We were instrumental in the launch of the international finance facility for immunisation, which is expected to prevent 5 million child deaths before 2015, and more than 5 million adult deaths after that date. The Government White Paper, “Eliminating world poverty: making governance work for the poor”, sets out how we intend to work with others to meet the challenges ahead.
We will not end global poverty, however, unless we give developing countries the means and the tools to help themselves. The World Trade Organisation round is our best opportunity to do so, but we have only a narrow window—a matter of months, perhaps—to secure the ambitious pro-development deal that we all want. There have been some encouraging signs. Pascal Lamy has restarted WTO negotiations at a technical level. Leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Hanoi made a commitment to break the deadlock, and they recognised that to do so all sides would have to move beyond their current positions. If others move, the European Union must be ready to move, too. In his speech last week, Peter Mandelson confirmed that we are.
We must not underestimate the cost of failure. If we cannot resolve those differences our own economies will suffer, but if we cannot overcome them or find a compromise we condemn millions of men, women and children to a life of poverty or to no life at all. If we cannot work together on that agenda, which is clearly in all of our interests, it weakens the hope of building a global consensus, whether on counter-terrorism, international crime or energy security. Nowhere is that need for mutual trust and action more obvious or vital than in the global challenge that may come to define our generation—climate change. The remaining few who do not think that that is a foreign policy issue simply fail to grasp the sheer magnitude of the challenge that we face. An unstable climate will place huge additional strain on the international tensions that we are already trying to resolve. Many of them are at breaking point, but climate change has the potential to stretch them far beyond that point. As I have reminded the House before, they have played a part in, for example, the conflict in Darfur.
The recent Stern review has now clearly laid out the challenge for the international community. It has shown that it will not cost developed or developing countries the earth to tackle climate change but that it will cost the earth, literally as well as financially, if we do not. Through the G8 plus 5 process that began at Gleneagles, through our role in pushing ambition in the EU, through our increasing co-operation with China, India and Brazil and through our links with individual states in the United States, Britain is helping to set and drive the agenda—but no country, however powerful, can address any of the challenges that I have identified, or others that I do not have time to set out, on their own. They call for concerted global action—for a truly international consensus that brings together countries from across the political and the economic spectrums.
One element of that will have to be a more effective multilateral system that includes a reformed United Nations, better equipped to face those challenges. For the UK, that means that we are forging new partnerships with emerging economies and powers around the world. On recent visits to India and Brazil, I have spoken of the need for us to act as global partners and restated our support for the growing influence and role of those countries to be fully reflected in the Security Council and other international organisations.
While we are developing partnerships that are new in depth or in scope, we continue to value our previous partners and relationships. The Commonwealth continues to do much important work, about a third of which we directly fund, not least in promoting democracy, good governance and the rule of law. We have other strong allies, such as the United States, although there are from time to time differences between us on some areas of the global agenda, such as the international arms trade treaty or, indeed, climate change. It is we who are taking initiatives and asking our American colleagues to join us. None of the matters that we have spoken of today, from global poverty and Africa to the middle east peace process or reconstruction in Afghanistan, can possibly be addressed, let alone resolved, without American involvement.
Our membership of the European Union—the largest political union, the biggest economic market and the largest aid donor in the world—gives us a far more powerful voice on the international stage than we have when speaking as a single nation. That is why the Government have put Britain at the centre of Europe, from where we can influence how the European Union speaks and how it acts beyond its borders, rather than migrating to the margins and losing that hard-won leverage.
One of Europe’s greatest achievements so far has been the successive waves of enlargement that have created an ever wider circle of prosperous and stable democracies. Earlier this year, I accompanied Her Majesty the Queen on a state visit to the Baltic states. Those are countries transformed—confident free nations and strong allies as well as trading partners of the United Kingdom. At next month’s European Council there will be a strategic discussion on further enlargement, but we are clear that further enlargement, coupled with rigorous conditionality, will bring clear benefits to Europe and to Britain. We must honour our existing commitments on enlargement, above all by moving forward accession negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. For that to happen, those candidates will need to fulfil their existing obligations to all member states and to make progress towards meeting European standards, and we will support them in that process.
Later this month, Latvia will act as host to the NATO summit. It will be the first territory of the former Soviet Union to do so—a powerful symbol of how NATO, like the European Union, has erased cold war divides and helped to create a modern and united continent. In Riga, we want NATO to make the decisions that will allow it and us to meet the challenges of the century to come.
Those are some of the strong global partnerships through which we carry out a distinctive British foreign policy. It is a foreign policy that does not rely on gesture or political grandstanding, but is conducted through quiet and steady progress. The hard grind and sheer determination of our soldiers and our civilians around the world means that Britain continues to be a strong, independent and positive force in that world.
A full day’s debate on international affairs in this House is much needed, and some might say that it is long overdue. The last time we had any such debate was in July, and that was short in duration and necessarily dominated by the turmoil in Lebanon at the time. Without extending the argument about on how many occasions Iraq has been referred to in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall over the past few years, it is obvious that given the extent of concern in Parliament and among the wider public about international affairs, and the legitimate debate about foreign and defence policies that in any case takes place outside the House, Ministers should do their best through the coming Session to ensure that such matters can be debated at regular intervals, in particular with regular reports to the House about the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I want to reinforce the need for that focused debate, especially on Afghanistan, as that was at the heart of the terrorist problem that we faced on 11 September. The Foreign Secretary was able to take very few interventions on that issue to address fundamentally how the distraction of Iraq had undermined our effectiveness in dealing with the problem in Afghanistan.
I am glad that my opening remarks have been a vehicle for the hon. Gentleman to make that point. The Secretary of State did her best to take a lot of interventions, and I shall try to take a few as well, if they arise.
In the past year alone, as the Foreign Secretary said, we have seen the escalation of two major attempts to break out of the constraints of the non-proliferation treaty, to one of which there has been a fairly effective and united response but to the other of which there has not. We have seen the continued unacceptable abuse of human rights in countries such as North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe. We have seen continuing conflicts in some parts of Africa, with the United Nations sometimes struggling to assert its authority. In the western Balkans there have been signs of a slow reversal in some of the progress that has been made. Of course, we have all been immensely concerned by what appears to be a steady deterioration in the situation in the wider middle east, which has inflicted a terrible human toll on Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. I echo what the Foreign Secretary has said about the outrage that we all feel about the assassination of Mr. Gemayel yesterday in Lebanon. It has reminded us of how serious the situation is. It is not unreasonable, in the light of that and other recent events, to be genuinely alarmed about the situation and worried that our policies might be overtaken by events.
Following the Lebanon war, my right hon. Friend has rather more credibility in Lebanon than the Government, given the lines taken by the respective parties. Will he reinforce my request this morning to Mohammed Raad, the leader of the Hezbollah faction in the Lebanese Parliament, for at least one of the Hezbollah members of the Cabinet and the other four members who recently left the Cabinet to rejoin it to demonstrate that they are not going to see the destruction of the Siniora Government by assassination and murder, even if that is the objective of Hezbollah policy?
Of course it would be good if those former Ministers were prepared once again to join a national unity Government in Lebanon, provided that the terms were acceptable to the other parties. That would be a welcome development. It seems unlikely at the moment, but the call for unity in Lebanon is well made.
Let me join in other things that the Foreign Secretary said. She referred to the vital role of the United States, on which we agree, and to the hugely positive influence of European Union enlargement, on which we also agree. We welcome her emphasis on climate change in foreign policy. I join, too, with great enthusiasm in her tributes to Foreign Office diplomats, who, when we travel abroad as the Opposition, we also see doing an extraordinary and sometimes inspiring job around the world.
In any such debate there will be a good deal of common ground between Government and Opposition, and it would be surprising if there were not. Nevertheless, the difficulties that we face require frank assessments and open debate. Let us make it clear that no one who wishes this country harm should mistake our readiness to debate such matters for a sign of weakness. Far from it—it is a sure demonstration of our strength. Nevertheless, when the Chief of the General Staff speaks out as he did about the presence of our troops in Iraq, when the Prime Minister appears to assent—I say “appears” to give him credit—to a televised suggestion that the situation there is a disaster, and when the Chancellor says that the decisions that were made in the early days could and perhaps should have been different, Ministers should be neither surprised nor irritated that others in this House have many questions to ask. The public want to know where we have gone wrong, why mistakes were made and what Britain should do next to improve matters. Just as the Government are entitled to support for many of their objectives, the House is entitled to ask many questions.
Before considering the affairs of Iraq and Afghanistan, I shall follow the Foreign Secretary into a few other areas of immediate concern, of which one is Darfur. The plight of hundreds of thousands in refugee camps and the murder of large numbers who never made it to the camps have moved and angered hon. Members of all parties and people throughout the world. Many of us have been there—I went with my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) earlier in the year and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was there only yesterday. We give credit to the Secretary of State for International Development and Foreign Office Ministers, who have worked hard on those matters.
We have all called and worked together for proper access for aid workers, the implementation of peace agreements and the acceptance by the Government of Sudan of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The framework determined at the weekend between the UN Secretary-General and the Khartoum Government to add UN forces to the African Union mission in Sudan appears to be a major step forward and we welcome the comments of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary today about achieving a larger, stronger and better equipped force in Sudan, and further intense pressure being placed on the Sudanese Government, if necessary.
In those matters, we are at one with the Government, and the same is true of another area of crisis in recent months—North Korea. Its testing of a nuclear device met with clear resolve and unity in the UN Security Council, including a vital and determined response from China. The return of North Korea to the six-party talks is testament to the influence of the Security Council when acting in a united fashion. I know that the Foreign Secretary agrees that it is imperative to maintain that resolve. North Korea must not be allowed simply to buy time or deflect international criticism by going along with talks, and the sanctions against North Korea must be enforced rigorously.
Perhaps the Secretary of State for Defence can say in his winding-up speech whether he is confident that the coalition necessary to enforce those sanctions, especially the provision on cargo inspections, is in place and that any supply of nuclear technology to North Korea can be detected and stopped, especially without South Korean co-operation in the proliferation security initiative. Perhaps he can also say whether the onward proliferation of material from North Korea to other countries can be prevented and whether United Kingdom naval assets will have a role to play in boarding and inspecting suspect vessels.
The response to North Korea is in sharp contrast with that to Iran. The importance of Iran’s progress in nuclear capability is hard to overstate, especially given the possible effect of that success on the intentions of half-a-dozen or so other middle eastern nations, which may wish to develop a nuclear arsenal of their own. If that happens, the efforts of two generations of world leaders, diplomats and intelligence agencies to prevent the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons will be in ruins.
Yet the international community is in danger of losing credibility in its dealings with Iran. Security Council resolution 1696 gave Iran 30 days to suspend nuclear enrichment, but 114 days have passed without action. Since Iran was referred to the Security Council by the International Atomic Energy Agency on 4 February this year, because it was found to be in grave breach of the non-proliferation treaty, nine months have passed with no substantive action by the international community. Together, the members of the Security Council have potent combined leverage over Iran, which is dependent on Russia for technology and expertise to build a civilian nuclear programme, receives massive Chinese investment in its domestic infrastructure, cannot develop its oilfields adequately without investment and modernisation—requiring foreign investment—and is not capable of building nuclear power stations without external assistance.
Yet a Security Council resolution that would make use of that leverage has not yet proved attainable. I appreciate that that is as frustrating for Ministers as for everyone else. Again, I hope that the Defence Secretary can give us the Government’s latest assessment of the stage of development that Iran’s nuclear programme has reached. I also hope that the Government can tell the House what Security Council measures Russia and China are prepared to support. If no meaningful UN action is to be taken, what else can be done? It is not an issue from which the world can walk away.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Iranian political situation is internally complicated, that President Ahmadinejad will use international pressure to consolidate his nationalist position and that the United States could change its attitude to engage with Iran to try to split the hard-liners and others in Iran? If that does not happen, the situation may get worse if Russia and China are not prepared to act with sanctions.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about that, but many efforts have been made to engage with Iran in recent years, including efforts, which we fully supported, by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor to engage successfully with it. The process is not easy—not even the United States would find it easy. Sticks as well as carrots are required. A stick-and-carrot approach has worked in some other cases. Libya is not the same as Iran, but it is an example to which we can point.
The right hon. Gentleman pointed out that there is general international agreement about the way forward on North Korea and that that is lacking on Iran. However, I have not heard a positive suggestion from him about something that the UK could do that it has not already done. Perhaps he would like to make such a suggestion.
That is precisely what I was about to do—I thank the hon. Lady for the invitation. We are considering not only a vital British national interest, but a vital global interest. If the Security Council cannot overcome its differences, it is time for like-minded countries to explore and implement, if necessary, formal or informal restrictive measures against Iran. They should at least be prepared to do that. Such measures could include EU action against investment in Iran’s oil and gas fields, limitation of the access of Iranian banks to the European financial system or a visa ban on persons connected with the Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile weapons programme. Other hon. Members may have other ideas.
Such decisions would involve tough choices, but although sticks and carrots are necessary to make progress, only carrots have been tried so far.
Again, the debate is focusing on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but the list of groups in Iran that have suffered extreme human rights abuses, as attested by all the international organisations, is growing. Will the right hon. Gentleman add his voice to those who call for Iran to respect the human rights of all individuals, especially the Ahwazi Arabs?
Yes, of course. The hon. Gentleman has made that point earlier in the debate and on many previous occasions. We all agree about the importance of human rights, but I do not want to go into detail because there are many subjects to cover in the rest of my speech.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the progress that the Government have made on getting Libya to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. Does he share my concerns about other north African countries, such as Tunisia and Algeria, which are also trying to pursue such weapons?
There is a need for more positive engagement with the countries of north Africa. I do not want to speculate about their weapons programmes but European countries have a role in engaging much more closely with them in the years ahead. That should be part of this country’s coherent foreign policy.
We can prepare British or European measures on Iran. I hope that the Government are discussing those matters with their European counterparts and that they can reassure the House that any discussions with Iran about Iraq—of course, the door should be open to such discussions—will not come at the price of concessions over its breach of the non-proliferation treaty.
The behaviour of Iran and North Korea in the past year demonstrates beyond doubt that the non-proliferation treaty is in urgent need of attention and some repair. Up to 40 countries are now considered to have the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons, and black market proliferators are at work. The risk of a nuclear device or nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists has grown. Thinking is going on around the world about how to strengthen the bargain inherent in a non-proliferation treaty, possibly by the creation, some argue, of international fuel banks to make enriched uranium accessible to all legitimate nation state customers for peaceful purposes.
Is it not now time for this country and others to place a very high priority on that work and to champion some constructive ideas about it? The Foreign Secretary told me in a written answer last month that
“progress made…during the 2005 NPT Review Conference provides an important foundation for further efforts to strengthen the Treaty”.—[Official Report, 30 October 2006; Vol. 451, c. 251-52W.]
Yet that conference failed to agree on a single recommendation of substance. A treaty to end the production of fissile material for weapons purposes has been on the proliferation and disarmament agenda for decades, and in June the Foreign Secretary told me that her officials were “assessing” a draft treaty put forward by the US in May. It is fair to ask whether they have reached any conclusions about that and whether they can tell us more about the proposal for a system of international control of the fuel cycle, which the UK apparently put forward earlier this year.
I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentions the non-proliferation treaty. Is he fully aware that the terms of the 1970 treaty also include within it an obligation on the five declared nuclear weapons states to undertake long-term disarmament? In that light, is it right for his party, or indeed anyone else, to support this country’s rearmament with an increased nuclear capability? Should we not be showing the way on the NPT by adhering to it ourselves?
The hon. Gentleman will discover that, since that time, the UK has greatly reduced the number of nuclear warheads that it deploys, so the UK has set a rather good example in that respect. What happens in the future is a matter for debate, but I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary say earlier that she is committed to maintaining a British nuclear deterrent, since there had been some discussion in the press about those matters. The House should have a proper debate when the time is right.
I shall move on a little more quickly to discussing the situation in the wider middle east, which has become a cauldron of dangers where the prospects for peace have gone backwards rather than forwards in some respects in recent months. The various crises in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian post-peace process should be approached first of all with frankness—as over-optimistic assessments destroy our credibility and undermine public support—then with realism, acknowledging that there are no quick fixes, and long-term application and planning. Many of these problems will be with us throughout the life of this Government and well into the next. We must make every possible effort to work with cultures that are very different from our own.
It is particularly important not to think of these conflicts as simply different fronts in a single struggle, as the motivation of an Iraqi militia man may be very different from that of a supporter of Hezbollah in Lebanon and quite different again from that of an al-Qaeda terrorist hiding on the Afghan-Pakistan border. Terrorism is now the greatest threat to our national security, but it does not come from a single or simple source and our rhetoric should not encourage the idea that we are engaged in a clash of civilisations. It should encourage the idea that we are in the business of making long-term friends among the many peoples and Governments of the middle east and north Africa who have no hostility towards us.
Our strategy should not lump countries and peoples together, but appreciate their differences. Syria may respond differently in future from Iran and perceptions held by Palestinians are often different from those in neighbouring Arab states. Similarly, recognition in the House that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone—partly, as it has turned out, because it has some of its roots in our own society as well as overseas—means that in fighting it, we must uphold our own highest values. That is why I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary criticise Guantanamo Bay to the Bush Administration, which I did earlier in the year. We agree on that. When we frame our own anti-terrorism laws, they must be tough and effective, but also justified in order to uphold our own highest values.
The Prime Minister ranged over some middle east issues in his major speech on foreign policy last week, but we would like to understand more about what it meant in practice. It seemed that its emphasis on dialogue with Iran and Syria was meant to be significant and new, but the policy that he articulated was not. Ministers have always been open to dialogue with Syria and Iran, as indeed they should be. The Foreign Secretary did not discuss what thought has been given to the wider diplomatic machinery that could be established, irrespective of Syrian and Iranian engagement. It may be difficult to secure that, but those countries could join in such machinery in the future. There is surely a good case for creating a contact group of major powers, working closely with constructive nations of the region such as Turkey, Jordan and the countries of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Such a group could be developed and strengthened over time.
That may be one of the ideas being considered in Washington by the Baker commission. It is important that there be British engagement with that commission, and the Prime Minister was absolutely right to speak to its members last week. However, the Secretary of State did not say what continuing contact Foreign Office Ministers will have with that commission and whether parallel thinking is taking place here on this side of the Atlantic at the same time. Although we have already debated the case for an inquiry on Iraq—we will return to it on another occasion—I hope that Ministers will be clear that one of the things that everyone will wish to examine in future is the advice given by the British Government to the Bush Administration now and in the coming weeks. I hope that the Defence Secretary will be able to expand on that later today.
International co-operation and external support for Iraq, anchored in a powerful contact group, are almost certainly necessary, given that at some stage an Iraqi Government will have to stand on their own. Whenever that is, their early days could be shaky, to say the least. Equally, however, external diplomacy alone is not going to solve the problems that have now arisen within Iraq and we should not delude ourselves into thinking that it will. Surely those problems can be solved only there.
On the background, I suspect that there is still a lot of common ground between Ministers and Opposition Front Benchers. We, like them, believe that the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein were justified. We, like them, believe that many mistakes were made in the aftermath, although they are irritated when we say so even though they say so themselves. We agree with them that the adoption of an arbitrary timetable for withdrawal would be unwise, given that it would obviously set a timetable for insurgent activity itself, but the Foreign Secretary suggested in her speech today a hopeful transfer of more responsibility to Iraqi forces. At the same time, I suspect that we all recognise that a partition of Iraq is unlikely to present a solution, other than an extraordinarily bloody and violent one, and that the military means available are no longer sufficient on their own to guarantee success.
If all those things are the case, immediate events in the politics and government of Iraq become the vital cog without which the wheels of western military force and international diplomacy cannot usefully turn. British and American efforts are therefore dependent on the ability of the Iraqi Government to achieve some of the things that the Foreign Secretary spoke about—a national reconciliation, about which she was so positive, stemming sectarian violence, disarming militias, finding agreement on the sharing of oil revenues, dealing with the appalling level of corruption and improving the effectiveness of economic reconstruction.
It may be necessary to bring greater pressure to do those things, together with an intensified effort to build up what is already one of the few possible success stories in Iraq—the creation of an army unquestionably loyal to its elected Government. I hope that the Defence Secretary will clarify the Government’s view of US proposals for increased involvement of troops in training Iraqi forces. A lot has been done already. Is there a similar line of thinking among our own Government? To what use will the £100 million offered by the Chancellor at the weekend actually be put? Our assessment of the importance of these domestic objectives and whether they can be realised within Iraq will surely determine the effectiveness of our military contribution and our international diplomacy. Only when we know that the Iraqi Government are capable of accomplishing those objectives can we all assess how long our military presence will be useful. The same applies to Afghanistan.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for international co-operation in Iraq. However, his own Back Benchers advocate leaving Europe, while the Front Benchers are talking about distancing themselves from American policy. If the unthinkable happened and his party came to power, whom would it work with in respect of international affairs?
I am not sure that that intervention was wholly up to the level of the debate so far, which is not about differences in European policy. I have emphasised the agreement with what the Foreign Secretary said about EU enlargement and working with the United States, so I shall carry on to make two more points, then let others speak.
We have troops in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, whose performance is one of extraordinary resilience and sometimes outright heroism. My hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Defence Secretary, has always said that there would be two unacceptable outcomes in Afghanistan: to fail to act or to act and fail. Government assessments in the past have been rather over-optimistic, including when the Defence Secretary said in July said that neither the Taliban nor the range of illegally armed groups posed a threat to the long-term stability of Afghanistan. Such assessments seem complacent now, and were seen as such at the time. If NATO’s deployment was informed by the same thinking, it is no wonder that serious difficulties have been encountered.
Again, not everything that should be done is in the gift of this country. The creation of an effective judiciary and the combating of a massive level of corruption must be carried out if we are not to face long-term failure, but other things are within our gift.
I shall give way to my hon. Friend in a moment, as he has been to Afghanistan so often.
The Government have been working on some of the things that need to be done, such as the Prime Minister’s announcement of aid for Pakistan at the weekend, but they have been slow to do other things.
Brigadier John Lorimer, who is shortly to take over command of British forces, has requested a number of Challenger tanks and Warriors, as well as an entire battalion. However, the answer that he has received is that his request is unlikely to be met. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to win the war against the Taliban, we must arm our troops with the right kit to perform the task?
There does seem to be a gap, to which my hon. Friend has pointed, between repeated prime ministerial assertions that our troops will of course have everything that they want, and reports, which often filter through, that they want a good deal more than has been provided for them. Our troops were short of helicopter lift for a long time, but have received only two additional Chinooks in recent months. Co-operation and relationships between the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence in Helmand province are often said to be poor.
It is appropriate that I should intervene at this stage, because the misinformation on which the previous intervention was based ought to be corrected. The press speculation about General Lorimer—[Hon. Members: “Brigadier Lorimer.”] I apologise. The speculation about Brigadier Lorimer was contained in an article in which he was quoted as knocking down the very suggestion that was made to support the article. I can confirm to the House what Brigadier Lorimer himself has confirmed, which is that the request that was allegedly reported in the press has not yet been made. There is of course a process for review of troops, but there is no truth in the assertion that a request has been made, which will be refused.
I am grateful for that intervention, although we are left in something of a grey area about whether the request is coming. I do not know what Brigadier Lorimer has said, but I know that he will be delighted to have been promoted to general by the Defence Secretary on the Floor of the House. Nevertheless, our troops and officers returning from Afghanistan often express concerns about such matters, which cannot simply be brushed aside.
Our calls—to add to the list of what ought to be done—for stronger co-ordination of the often duplicated international reconstruction efforts have been ignored. Those matters now need further attention, along with another major effort to obtain further help from our NATO allies. As the Foreign Secretary said, failure to do so will undermine NATO’s ability, not only in Afghanistan, but in every other area of alliance business.
On counter-narcotics, on which Britain is in the lead, the huge growth in opium cultivation this year of 59 per cent. surely calls for a reassessment of strategy. Other approaches, such as the licensed growing of opium for legal purposes, have been discounted, but it may be time at least to consider pilot projects in the future.
Finally, the Prime Minister has been right to emphasise the importance of breathing new life into the middle east peace process. However, it is important to recognise that that will not be easy, nor would it automatically solve the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan even if it was. Hopeful rhetoric about the peace process must not, therefore, become a substitute for fresh actions and reassessment in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, given the deepening crisis in Lebanon—where UN resolutions requiring the disarmament of Hezbollah are going entirely unimplemented—the endless stand-off in Gaza, and the steady separation of Palestinian and Israeli people, which suicide bombings and the response to them have brought about, a new international emphasis on middle east peace is of course desperately needed.
The leadership on that will have to come from America, although it cannot be successful without the support of many other nations. The Prime Minister said in September that he would dedicate himself, with the same commitment that he has given to Northern Ireland, to advancing peace between Israel and Palestine. We should like to know what that will mean in concrete terms and what initiatives will be involved.
We hope that Britain will be in the forefront of that effort, but it is vital to recognise that British influence in the middle east is at a low ebb. Many of the moderate nations of the middle east do not feel that they have been a priority for British diplomacy for some years. That has been a weakness in British foreign policy. This country needs a long-term and refreshed approach to the countries of the middle east, pursued for many years to come and across political parties, to deepen our political, cultural, economic and educational links with many Muslim countries.
No, I am so sorry, but I really must finish my remarks.
The need for a new approach is partly because of the same strategic reason why we are advocates of Turkish membership of the European Union, but it is also because strengthened alliances will be necessary to cope with all the situations that I have described, which reach beyond NATO, beyond Europe and beyond the transatlantic relationship. We also need those allies to help us to bring about the necessary reform of international institutions and treaties that are struggling to keep up with the rapid changes in the world, which include the United Nations and the NPT.
We should be the clear advocates of the reform of those institutions and of a struggle against terror which upholds our own highest values, while reaching out to new friends. I hope that the Government will increasingly be able not only to chart the way forward on the immediate crises that we are debating—and to accept some of the proposals that we have made—but to chart the way towards a coherent foreign policy on the middle east that would command genuine bipartisan support in the House.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on her opening remarks and to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), because it is important that we show a bipartisan view in the House on many of these issues. That has come across powerfully in the two speeches that we have heard from the Front Benches.
In his Mansion House speech, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke well about our close and enduring friendship with the United States. Long before 9/11, but more since, we have stood shoulder to shoulder with our American allies. My right hon. Friend emphasised that it was always right to keep that partnership strong. His personal commitment to the alliance came through when he said:
“Post 9/11, there were no half-hearted allies…There were allies and others.”
I firmly support that, and I speak from the point of view of someone who considers himself to be a Euro-Atlanticist. I believe strongly in a vibrant Europe being an equal partner with the United States, but it must be a true partnership, in which we do not always hitch our wagon to America’s star on foreign and defence policy. It must be a partnership in which there is a frank exchange of views between friends who might not always see eye to eye, but who remain firm friends and are totally honest with each other.
In our lifetimes, I believe that China will become an equal to and even overtake Europe and the United States economically. It will not be the first time in our history that we have faced an economic superpower, but it will be the first time that we have faced one devoid of our traditions of freedom and democracy, which we in western Europe and the United States have enjoyed for generations. For that we reason, we should all be Euro-Atlanticists.
But true and lasting friendship between Britain and the United States will endure only if we are open and frank with each other. We are equal in the friendship; we are not a client of the United States. When I was a defence Minister receiving briefings, I often felt that the present US Administration sometimes saw us as a client first and as a friend second. I have certainly felt that about some of the aspects of how we have handled the conflict in Iraq.
We entered the conflict with a plan for war, but the sad truth is that the US-led coalition had no plan for the peace. President Bush has been given a pretty powerful reminder of that in the mid-term elections, which saw disastrous results for his Republican party. The power of the ballot box has humbled an arrogant Government, who, while they controlled the White House and both houses of Congress, were prepared to ride roughshod over dissent and doubt. History tells all of us elected to public office that whatever our ambitions, we cannot lead people where they will not go.
There can be no more damning comment on the lack of clear policy for post-conflict Iraq than that by Henry Kissinger, who has made it clear that there will be no military victory in Iraq. A peaceful Iraq will emerge only if we engage with other powers in the region, which means Syria and Iran, as well as the moderate Arab powers to which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred in his Mansion House speech.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of an equal relationship with the United States, does he agree that the transfer of technology in relation to the joint strike fighter will be a key test of whether we have such a relationship? Does he agree that if we do not receive that transfer of technology, we should not enter the programme?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and Ministers in the Ministry of Defence have been working hard on that matter. I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s point.
Notwithstanding the events in Lebanon in the past 24 hours and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, those two countries could play as much of a role in creating a stable Iraq as they are now playing in destabilising it by fomenting terror and strife. We engaged in the Iraq conflict without, I believe, a clear plan B. We won the conflict, removed Saddam and disbanded his security forces, only to see the country slip into chaos. We now scramble about trying to train enough Iraqi forces, although I recognise the progress to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in her opening remarks.
British servicemen and women have laid down their lives in the conflict and our thoughts must be with them and their families. Our forces risk their lives there daily. The plain fact is that we want our troops home, but we must recognise that that is not possible at this time. But while our forces are there, of course, they need our full backing and support. Even more than that, they need us to work out and work for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The mantra that we are in Iraq as long as the Iraqi Government want us there will no longer wash. At first, that gave us some comfort and reassurance that we were following a process to bring about a stable and free country, from which we could then withdraw our forces. I, like many others, felt that there was light at the end of the tunnel. Sadly, despite the progress to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred in her opening remarks, at present, I cannot really see that tunnel.
The Prime Minister was right to say that we must engage with other powers in the region, and I am sure that he has felt that for some time. He certainly demonstrated a better grasp of the underlying problem than President Bush when he made every effort to revive the middle east peace process. He reaffirmed that strategy in his Mansion House speech.
True friends tell each other the truth, no matter how difficult and painful that might be from time to time. It is up to this Government to be honest and plain-speaking with our American friends. Too many young lives have been lost, and more are at risk as our soldiers struggle to contain the violence on the streets in Iraq. The Iraq conflict saw us take our eye off the ball in Afghanistan, and our British forces there are now engaged in some of the fiercest fighting that they have witnessed since the Korean war. That is another reason why we need the help of other countries in the region, and we must be grateful to Pakistan for the role that it has played. Would that our NATO partners put as much effort into helping to solve the issues in Afghanistan as Pakistan has done.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence has said that our forces are stretched but not overstretched. There is a fine line, however, and one that is easily crossed. The 1998 strategic defence review said that
“we must match the commitments we undertake to our planned resources, recognising that there will always be the risk of additional short-term pressures if we have to respond rapidly to an unforeseen crisis.”
Since the publication of the SDR, the world has much changed. Until 9/11, no one had heard much about the Taliban in Afghanistan or planned any large operations in Iraq. The NAO report on recruitment and retention in the armed forces should be read by every Member of the House. If our foreign policy objectives involve the use of military force, we must recognise that those will be realised only if we have the resources. We must not bite off more than we can chew.
Our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are fighting for our freedom as much as for the freedom of the peoples of those countries. We ask so much of the men and women of the British armed forces, and we owe them a duty of care. Throughout our history, we have challenged tyranny and injustice. We have been prepared to fight for freedom. About 10 days ago, our country mourned those who died in terrible world wars in the previous century. If we and our American friends do not now seek positive engagement with other countries across the middle east to stop the spread of terror in Afghanistan and to end the conflict in Iraq, many more of our young men and women will die. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has a good grasp of that, and he must ensure that the vacuum left in western foreign policy by the electoral reversals of President Bush is now filled.
Forty-three years ago today, the world lost a young President who recognised the foolishness of America trying to go it alone. He said:
“What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”
“I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life…worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope to build a better life for their children—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time”.
The world has changed beyond all recognition since then, but I hope that our Government will at least remind our American friends of that warning given by one of their own, which is still powerfully relevant today.
I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig). He was always courteous and a pleasure to deal with as a Minister in the Ministry of Defence. I regret to tell him that some cases, not least that of Mr. John Horsman, still need to be resolved, but I always appreciated his efforts on his and other people’s behalf. He has set out a series of ideas in his thoughtful contribution today, to which I hope that those on the Front Bench have listened carefully.
The Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary set out the vast range of issues that require urgent attention in the world today, not least the challenges of nuclear proliferation and climate change, which the Foreign Secretary was right to say is as much a matter of foreign policy as of anything else. As other Members have done, I want to pay tribute to our armed forces, which underlines how we are united in praising their professionalism, dedication and bravery in the most challenging of circumstances.
As for many right hon. and hon. Members, it was an honour for me to be asked to lay a wreath in my constituency on Remembrance Sunday. We must never forget the sacrifices that our armed forces make on our behalf. Equally, I pay tribute to those in the diplomatic service, who are often nowadays in the front line. Wherever they serve this country, they remain second to none in the regard in which they are held in the House and across the world.
This is not an easy time to be in either the armed forces or the diplomatic corps. As the Foreign Secretary said in her opening remarks, this is a fast-changing and uncertain world. That puts stresses and strains not experienced for generations on the diplomatic corps and armed forces. Nowhere is that more obvious than in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats opposed the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 and voted accordingly. Three weeks ago, we had the first full debate on the situation in Iraq in more than two years.
In the time that has elapsed since that debate the devastation in the country has continued, with at least 100 civilians killed every day, Iraqi politicians being attacked and kidnapped and scores of bodies being discovered by Iraqi police, apparently tortured and often killed in execution style. The statistics continue to make desperate reading. According to the United Nations 3,700 civilians were killed in October, many more than was originally thought, and the highest number since the war began. So far this month at least 47 United States troops have been killed, and five British soldiers have, tragically, lost their lives. That must surely give us pause for thought, if not here certainly across the Atlantic, where congressional elections have altered the political landscape and now promise to reshape the strategic framework for Iraq.
May I suggest that the issue of Iraqi civilians is not just a question of casualties but a question of displacement? According to some estimates, a couple of thousand families are being displaced each week as the sectarian violence grows and families concentrate on their ethic origins.
Sadly there are all too many details on which we could spend time this afternoon that illustrate the desperation in Iraq, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
In the United States the new Democratic Congress is weeks away from taking the reins, but already the Defence Secretary is gone and new urgency attends the work of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, old mantras remain. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said earlier in our debates on the Gracious Speech, phrases such as
“We will not cut and run”, “We will stay the course”, and “We will stay for as long as the Iraqi Government want us to”…are meaningless…when judged against the complexity of the circumstances in Iraq”.—[Official Report, 15 November 2006; Vol. 453, c. 34.]
The same point was made today by the right hon. Member for Islwyn.
It is not clear whether those were the lines used last week when the Prime Minister gave evidence to the Iraq study group by video link, but it is surely symbolic that he has resisted any serious public debate on a new Iraq strategy here in Britain in the past few months. By contrast, he was keen to offer his thoughts at length and in private to those in Washington who have been embraced by the President as the key to a new strategy.
Britain has reached a decisive moment. Our support for the efforts of our armed forces and so many others in Iraq has always been on the basis that we recognise our responsibilities to the Iraqis and to wider regional stability, but in the three and a half years since the invasion we have seen the strategy fail. Ultimately our duty is to our armed forces and their security. We must ensure that they have sufficient and appropriate resources, and a credible mission that they can hope to achieve.
The head of the Army, General Dannatt, showed that all those matters are now in question, and exposed the frailties of the situation. Mr. Baker, Mr. Hamilton and their colleagues in the Iraq study group carry a heavy burden. Beyond the USA and here in the UK, people watch and wait for a clear new direction on Iraq. It will have to be based on broader international involvement, not least by Iraq’s neighbours. Events on the ground risk overtaking the development of any new strategy. We see that Syria has renewed diplomatic relations with Iraq for the first time in more than 20 years. The Iraqi President has been invited to Iran for a conference on security. Clearly Iraq’s neighbours are beginning to recognise that they have a serious role to play in Iraq and its diplomacy as well as in other ways, and the new strategy from Washington must also recognise that.
None of this is easy, not least in the context of the serious problems elsewhere in the middle east, but the time has come when difficult choices must be contemplated. In this country we must consider the work of the Iraq study group and the response from the US Administration, but we must do so on British terms. In heeding the warning of General Dannatt we must, as our amendment suggests,
“announce proposals for a strategy for Iraq providing for a phased withdrawal of United Kingdom armed forces”
in months, not years.
Our military capabilities have been stretched in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months as Britain has taken on its extra responsibilities in Afghanistan. Five years after the invasion to oust the Taliban, the need to support a free and democratic Afghanistan—free from international terrorists—is unchanged, and for our own safety here at home we need to be successful. As has been said, huge progress has been made, not least thanks to the sustained efforts of our armed forces, diplomats and others, and also our European and NATO allies—but the successes are in danger, and our mission has clearly changed. Over the past six months, we have had to face up to the consequences of the disastrous diversion in Iraq as the Taliban have re-emerged more violent and more focused than ever. That has meant British soldiers fighting a war rather than keeping the peace.
Our armed forces face enormous challenges and terrible dangers. They must have the weaponry, the equipment and the assets that they need, and along with our NATO allies we must have a coherent strategy with the resources to make it work—but that will not provide the whole solution. Hearts and minds will not be won by military action alone. Such action must be one part of a concerted approach, with adequate resources to create new livelihoods that do not depend on the export of death and misery from the poppy fields. Building a new country is essential if we are to avoid another failed state; otherwise we are in danger of failing that state, and reaping the consequences here at home.
That is also true of the middle east. The horrors of yesterday’s events in Lebanon go beyond the terrible tragedy of Pierre Gemayel’s assassination. Whoever was responsible, and whoever lies behind whoever was responsible, has made the terrible calculation that to destabilise Lebanon further after the disastrous war with Israel earlier in the summer and the political manoeuvrings of recent weeks will advance their influence and cause. But to what end? If there is one recurring lesson in the middle east it is surely that violence generates violence and disaster for all the peoples of the region, and even by the bloody standards of the conflicts of the last few decades, this has been a truly appalling year.
In Israel, Lebanon and Gaza, too many continue to pay the highest price. Even now, the ceasefire in southern Lebanon is fragile: the risks of a return to conflict are still high, and the provocations remain. The shelling of Israeli towns by Hezbollah and Hamas was undoubtedly the origin of the conflicts earlier this year, and in recent weeks the shelling of Israelis from Gaza has created more fear, injury and death. In such circumstances there can be no doubt that Israel has a right to defend itself, but there are constraints under international law. Once again in recent weeks—as we saw earlier in the year—the scale of Israel’s military response has been disproportionate. While this goes on, the prospects for peace remain limited. Nevertheless, the two-state solution must remain the basis for future peace, justice and security for Israel and the Palestinians. Israelis must enjoy the right to live securely within their borders, and Palestinians must have the prospect of a viable state that offers them security as well.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the subdivision of the west bank by the wall, the barrier and the trenches, and also by access roads, rules out the establishment of the Palestinian state that the Palestinians have sought for so long?
My hon. Friend is right. The continuation of those policies by the Israeli Government certainly undermines the possibility of securing a viable Palestinian state.
A number of things will have to happen to put us back on the road to peace. We will need to see some success from the current desperate attempts to form a unity Government in the Palestinian territories. We support all who say that Hamas must recognise the state of Israel, must renounce violence, and must accept the existing peace accords as a basic premise for acceptance by the rest of the world. Those will remain the conditions for the development of long-term peace and the key to future assistance, beyond the basic humanitarian aid that is so desperately needed right now.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that one of the problems is the enforced poverty in Palestine resulting from the west’s refusal to pay money directly to the Palestinian Authority, which has created mass unemployment, along with the inability of Palestinian producers to export any goods for a meaningful price? The cycle of poverty and deprivation continues, and the violence also continues as a result.
Those are important points. It is essential for the Palestinians to be able to export their goods, trade and earn money to keep the basics of life going. Equally, although the Government have taken credit for the temporary international mechanism, it is a tragedy that it took so long to put that in place. As has been made clear from interventions in our debate, the retention by the Israeli authorities of millions of dollars of tax receipts due to the Palestinian territories is a desperate way of undermining their viability and the basics of life there. I hope that in the reply to the debate we can be given some further information about how our Government are pressing the Israelis to make that money available, perhaps through the temporary international mechanism, or in another way.
For the world to address these issues, we need to get back to the road map. At times it appears that parts of it have been shredded and the timetable is embarrassingly out of date, but it remains the only starting point for a peace plan that will be the key to stability, not only in Israel and Palestine, but across the middle east. Over the next few months that will be the key test for the Quartet, but especially for our Government.
At the Guildhall, the Prime Minister rightly said that there needs to be a whole middle east strategy, starting with Israel-Palestine and involving Iran and Syria, too. In many ways, that will be unpalatable. We rightly expend much effort on the nuclear crisis in Iran—as the shadow Foreign Secretary did earlier in our debate. If it were to develop a nuclear weapon, that would be a catastrophe for us all. We cannot lose sight of those countries’ involvement with Hezbollah and Hamas but, regardless of how difficult the diplomatic footwork might be, we need to have engagement with those countries—robust but proper engagement.
There is talk of a peace conference, and last week some of our partners in Europe took the lead with an initiative setting out a five-point plan. A peace conference that addresses those points might help us to find a way back to the Quartet’s road map, as the Foreign Secretary put it in her recent speech at the Royal United Services Institute. It is a mark of the desperation of recent months that the international community has so badly lost its bearings.
Beyond the middle east, we face a broad range of challenges. In Darfur, countless people die and suffer, and the regime carries on without any sensitivity to international concerns. As the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made clear today, there needs to be a recognition in Sudan that the international community must be involved to tackle the killings and the maiming and all the other crimes that are being committed. We must not let up the pressure on the regime to sort out a ceasefire, and we must make it plain that we will not relent, and that we will press for tougher measures at the United Nations if it does not comply, including sanctions.
I do not wish to minimise at all the terrible tragedies in Darfur and Iraq, but is the hon. Gentleman aware that, hidden away from the cameras and with no media coverage, more people die each week in Zimbabwe than in Darfur or Iraq? Given that neither the Foreign Secretary nor the shadow Foreign Secretary mentioned Zimbabwe, would the hon. Gentleman like to give his party’s view of what should be happening in Zimbabwe?
The hon. Lady has been an effective campaigner on that issue in recent years, and it is important for her to put her comments on the record today. In fairness, the Front-Bench Members who have contributed made comprehensive speeches which I hope, in their broad sweep, would include concerns about Zimbabwe. The Liberal Democrats remain appalled at what goes on in Zimbabwe allegedly in the name of democracy, but in fact only for the benefit of President Mugabe and his kleptocracy. The Prime Minister once said that what is happening in Africa was a scar on the conscience of the world—and what is happening in Zimbabwe is one of the biggest parts of that scar.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves on to another topic, I wish to raise a matter that connects Zimbabwe and Sudan: the role of the Chinese. China is the most influential nation in terms of putting pressure on Mugabe and the regime in Khartoum—although it must be understood that the Khartoum regime is a coalition, and that not all the people in it are necessarily guilty of the problems in Darfur. As China could do more than any other nation to put pressure on those regimes, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is up to the British Government to talk continually to the Chinese so that they understand their world responsibilities?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and people might have been slightly alarmed by the recent international summit that China hosted for African leaders. The nature of Chinese diplomacy in Africa is very clear, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we must hope that the Foreign Secretary and her Ministers make it abundantly clear at regular intervals to China that it has important influence with those countries, and must use it.
I wish to focus on one further issue in particular: cluster munitions. Earlier this summer up to 1 million bomblets were fired on Lebanon, and it is reported that only 50 per cent. detonated on impact. Of the cluster-bomb strikes, 90 per cent. occurred in the last 72 hours of the conflict in Lebanon. That has left up to 500,000 devices that are still live, littering hillsides, villages, orchards and fields in civilian areas. Reports say that so far at least 21 Lebanese civilians, including children, have been killed and more than 100 have been injured by late-detonating bomblets.
On Monday, Israel admitted that its use of cluster munitions broke its own army rules. General Halutz said that there were enough grounds from a preliminary inquiry to convene an official investigation into whether court-martial offences had been committed. Such admissions are welcome, and we hope that an official investigation will be undertaken, and that those responsible will be held to account. The point is, however, that such munitions should be banned; as the Secretary of State for International Development has said, they are equivalent to land mines.
What is being done to get them banned? Earlier today, the Prime Minister did not address that question when it was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie), who asked about Britain’s role at the conference in Geneva last week. Is it right that Britain obstructed progress at those talks? Also, can we be told a little more about the distinction that we understand is beginning to be made between “dumb” and “smart” cluster munitions—a distinction which, frankly, very few people outside the United Kingdom Government seem to accept? All such munitions should be banned, and Britain should be taking a lead in that.
Let me respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman has made. On the use of cluster bombs in Lebanon, I hope that he is aware that we have called on the Government of Israel not only to make a public statement about their use, but to produce maps indicating where they were used. I also hope that he is aware that the Department for International Development has provided more than £200,000 to the Mines Advisory Group, and we have a commitment to provide £1 million to the United Nations Mines Action Service, particularly to address the issue in Lebanon.
The hon. Gentleman raised a different point about the initiative. Actually, we took the lead. It is nonsense to say that no nation other than the United Kingdom understands the distinction between “dumb” and “not dumb” cluster munitions. At a conference at the beginning of November, we took the lead in trying to get a mandate to discuss those issues between the states parties—the convention on certain conventional weapons parties. We have obtained that. The Norwegian initiative, which I think the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) was referring to in his question today to the Prime Minister, would take the issue outside that forum. That means that it would be discussed by people—very well-meaning people, no doubt—who do not use or produce cluster weapons. We have taken the lead in getting the issue discussed among producers and users of cluster weapons, because we think that that is the most important step forward to take.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for her intervention. On her first point, several months have now passed since those cluster munitions were dropped on southern Lebanon, and it is unacceptable still not to have maps or other assistance in identifying where they are. I hope that the pressure she mentioned is kept up at a very high level indeed.
On the second point, it has been very difficult to get information on the Government’s stance on cluster munitions, and what the Foreign Secretary has said is perhaps the most extensive statement that we have thus far had. I suggest to her that she might wish to make a written statement—or perhaps an oral statement—to the House, so that we can quiz her, or other Ministers, about the Government’s policy on that; that would be very welcome.
As we approach a new era in Britain with a new Prime Minister, the UK desperately needs to re-establish its credentials internationally by rebalancing its foreign policy. The relationship with America will always be of primary importance, but the world increasingly needs a European voice with British emphasis. Britain must and can be a key player in the common foreign and security policy. There are a growing number of issues in respect of which it is only right that Europe have a common position, even if, on occasion, that differentiates us from the United States of America. I am thinking of issues such as Russia’s increasing assertiveness and the middle east peace process, both of which impact directly on Europe and its borders, and on which Europe can and should have a significant influence.
That does not mean, however, that we will be competing with the USA; we must be complementary, if not always polite. In recent years, the relationship with America has often been uncomfortable, but as US Administrations and British Governments come and go, these issues can be fixed without undermining our most important bilateral relationship. However, repositioning ourselves in the mainstream of Europe and the international multilateral system underpinned by international law is one of our biggest challenges. The need to do so is the saddest legacy of the present Prime Minister.
I want to welcome the visit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Pakistan, and to emphasise the important links between Pakistan and this country. I very much hope that these improved links will lead at long last to the resolution of the agonising problem of Kashmir, which has tormented that beautiful but tragic part of the world for so long.
I also appreciate the reference in the Gracious Speech to the situation in Palestine, which remains one of the worst injustices in the world. The fact that there are other tragedies does not detract from the nature of that tragedy. What is more, it is a running sore that will poison the middle east until a solution has been arrived at. Members in all parts of the House have condemned the assassination of Mr. Gemayel in Lebanon, but it has to be pointed out that the Israeli Government carry out targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders regularly and frequently, often killing innocent people in doing so. The Israelis complain—justifiably—about the impact on their country and its morale of rockets fired from the Gaza strip on to, for example, the home town of the Israeli Defence Minister, Amir Peretz. But they now admit that they have used cluster bombs illegally in their invasion of Lebanon.
Let us remember that, although this was called a war between Israel and Lebanon, it was not: it was a war between Israel and Hezbollah, which was accompanied by an Israeli invasion of, and appalling damage and casualties to, Lebanon. That invasion, which achieved none of its objectives—the two kidnapped soldiers remain kidnapped, and the threat from Hezbollah remains and will continue—attracted international attention. However, it must be pointed out that, although that invasion was deeply culpable, it is not the only Israeli invasion and aggression that has taken place in the middle east. Israeli soldiers have been kidnapped by Hezbollah and by Hamas, but the Israelis themselves kidnap people—including many members of the Palestinian Government—but of course, they call it “arrest”, not kidnapping, so that is all right.
Gaza remains the hidden tragedy in which Israelis indiscriminately slaughter innocent civilians, including many children. When 13 members of one family, including children and a baby, were killed by the Israelis a short while ago, the Israeli Prime Minister called it a “technical error”. Just imagine what he, other Israelis and militant Jewish organisations would have said if Jews and Israelis had been killed and it had simply been dismissed as a technical error.
This Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister have played an extremely active role in trying to bring about a peace process, and they were largely responsible for the formation of the Quartet, an issue with which I shall deal before I sit down.
The people who were killed as a result of that “technical error” are still just as dead as if they had been killed deliberately. Corporal Shalit, who was kidnapped in the summer and whose kidnapping is the stated reason for Israeli aggression in Gaza, remains unfree. So the situation remains: the Israelis kill and maim, their own citizens are killed and murdered—by rockets, for example—and their soldiers die. They achieve none of their objectives, and they will achieve none until a peace process is arrived at.
Meanwhile, every single Palestinian is in grinding poverty, and there is widespread unemployment. Palestinian unemployment, poverty and deprivation, which are at third-world levels, are made even more unacceptable by the fact that the Palestinians live minutes away from Israelis who possess first-world standards of living. Such living standards are often a result of subsidy by the United States Government, who also subsidise Israeli armaments.
The Palestinians are not only forced into grinding poverty; they are humiliated at the 300 or more checkpoints that the Israelis have erected, and which impede Palestinians’ freedom of movement. I led our House of Commons and House of Lords official Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to the Palestinian territories just under a year ago, and we were treated abominably by Israeli soldiers, who threatened us at gunpoint. But we experienced that for only a few days; for the Palestinians, that is their life, every single day, with no let-up. That is totally unacceptable to any civilised society, including the civilised society upon which Israel was founded, and according to which it conducted itself for so long under enlightened leadership. Such leadership is distinct from this ineffable Israeli Prime Minister, whose rating has fallen in the Israeli polls to 7 per cent., and—I am very sorry to say—from the Defence Minister and leader of the Israeli Labour party, who has tarnished that party’s wonderful record as the founding party of Israel.
The wall—the illegal wall, which was condemned by the International Court of Justice—is still being built, as has been pointed out. However, none of what the Israelis are doing is doing them any good whatsoever. The wall is not only being built in Palestinian territory and creating deprivation and separation, but is turning Israel into a self-created ghetto. My family came to this country from the ghettos of eastern Europe. Israel was created to ensure that no Jews ever again would have to live in a ghetto. So the Israelis have now created their own ghetto, in which their own Jewish and Arab citizens have to live, and in which they have no freedom of movement whatsoever. Therefore, the situation is not only appalling for the Palestinians, but for the Israelis. They are still getting away with murder, and there is no point in pretending otherwise. They kill large numbers of people, whether through technical errors, as they call them, or in other ways, and destroy families, none of which does the Israelis any good, let alone anyone else.
It is with deep regret that I say that while the United States supports the neocons who still surround President Bush even after his electoral setback, the Israelis will be impervious to international opinion. It is no use appealing to the good will of Ehud Olmert, because he does not have any. It is no use appealing to the good will of Amir Peretz or Shimon Peres, because they have sunk the noble identity of the Israeli Labour party into the alliance with Olmert and others. Now we have the Yisrael Betenu party—a racist party that wants to ship off Palestinians—sitting around the same Cabinet table as Labour leaders in Israel. That is absolutely obscene.
On many occasions, I have advocated economic sanctions against Israel. I still believe that if the Israelis will not listen to reason and act with reason, economic sanctions are the only way.
The Gracious Speech did not mention the armed forces or defence as such at all. It did say:
“My Government…will…support the new Iraqi Government in its efforts to build an enduring constitutional settlement, and to assist the Government of Afghanistan.”
This would be an appropriate place to put in a warm tribute to our armed forces, who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to give effect and meaning to that support.
In the Session ahead, defence will be an absolutely key issue. The Defence Committee will play its part in holding the Government to account and ensuring that their policy is subjected to public scrutiny, that the concerns of the armed forces are heard, and that the House is well informed. At the moment, UK troops serve all around the world, in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Balkans and in a number of other countries, but in the first quarter of this financial year 20 per cent. of our regular forces were deployed, and nearly 26 per cent. of the Army, an unheard-of proportion.
The armed forces are clearly under great pressure. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that they are stretched but not overstretched. Perhaps it is unfair to accuse the Ministry of Defence of refusing to define what “overstretched” means, because it will never accept that our armed forces are overstretched. Any normal definition of the word would mean that the armed forces cannot do what they are being asked to do. Because of the “can do” attitude of our armed forces, they will always do their utmost to do what they are asked. Nevertheless, there are worrying breaches of the harmony guidelines. Some 15 per cent. of the Army had exceeded harmony guidelines at the end of the last financial year. However, some people might suggest that the harmony guidelines are meaningless, because they come into play only when people have been out of their own beds for 10 days.
It is essential that the Government revisit the defence planning assumptions. We have been operating way above those assumptions for years. Everything is suffering, especially training, which is the very root of the high quality of our armed forces. The Defence Committee will address some of those concerns in our forthcoming report on the MOD’s annual report and accounts.
On equipment, the Defence Committee has highlighted some concerns about equipment shortages, especially helicopters and adequately armoured vehicles, which have been mentioned in the debate already.
The Defence Committee has discussed the shortages of helicopters. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that several private companies have made offers to the MOD to provide logistical support, thereby freeing up military helicopters, especially in Afghanistan. Ministers have told us that there would be a problem with liability and insurance, but I understand from at least one of those companies that insurance is available on the open market and the liability questions no longer arise. We may therefore be missing an opportunity to take some pressure off military helicopters.
Indeed. My hon. Friend, who makes a valuable contribution to the Defence Committee, has made those points in the Committee and I know that he will continue to do so.
The House expects and requires that our troops on operations should be equipped to the standard that they deserve and the public expect. The Prime Minister’s undertaking that troops will get the equipment that they need is very welcome, but what exactly did he mean? Where will we find the equipment? Will it be at the expense of the MOD’s other programmes? We are yet to see any concrete results or any clear sign that the MOD is seizing the opportunity that the Prime Minister offers. Perish the thought that it was just spin. We have to ensure that it was not and that he gives effect, as he promised again in Prime Minister’s questions today that he would, to that promise.
The way in which the MOD approaches the acquisition and maintenance of equipment is being radically restructured. The Defence Procurement Agency and the Defence Logistics Organisation will merge in April next year. The DPA spends some £6 billion a year and the DLO some £9 billion. The new organisation will spend some 40 per cent. of the MOD’s budget. I hope that the change will improve the MOD’s through-life management of equipment programmes, but the Defence Committee will consider the implications of the merger in our report on defence procurement, which we hope to publish next month.
The defence industrial strategy, which was published about this time last year, was widely welcomed and we will take evidence from the Minister with responsibility for defence procurement in December. However, perhaps the most important defence decision to be made this Session was not mentioned in the Gracious Speech and that is the issue of the strategic nuclear deterrent. It is surprising that it was not mentioned, although it perhaps will not require legislation. We look forward to the White Paper, which the Minister said yesterday, in evidence to the Defence Committee, would be published before Christmas and would indicate the Government’s preferred option. We have been promised a debate on the issue and it would be helpful to know from the Secretary of State for Defence when that is likely to happen. I hope that he will also confirm that the debate will be followed by a vote, which could affect the decision one way or another. The Defence Committee has been engaged in a series of inquiries on the future of the deterrent and we hope to publish a report on the manufacturing and skills base before Christmas.
My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary rightly suggested that it was time to review how the UK and our allies approach our collective defence. The Defence Committee is planning an inquiry into the whole future of NATO and European defence in the new year, because it is a crucial issue for the whole of our defence strategy.
My final point—I am conscious that many other hon. Members wish to speak—is about money. This Session will see the outcome of the spending review of 2007. Currently, there is a public focus on the importance of the armed forces. For the first time in many years, I have the sense that a growing number of people in this country believe that we should be spending more on defence. I hope that the Ministry of Defence will feel empowered to argue for a strong outcome in the defence budget, and a reversal of its long-term decline. I hope, too, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will feel obliged—or even happy—to give it.
I should like to talk about the Government’s policy on international development. The Queen’s Speech made several references to that important subject, and I welcome what was said about governance, which I assume includes Zimbabwe. I also welcome what was said about Darfur, which was rightly the subject of exchanges at Prime Minister’s questions. It was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and on several other occasions in this debate. I am also concerned about trade, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend gave us her thoughts on the current situation as she sees it.
This debate is the first on these topics since my International Development (Reporting and Transparency) Act 2006 received Royal Assent the day before we broke up for our summer break. It therefore represents an opportunity to thank the Government and the House for accepting the legislation that I promoted, but I want especially to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development for the steps he has taken since to ensure its implementation. In a letter to me, he wrote:
“The Act will ensure that the commitments in the Government’s new White Paper are turned into concrete actions that accelerate progress towards the Millennium Development Goals.”
He considered that my Act would help the Government in reporting to the House and in introducing the sort of transparency that he believes is important. If time allows, I hope to say more about transparency later in my speech. I therefore congratulate the Department for International Development on its intention to set out the information required under the Act in an annual report to both Houses, and in a statistical report every October or November.
More widely, I welcome the support shown by non-governmental organisations for the Government’s focus on both the quantity and quality of aid. They accept that we have a responsibility to justify how well resources are being used. NGOs accept, as we do, that Government policy in the modern world is about poverty reduction, including good governance, and that it unashamedly challenges corruption. The White Paper on governance contained 180 action points, with which this country aims to tackle the factors keeping people in poverty.
After all the events of last year—the Gleneagles summit, the Make Poverty History campaign, the great march in Edinburgh and the Live 8 concerts—we welcome the Government’s focus. It is clear that their policies are based on an undertaking to ensure that international development work is competent and honest, both here and in developing countries.
I also welcome the references in the Queen’s Speech to climate change, which the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development has said is the most serious long-term threat to development. The Chancellor’s international finance facility for immunisation is also welcome. It is an extremely positive project, but what is most appealing is that, when it was launched, virtually all the faith group leaders were represented here in London. They wanted to associate themselves with a project that addresses the fact that so many children in 70 countries are dying of preventable diseases. Those deaths can be prevented if children receive the immunisation to which the project is committed.
I welcome the fact that the Government have said that they will commit £1.38 billion to the project over the next 20 years. Even if this Government do not remain in power for that long, I am sure that the commitment will be honoured. That will help our appeals to communities and Churches to buy bonds so that we can implement a policy that will mean that 500 million children will be vaccinated by 2015.
The White Paper on development talks about the Government’s intention to double spending on development education. All hon. Members know from their visits to schools how important that is. For example, in Rosehall high school in Coatbridge in my constituency, I recently heard an excellent debate on these matters, and I saw evidence that the leadership of Mr. Stephen Purdie and Mr. Charles Fawcett had forged a link between Scotland and Malawi. The result was that a village there gained access to clean water that it did not previously have.
Today, the House must call for international co-operation to achieve the millennium development goals. I am acutely aware that Germany, which holds the EU presidency, has a role to play. Recently, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development assured me, in the House, that the German Government believe that Africa remains very much at the top of the aid agenda. That is very appropriate, given the influence even today of the Brandt report. It was compiled by the former German Chancellor and remains highly relevant to the issues associated with international development and the challenge to global poverty.
I also want to offer my congratulations to DFID on its recent contribution of £90 million towards the implementation of the Tanzanian Government’s national strategy for economic growth and poverty reduction. Tanzania deserves praise for its recent progress towards achieving the millennium development goals in primary education and infant mortality. If the EU is to play a greater role, we must continue to strive towards the harmonisation agenda agreed at Paris two years ago. That means encouraging greater Europe-wide multilateral aid. I therefore fully endorse the proposal made by Simon Maxwell of the Overseas Development Institute earlier this year for a new European millennium development goal fund. Initially, it would aim to secure voluntary annual contributions of €5 million, with the objective of increasing the focus on the world’s poorest people by means of setting agreed milestones for the fund. The milestones would be clearly visible to the contributing states and would thus increase accountability to European taxpayers and developing countries.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to setting up a £100 million governance and transparency fund to strengthen civil society and the media so that citizens can hold their Governments to account. Again, I hope that laying out the information required by my Act will serve to set an example and ensure that transparency is accepted as a two-way process.
Finally, I want to touch on a major issue that been raised several times today—conflict prevention. The DFID paper is right to address that matter, and it is absolutely right that the Queen’s Speech should have been so specific on Darfur. I hope that the Government will outline the progress that has been made by the UN Peacebuilding Commission that was recently launched in New York. Those issues are important. The challenge of globalisation is one that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to address. We want to eradicate world poverty, and in doing that we will have the support of the British people. The more information we give, the more transparency we introduce; and the greater the accountability, the more the British people will tell Members on both sides of the House that, on those issues, we are on the right lines.
I will be blunt: we have spent the past decade umbilically linked to the foreign policy of two American Presidents, and it is time that we had our own British foreign policy once again. In the past five years, the world has changed significantly, particularly in one regard: although the United States is still immensely powerful, her aura of invincibility died in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. There are now other powers and other challenges, and other forces, such as China, India and Russia, are emerging. That makes redundant the simplistic Bush-Blair analysis of the world, with its view of good versus bad, and democracy against the axis of evil. As a result, the age of hard power is making way for the soft power of dialogue and diplomacy, and our foreign and military strategies need to reflect that.
We, along with the United States, are playing the wrong game by the wrong rules at the wrong time, and we need to cut the umbilical link between our Prime Minister and the United States President. That means that we should come home from Iraq. In Afghanistan, we should pull out of Helmand and concentrate once again on the central area around Kabul. As part of reviving the middle east process, we should start to talk not just to Syria, but to Hamas and Hezbollah.
Talk of staying in Iraq
“until the job is done”—[Official Report, 18 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 867.]
has become meaningless. We are told that that would prevent chaos, but what, if not chaos, stalks the streets of Iraq today? According to the Iraqi Government, 150,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003, and according to the United Nations, 3,700 people were killed in October alone this year. We are told that staying in Iraq would mean winning Iraqi hearts and minds, yet neighbourhoods are now too hostile for us to enter. The Prime Minister defines “the job” as defeating terrorism, yet there was no terrorism in Iraq until we went there, and it is there now because the absence of the promised comprehensive reconstruction plan created a vacuum into which the terrorists surged. What the Government really mean by when “the job is done” is when the United States President decides, for whatever reason, to bring American troops home, but it is wrong for the safety of British troops to be held hostage to that. I value immensely our partnership with America, but we must never confuse partnership with unquestioning compliance.
We have been in Iraq for three and a half difficult years, and during that time we have achieved much of which we can be proud, but we are becoming part of the problem. Our brave troops in Iraq have done everything that we have asked of them and more. It is time, with honour and dignity, to bring them home. The best hope for a stable Iraq is a focus that is not quasi-colonial—that is the situation now—but regional. James Baker is right: Iranian and Syrian involvement may not achieve our original aim, but it has a better chance of bringing order and cohesion than anything that we can hope to do.
The situation in Afghanistan is hard, too. In military terms, it is, in the long term, unwinnable, so we have to change our approach. Unlike with Iraq, we cannot simply come home, as to do so would reopen the door to the Taliban and al-Qaeda and their international terrorism. However, we should not be in Helmand. As the House knows, we went there on a false prospectus. The best chance of stabilising Afghanistan is from the centre. If we look at history, we see that pacification from the outside has never worked. We need to rebuild confidence in Kabul and in the central area. We must effectively undermine the warlords and drug barons who hold the Afghan farmers in hock—that is the hold that they have over the farmers; the issue is not just the poppy. We must offer the people of Afghanistan better incomes and better lives, and we must abandon the conceit that Afghanistan is a task for the west alone. India, China and the “stans” all have a direct interest in a balanced, non-fundamentalist Afghanistan, and we should seek to involve them.
There is the tragedy of Israel and the Palestinians to consider, too. I fully understand Israel’s need for, and right to, security, but it will never be achieved by blowing up, rather than building, bridges, or by building, rather than pulling down, walls. Walls may protect in the short term, but in the longer term they divide and inflame. Our recent history should have taught us that, if nothing else. The abiding goal must be a secure Israel and an autonomous Palestine, living peacefully alongside each other. We, as friends of both, can help to build confidence between them and their neighbours, not least in Lebanon. Last summer’s war, and the destruction and human suffering that accompanied it, has made that much more difficult, and the situation has become much tenser.
The tragic assassination of Pierre Gemayel inevitably made that tension much worse, as it clearly was intended to do. There are those who simply do not want a peaceful middle east, but for all our sakes they must not be allowed to succeed. We should listen to the brave words of Mr. Gemayel’s father, who last night called for peace and prayer in place of violence. There is a new urgency to rebuild trust. I long for the people of Israel to achieve the peace and stability that their history owes them but has never delivered. I long, too, for the Palestinians to achieve a recognition of their rights, which has too often been denied to them; the two are not mutually exclusive.
A new opening narrative is needed, one in which the real concerns, grievances and aspirations of people on all sides are acknowledged and, if not agreed, at least respected. That narrative would become the backdrop against which positive dialogue can begin. The old road map is dead, and its timelines are part of history. In any event, its lack of flexibility was obstructive. A new process must be initiated, and a genuine ceasefire, fully observed by all sides, is a necessary precursor. That itself should be preceded by the freeing of those on all sides who are improperly detained. The new process should include all those who must play a part in securing a two-state solution in a stable middle east. Prospects of renewed engagement with Syria are therefore welcome, but “inclusion” must mean Hamas and Hezbollah, too.
For better or worse, Hamas is the democratically elected majority party in the Palestinian Authority, and Hezbollah is a significant part of the democratic structure of Lebanon. There can be no viable Palestinian state without the participation of Hamas, and there can be no secure Israel without an enduring peace agreement with Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Clearly, Israel cannot, at this time, engage with those who use terror to threaten her people, her security, and indeed her very existence, but others can and should do so.
Iraq, Afghanistan and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have a common theme, which the Foreign Secretary touched on in her speech. In each case, military action may contain terrorism, but it will not, in the long run, defeat it. Fighting must give way to talking, and our country has a role to play in that. That is why we once again need a British foreign policy.
I agree with a great deal of what the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but I want to concentrate on Iraq. My view—and it was reflected in the way that I voted in 2003—is that if Saddam could satisfy the UN weapons inspectors that the regime had no weapons of mass destruction, there could be no basis for war whatever. We know that he had no such weapons, but clearly the weapons inspectors were not fully satisfied, and I am aware that they wanted more time. They could not say that they were satisfied with what the regime said, or that what the regime said was true. Very few people, including Members of the House, believed Saddam when he said that he had no WMD.
Many of us took the view that if the invasion went ahead, as it did eventually, it would destroy one of the most murderous dictatorships around. There have been many evil dictatorships since 1945, and Saddam’s was undoubtedly one of the worst. The other evening, on a Channel 4 programme, we saw corpses that were located after the mass murder that had been conducted by the regime in the 1980s. Many other murders have been committed by that regime. Who does not welcome the fact that the regime has gone? Surely, no one can question the fact if there had been no invasion Saddam would still be in power, his sons would follow him and, for all we know, once the international pressure was off the regime would have again started to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. Why not? He certainly had such weapons previously.
Some positive things have occurred, as has been acknowledged. Free elections have taken place in Iraq and a Government were duly elected. Other measures have been initiated, trade unions have been legalised, and there were the beginnings of a society with civil liberties and the rule of law. However, we all have to acknowledge that things have not turned out that way. Far from it.
As has been said, hardly a day goes by without the brutal murder of a large number of civilians. Time and again, bombs go off in marketplaces with the aim of causing maximum death and suffering to wholly innocent people going about their daily business—shopping or going to and from work. Those are the people who are being murdered. It is an unusual day if we do not hear news of further terrible executions and mass murder. The occupation troops cannot prevent that; if they could, they would obviously do so. Our troops have enough difficulty trying to protect themselves. Nor can the elected Government do anything about the situation. They are impotent; there is no way that they can undertake the necessary security precautions for their people. Indeed, it is suspected that some of the police—and, perhaps, some Iraqi troops—are involved in sectarian murders.
There is a tendency to tell us how many Iraqis have died over the past three years. We could argue about the numbers, although I do not particularly want to do so, but those who talk about the number of people who have died should point out how they died. Since the end of the invasion, in the main, people have died as a result of terrorist action—it was not due to the occupation troops, but was outright murder by terrorists. The last thing those terrorists want is a democratic society in Iraq.
As I said in my intervention during the Prime Minister’s speech last Wednesday, we need an urgent reassessment of whether British troops should remain in Iraq. I make no apology for how I voted on Iraq. I do not say, as some are alleged to have said, that I trusted the Prime Minister—we are all adult in this place and we can make up our own minds. I certainly did, for the reasons that I stated. If I felt that British troops staying on in Iraq could bring about anything that approached a decent democratic society, I should not have the slightest hesitation in saying so. However, I do not believe that the British or any occupation troops can bring about any such solution; it is up to the Iraqis themselves and we should recognise that.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and others that it is no longer any use to say that we must wait until the job is finished. What do we mean by that, for heaven’s sake? Another argument is that we will have to stay until the Iraqi Government ask us to go, but obviously a Government who have no real power and cannot rule in any meaningful sense will not say to British, American or any other troops, “Please go”. It would not make sense. We have to recognise the situation as it is and not as we want it to be.
It is argued that if we leave now or in the near future it will make the situation worse, but that could be said at any time in the future—for example, next year, the year after or in 2009. At what stage will we realise that we need a continued reduction of British troops leading to their leaving Iraq entirely? I do not imagine that anyone agrees that we should leave immediately, but it should certainly be our aim for the very near future.
Majority opinion went along with the war, and even when no weapons of mass destruction were found most people in Britain understood the nature of the regime that had been destroyed. All the indications now are that most people in this country and the United States—reference has been made to the congressional elections—can see no purpose in the troops staying in Iraq for much longer. It would indeed be a mistake to maintain the current position indefinitely. We need to make preparations to leave. Public support for our troops remaining in Iraq is draining away and the Government need to recognise that.
Many Members have spoken about the situation in the middle east. I want to concentrate on the Government’s overall foreign policy record over the past nine years. Although I said the Government’s foreign policy, it has actually been the Prime Minister’s foreign policy because, more than any Prime Minister since Neville Chamberlain, he has imposed his own will, probably disregarded the views of his own party and persisted in whatever view he has taken.
The comparisons with Neville Chamberlain may be even more appropriate than either he or the Prime Minister would be comfortable with: both started from a position of great dogmatic certainty; both adopted a position of great moral rectitude; both had a touching belief that, as a result of their personal efforts, cruel tyrants could be persuaded to change their policies; and both have seen their foreign policy end in failure. Of course, Margaret Thatcher often intervened in foreign policy, but there was a considerable difference compared with this Prime Minister. She was always more concerned with the realities of power than with the rhetoric, and was wise enough to appoint as her Foreign Secretaries people such as Lord Carrington, Geoffrey Howe and Douglas Hurd, who could speak with great weight and authority and often curbed some of her enthusiasms.
The Prime Minister has pursued a proactive foreign policy over the past nine years, often involving the use of our armed forces. It has been a sort of modern gunboat diplomacy policy but, unfortunately, at a time when we are severely short of gunboats. That is part of the difficulty, because there was a failure to realise that defence is the handmaiden of foreign policy. As Frederick the Great once said:
“Diplomacy without arms is like music without instruments.”
Many of the Prime Minister’s speeches adopt a high ethical tone and as a consequence his foreign policy has been one of humanitarian interventionism, starting with Sierra Leone, then Kosovo and now, for all practical purposes, Iraq, where it is no longer defended on any grounds other than the ending of Iraqi tyranny. The problem that the Prime Minister faces is that he has approached those matters with a combination of Atlanticist fervour, muscular Christianity and political vanity. With the possible exception of Sierra Leone, a relatively minor intervention that was widely endorsed around the world, the other approaches have been severely defective.
The House should be reminded of Kosovo, because it was an unfortunate precedent that led directly to what we now see in Iraq. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Kosovo was an example of NATO declaring war when it had suffered no provocation and had the support of neither the United Nations nor the Security Council. It declared war on Serbia as a result of perfectly honourable concern about Serbia’s internal policy towards the province of Kosovo. Milosevic’s policy towards Kosovo was deplorable, but no more so than President Putin’s policy towards Chechnya, or the Chinese policy towards Tibet. However, in the case of Kosovo, NATO decided effectively to declare war and pursued that for some three long months.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that during his period as Foreign Secretary there was a great deal of criticism for inaction over Bosnia. I, for one, am pleased that as a result of the intervention, which unfortunately took place outside the Security Council of the United Nations, for reasons that we recognise, the ethnic cleansing of Muslims came to an end. The House of Commons should be very pleased about that.
I come straight to the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. The whole point about not going to war at the time of the Bosnian crisis—not intervening in someone else’s war, which we have done in the case of Kosovo and Iraq—was that doing such a thing opens up a Pandora’s box, after which one cannot control the consequences that flow from that. The hon. Gentleman referred quite understandably to ethnic cleansing. The war created a situation in which a contribution was made towards reducing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians. However, we have now seen the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Serbs. The original purpose of the intervention was to ensure autonomy for Kosovo in Serbia, but we now know that that is non-deliverable. Kosovo is going to become an independent state and, probably, a centre of criminality. There will be further fragmentation of the region, but that was no part of the policy of the Prime Minister or NATO. The situation will lead to further dangers not only in the Balkans, but in other territorial disputes in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and elsewhere. Indeed, the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina will be asking why they cannot also have the independence that Kosovo is going to achieve.
One would have hoped that the Prime Minister would have learned from the experience of Kosovo. When one intervenes in a war, one changes the dynamics of that war. The Kosovar Albanians, who, until then, had been yearning for autonomy and accepting that as the only realistic possibility, abandoned that aspiration when they saw that they had NATO behind them, even if NATO did not share their objectives.
We now come to the situation in the middle east. I will not comment on Iraq in detail today, but, again, initiating a conflict without being able to control its consequences and creating a power vacuum has led to the precise opposite of what President Bush and our Prime Minister actually sought. Everyone who knew the middle east was aware that the real threat to the region came not from Iraq, but from the growing power of Iran. Iraq was a busted flush, not because Saddam Hussein was any nicer a man than he had been, but because 10 years of sanctions, the defeat in the Gulf war and the imposition of the no-fly zone had emasculated his power. That was not just my view or that of some individuals—why else did Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, which joined the coalition during the first Gulf war, decline to join the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq? It was because they knew that they were not facing a threat.
Iran was already aspiring to become the power in the region, so it is an extraordinary irony that it has become the power in the region thanks to President Bush and our Prime Minister. It is a great irony that, having warned the world for the past few years against the growing power of Iran, it is now likely that the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will have to go cap in hand to Iran to ask for assistance to get out of the mess that has been created in Iraq. The Iranians cannot believe their luck. They had two enemies—the Iraqi Government on one side and the Taliban on the other—and thanks to President Bush, they now have neither. That has been the most extraordinary consequence, although it was not unpredictable.
What should be done about Iran at this moment in time? There is only one serious way in which it is possible that progress might be made and, as so often, the key is the United States. No one knows whether Iran is seriously interested in a negotiated solution that will enable it to give up its nuclear aspirations. However, the opportunity has to be put forward. The shadow Foreign Secretary rightly referred to the carrot-and-stick approach, but I think that there needs to be a more attractive carrot and a more credible stick than those which currently exist.
I pay tribute to the potential dialogue with Iran that the United States has offered, but the one policy that might just deliver the right results would be a proposal from the United States that in exchange for Iran giving up in a credible way its nuclear aspirations and its support for terrorism, the United States would be prepared to consider not just dialogue, but a full normalisation of its relations with that country. That would represent an end to the axis of evil rhetoric, an end to calls for regime change—that is a matter for the Iranian people, not the American people—an end to the sanctions that the United States has imposed since 1979 and a willingness to treat Iran not as a friendly country, but as a country as friendly as the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez and many other countries throughout the world that are not the closest chums of the current Administration in Washington.
Of course, that would be difficult for the United States, but would it really be much more difficult than the case of Libya? Colonel Gaddafi had sponsored terrorism. Colonel Gaddafi was responsible for the Pan Am bombing that led to the deaths of many hundreds of Americans and for many other similarly monstrous acts, yet the United States swallowed hard and not only resolved the problem with Libya, but established diplomatic relations and dropped economic sanctions. The United States is now pursuing a more normal relationship with Libya, so why should not the effort be made with Iran? If such effort was made, it is possible that it might work, which would be a tremendous achievement for the benefit of all. However, if it did not work, how much stronger would the position of the United States be when it called for credible, real, tough and effective sanctions against Iran? Economic sanctions would then, hopefully, be endorsed by the Security Council. Pressure would be exerted on financial institutions to stop their assistance to the Iranian Government. Indeed, other measures could not be ruled out. Such an effort must be made.
I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak, so I will highlight only one final area in which the Prime Minister’s policy has been a total failure: Europe. The Prime Minister said that he would be at the heart of Europe, but he has been unable to deliver—I am delighted to say—our conversion to the single currency. He has been unable to see the European constitution that he supported materialise, because France and the Netherlands ruled that out for him. Indeed, through his policy on Iraq, he did more to divide all the new Europe than any single world statesman other than President Bush. The policy has been rotten. For the time being, British foreign policy is on hold. European policy is determined by Merkel, Chirac and Putin—the British Prime Minister has little of a role to play. The sooner we have a new Prime Minister to launch a new foreign policy, the better.
It gives me no pleasure at all to agree in some part with the contribution of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind). When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave, as she always does, a most telling performance at the Dispatch Box—she is always in command of the House and her subject—the list of the areas in which there is a supposed British foreign policy was, I regret, a list of almost undiluted failure. That is no criticism of my right hon. Friend or the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is certainly no criticism of our troops, who are the most highly disciplined and highly trained, and probably the most effective, fighting force in the world. It causes me no small anger when my Government, in trying to deflect criticism from their failed foreign policy, attempt to use those troops as a kind of human shield by arguing that those who criticise quite deliberately undermine our troops’ morale. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The basic flaw with our foreign policy is that it does not exist. It does not exist because the Prime Minister is obsessed with the belief that there should not be a space between our foreign policy and that of President Bush and the neocons in Washington into which it would be possible to slip a cigarette paper. In the Prime Minister’s approach to foreign policy, he is also wrong to perceive the greatest threat to the world as international terrorism. Many years ago, before a single bullet was fired in Iraq, my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) said that the real weapons of mass destruction were poverty and AIDS. In my view, that list has been added to by environmental decay and destruction, but these do not seem to be areas that figure prominently in the Prime Minister’s thinking about how we approach the rest of the world.
I hope that the changes emanating from Washington will bring about marked changes in the disastrous situation that is Iraq. I do not call for the immediate withdrawal of our troops. I do not call for the immediate withdrawal of American troops, but I know, as everyone else in the House and in the country knows, that when it becomes of overriding importance for the Republican party to withdraw US troops—and not doing so would put the Republicans in serious danger of losing the next presidential election—those troops will be withdrawn and, as night follows day, so will ours.
Central to what has been leaked about Secretary of State Baker’s Iraq study group is the idea that there should be discussions that will engage Syria and Iran. I entirely agree. It was a very great Israeli Prime Minister—who, regrettably, was assassinated by one of his own citizens—who said that one does not create peace with one’s friends, one creates peace with one’s enemies. That is a lesson that seems to have been pushed drastically to one side, for reasons about which I could hazard an opinion concerning the White House in Washington, but I would not waste the time of the House. To give our Prime Minister credit and to be fair to him, he attempted, in a somewhat half-hearted way, to float that idea way before the Baker commission was formed, and he has touched on it again recently.
It is a deep, deep irony that the two great pillars, as they try to present themselves, of the United Kingdom and the United States are still following a policy that assumes that democracy can be imposed. I find that entirely paradoxical. Iraq was never a united country. We, in the shape of Winston Churchill, made it a country with a surrounding border many decades ago. It was never united then; it became united only as a result of a series of brutal dictatorships. That has now gone. Why can we not begin to consider the possibility that our Government’s desire, when they embarked on the war in Iraq—I know they will not admit it, because it would be tantamount to admitting illegality—was regime change? There is no way that they can avoid the fact that it was immoral and remains immoral.
Saddam Hussein has gone. Regime change has occurred. We are told that there is a democratic Government in Iraq, and I pay tribute to the millions of Iraqis who went out for the first time in their lives and engaged in an election. But it is a fantasy to think that the Iraqi Government have any power or any control in their own country. I understand that it is impossible for Government Ministers to move outside the green zone. They cannot even move into their own electorates, if they have them. It is an unmitigated disaster.
We are training an army. We are also, apparently, training a police force. There is sufficient evidence to prove that that police force is not loyal to the Government. It is not even loyal to the concept of a united Iraq. It is loyal to its tribal links. The most recent kidnapping was apparently conducted by people in uniforms that had been specially created in America so that they could not be taken by insurgents. They were to be given only to members of the supposed Iraqi police force. Hundreds of people were taken out of the highest academic offices in Iraq. Many of them are still missing and some have been found dead. It is therefore clear that there is no innate central security in Iraq. We are seeing the country splitting up into its tribal units. The best brains in Iraq are reported to be fleeing daily.
Is it absolutely outside the envelope to consider that perhaps the future of Iraq is as a federal state, made up of three independent but federated states? It is what happened before. I know that there will be terrible arguments about who has the oil and who has the preponderance of power in certain situations. The international community will become engaged only after the removal of the block imposed on Iraq by American foreign policy—“We will stick the course. We will not quit. We are there for as long as it takes”. How long is “long”?
The hon. Lady seems to be arguing against her own point. Is she suggesting that there should be federal states with dictators? All those federal states will come about as a result of democracy in Iraq, which she seems to question. Is it not the case that the problem is not with democracy, but with those who seek to undermine democracy? The universal principles of the freedom and the free will of the people still apply, whether Iraq is a federal state or a united country, as at present.
It may be the free will of the people that they should live in a state that is ruled by Shi’a law, yet they are not in that state, or it may be the free will of the people that they should live in a state ruled by another form of religious law, but they are not in that state. Kurdistan is virtually independent and out of the picture already. We are considering the remaining two hotspots—the Sunni triangle and the south. There is no meeting of minds there, and people probably have an interpretation of democracy that is entirely different from mine and from the hon. Gentleman’s, but is it our job to tell them how to live? Surely they should be afforded the opportunity of another kind of election. Surely the possibility should be put on the table that the way forward for Iraq may be a federal state. I do not say that it is, or that that is the way that they would necessarily move forward—what I am saying is that what is being imposed from the outside upon Iraq is patently failing to work.
The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea pointed out where power has shifted in that part of the world. That was not, I am prepared to believe, the intention when this sorry episode—it is too terrible to call it an adventure—was entered into, but that is the reality. The other point that should be taken on board, above all by my Prime Minister, is that we must think again. It seems that democracy does work, as the American electorate is bringing that message home to the President of the United States. The present situation in Iraq is not working. Brains better than ours and better than those at present engaged on the matter may have other ideas for a way forward.
One of the most fundamental flaws in British foreign policy is the belief that the worst threat facing the world is international terrorism. I do not see it like that. The world has been threatened by infinitely worse terrorists in the past. The basic principles that unite everyone in the House—democracy, freedom, free speech, the liberty of the individual—always, always triumph. The terrorists today will not defeat the world. It is not, in my view, a clash of cultures. It is an old-fashioned power struggle and we are paying far too much lip service to international terrorists. We give them a value that they do not warrant and do not deserve.
I pay great tribute to my Government and to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development. International development is one of the most positive ways to begin to eradicate the threat of terrorism and violence. We are doing extremely well in that our voice is listened to, but in many other hotspots in the world we have no credibility at all. It is to be hoped that the changes in America, which will undoubtedly be picked up by No. 10, will happen sooner rather than later.
I find myself in a remarkable political situation. I have been called in the debate to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). I listened to both their speeches and found that I was in agreement with 90 per cent. of what both of them said—rather more than that in the case of my right hon. Friend. I think the hon. Lady would agree that there is scarcely any subject that one could imagine which would form a consensus between these three Members. I had doubts about parts of her speech, but the thrust of it I entirely supported.
Even more remarkably, I have listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who both voted on the other side from me when the original invasion was declared. They spoke perfectly honourably and consistently with that decision, but shared my view that the present situation is one of failure for which the House now requires an explanation. We need to see how we move on.
I therefore begin by underlining, even more strongly than I intended, the point that others have made. It is really a disgrace that the House is not allowed to have a structured debate on the changing nature of our policy on Iraq, which is undoubtedly going to change in the very near future, and that we do not seem likely to have such a debate in the near future. Three weeks ago, we had a half-day debate contrived by the nationalists on an inquiry into the origins of the war, and the Foreign Secretary took a most extraordinary view in that debate. She developed a doctrine that it was somehow disloyal and unpatriotic to talk about the war while the war was under way. As several people pointed out, that was not the practice of the House in past rather violent conflicts.
Today, the Foreign Secretary has come before us and given at least a little more explanation of where we are now. I have to say that I found it surreal to listen to her description, which appeared to be that the plan is working and all is unfolding. She gave us a timetable, which was helpful, for those provinces that would be handed over to the Iraqi Government in the near future, but the bulk of Members who have been in the Chamber for this debate feel that that description is quite out of touch with reality. It almost certainly does not reflect what the Government really believe, and I am sure that it does not reflect the opinion of nearly everyone whom I have met in recent weeks and months who has had any contact at all with Iraq.
There is a consensus in the Chamber this afternoon that we ought soon to have a proper debate on the most important issue facing the Government and Parliament in this Session: the problems of Iraq and the continuing consequences of our failure there on the worsening situation in the middle east as a whole and on our ability to conduct a campaign in Afghanistan.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman may not have heard it, but I understand that the Government have granted a debate on 5 December in the other place. I agree with him that we should have a day or even two days to debate the disaster in Iraq.
I am sure that we will all eagerly read Hansard to see what their lordships are allowed to hear about the unfolding nature of policy. However, I think I would guarantee that policy will be different in December from what it is today. I agree with the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate that events are moving in America where the whole issue is being extremely vigorously debated. Policy is shifting in the light of the results of the mid-term elections, which, on Iraqi grounds at least, I greatly welcomed. I also share the view of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes. I have no confidence that any British input into the process is being taken as seriously as it should be. Even I do not know what British foreign policy is so far as pending changes are concerned.
The Prime Minister had one hour of video conferencing with the Baker Iraq study group. I suspect that he did that because he was conscious of the fact that it might appear at home that he had no influence on events if he did not do so. However, I suspect that his impact on the workings of the Baker group will be absolutely minimal. It is quite obvious that British policy at the moment is to wait for President Bush to explain to us how we are all going to get our troops out of the country. It also seems to me that President Bush is waiting for James Baker and his study group to come up with some new idea that might get the troops out in a way that minimises the President’s loss of face. That is the underlying situation that gives me no confidence at all that a satisfactory result will be achieved. I have the highest regard for James Baker; I am delighted to see him in the frame and Donald Rumsfeld out. However, James Baker is faced with an almost impossible task given the events of the past three and a half years.
The two things coming out most fashionably from the discussions going on are, first, that the way forward means a closer involvement of Syria and Iran and, secondly, that policy must now move to a phased withdrawal. Both sound attractive, but they are the haziest notions of an unworked-out policy, and I shall comment on both of them and express some of my doubts.
The involvement of Syria and Iran—and, I would add, a number of other middle eastern players who are looking anxiously at what is happening in Iraq—would have been a very good idea had we involved them at a very much earlier stage. When we first got involved with the problems of Iraq, it was obvious, as many people have said, that, once we had changed the regime, no future for that country on its own could be secured until it was on terms with its neighbours. Looking again to the future, it is absolutely essential that the accommodation between Iraq, Syria and Iran one day resumes some sort of normality.
I fear that it is very difficult to expect very much at the moment of Iran and Syria. That is not surprising when we look back and consider the original intention of the neoconservatives when the invasion took place. It was explained to me quite frequently by more than one of them that Syria would be forced to come into line with western policy because it would be subjected to shock and awe when it saw what had happened to its Ba’athist neighbour. I was also told that the Iranian regime would be changed in a matter of months as the brave students of Iran rose in response to an American show of power in the region and that they would put a new friendly regime in place.
To make the speech that the Prime Minister did a couple of weeks ago that encouraged hopes that we would now receive some help from those two regimes to assist us to get out of Iraq with dignity seems to me a triumph of hope over recent experience. Both regimes have been immensely strengthened by the events of the past three years, not least because the whole illusion of the unbeatable supremacy of the United States and its allies has unfortunately been swept away by what has happened in Iraq.
If those regimes are really asked for help, they will of course try to negotiate a price and some of the prices are obvious—a free hand for Syria in Lebanon and nuclear weapons for Iran. I am relieved to say that every American and every member of our Government whom I have ever heard deal with the issue has ruled those out as utterly unacceptable. They are prices that we cannot pay. However, Syria and Iran know that they are now going to play a great part anyway in future events in Iraq. They have been placed by our invasion in a situation in which they can do that. Syria will not resist intervening in the affairs of its neighbour, particularly given the Sunni contingent there, and Iran, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea has eloquently pointed out, is the real victor of the whole invasion. I cannot believe that anybody in Iran ever expected that the “great Satan” would crush and defeat Iran’s great rival in the area —Saddam Hussein in Iraq—and put Shi’a militias in a powerful role all over the southern half of Iraq with command over a great deal of its oil reserves. I am afraid that it will be very difficult to induce Iran to put on the top of its agenda in Iraq helping the Americans and the British to get out with dignity. That will not score high.
When the Prime Minister in his speech tried to explain how Iran would be given a stark choice, he threatened the Iranians with isolation. They are quite capable of living with that, and I do not think it is quite enough to induce them to become involved. My right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea tried to produce some carrots and sticks with a little more credibility, but they would both agree that we are trying to make bricks without straw. It is difficult to place too much hope in this approach.
A phased withdrawal is plainly what we must now move to with great urgency, but it is difficult to see what that means. I agree with everyone who has said that we cannot just pull out now. The present chaos would turn into a period of even more terrible bloodshed with a totally uncertain outcome, although unless we get back in control of events, there may eventually be no alternative. It is pointless to set a timetable that would become a timetable for terrorist activity, but phased withdrawal must mean quicker withdrawal on an altogether shorter time scale than we have been given. That means that we must brace ourselves for very much reduced expectations of what we will leave behind.
Stability is the most that we can achieve, but we will not control its exact nature. All those plans for imposing a friendly democracy are, alas, an illusion, because we have failed to achieve the principal objectives of our policy. Until we do have a quicker withdrawal, we are in serious danger in Afghanistan, where we cannot commit ourselves fully. We have gone into a dangerous area without our NATO allies. We do not have a clear strategy. What we need now is a debate on what the strategy is—
I am delighted that we are having this debate today. Never before have international affairs so dominated domestic politics. Certainly for all of the last five years it has been one of the major areas of debate, and the war in Iraq and the linked war in Afghanistan are part of that debate. We should be aware that the war in Afghanistan generated an enormous amount of opposition at the beginning and still does, and the war in Iraq generated the biggest ever demonstration in British history when more than a million people assembled in Hyde park to protest against it. Therefore, it would be pretty unwise of Parliament simply to ignore what is happening outside, and I find it astonishing that we still do not have a date for an extended serious debate about the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The statement made by the Prime Minister while visiting Afghanistan a few days ago was extraordinary. He told the British troops there that they were fighting the crucial battle of the 2lst century. What exactly does he mean by that? Does he suggest that this is some kind of 19th-century colonial last stand where the final message to the troops is, “You succeed here and the empire will be saved,” or is it an encouragement to yet more wars and conflicts of the type that we are seeing at the present time? We cannot go through the 21st century with the idea that there is a moral correctitude and a moral supremacy on both sides of the Atlantic that can be imposed on the rest of the world. We have seen the consequences of that in the current conflicts.
Colleagues might dispute some of the figures and some of the debate and information, but the reality of Iraq is that the Saddam regime was in many ways a product of western benevolence. It was armed by the west, it was strengthened by the west and to some extent sustained by the west, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war. We then had the Gulf war, followed by the period of sanctions, and we have now had the invasion, and according to The Lancet—no one has seriously disputed its figures—650,000 people have lost their lives in Iraq since that took place in 2003. That is one in 40 of the population.
We all know that at some point in the not-too-distant future British and American forces will withdraw, and, as many others have said, they are now part of the problem, not part of the solution. The British troops in Basra seem to spend most of their time in their barracks defending themselves, and ditto US troops in the central part of Iraq. In a debate on CNN last week, I said to an Iraqi Government official, “Look, you know that there will be a withdrawal. You know that at some point you will have to talk and negotiate with the insurgent forces and all the other groups,” and he confirmed that that was already being done. We know that that political process is already under way. It is time that we named a date and set about the withdrawal of those troops.
In an excellent speech earlier, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) pointed out what was happening in Palestine and the product of the Israeli policy there. He was quite correct to point out that the situation in Palestine is a running sore throughout the entire region. Unless we are serious about forcing Israel to behave in a legal and decent manner, to stop the assassination attacks that take place and the construction of the illegal wall, and to stop starving the Palestinian people of their own money through taxation income, or through the British and American policy of donating money only through non-governmental organisations, we will create a worse situation of greater instability and poverty within Palestine. I hope that when the Minister replies he will at least recognise that we are fundamentally on the wrong course there. The Palestinian people elected a Government and Israel has arrested some of its elected politicians and Ministers. That is simply not an acceptable way of going on, and we should not continue the pretence that there is somehow or other a conflict of equals between Palestine and Israel. What we have is a very wealthy first-world country, heavily supported and subsidised by the US and to some extent western Europe, and the deeply impoverished Palestinian people.
With regard to the arrest of the Hamas politicians, would the hon. Gentleman be interested to know that when the International Development Committee met Israeli Government authorities and we asked why they had arrested those that they had, they said, “Because we haven’t yet found the others, but we will arrest them all in due course.”?
I am interested to hear that, and tragically not in the least bit surprised by such an approach. Imagine if it had been the other way round; if a Palestinian hit squad had gone into the Knesset and arrested a number of Israeli Members of Parliament. There would be uproar all around the world. That is the reality of what has happened. People complain that Palestine is turning into an extremist place, but poverty, unemployment, assassination, indiscriminate arrest and illegal behaviour create extreme behaviour. It is up to us to be much firmer with Israel on these matters, and it should recognise that there is a wish around the world for recognition of Palestine and for a long-term peace.
I have only a few moments left, so I want to address two other general areas. The Foreign Secretary talked about the existence and development of nuclear weapons and talked about the danger of proliferation. Yes, there is a danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons. Yes, nuclear weapons are a danger. Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral; they are a weapon of mass destruction. By their very nature they are indiscriminate in their use and who they affect. This country and the other four members of the Security Council, the five declared nuclear weapon states, all signed a non-proliferation treaty, under which any signatory nation must not develop its own nuclear weapons, but the existing declared nuclear weapon states must also disarm. It is true that there are fewer nuclear warheads on patrol and fewer available to this country than there were in the past, but we are still a nuclear weapon state, and the idea that we should expend £25 billion or £26 billion on developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, and a further £50 billion on deploying them over the next 25 years, is unthinkable. If we want to be taken seriously around the world in insisting on non-proliferation by North Korea, Iran or any other country, we must be serious ourselves about the obligation that we have set ourselves, of long-term nuclear disarmament. I hope that when the Minister replies he will tell us when the Government’s White Paper—I wish it were a Green Paper—will come out, and if he will produce a response to the white paper produced yesterday by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, “Safer Britain, Safer World: The decision not to replace Trident nuclear missiles”.
We are in danger in the 21st century of sleepwalking into one war after another, led largely by the United States, but also by our own increasingly militaristic ambitions. There is a different agenda around the world that is not one of war and neo-liberal economics, but is something slightly different; that is about sharing resources, about justice and about recognising human rights around the world. If anyone doubts that, they should start looking at social movements in south Asia and Latin America, and look at the thirst of those people, not for neo-liberal economics but for the economics of social justice. That is why great changes are happening in Bolivia and Venezuela, and that is why huge changes are afoot in central America and other parts of the world. We are a small island in one part of the world and we seem to think that our whole future is bound up solely with the policies of the neocons in Washington. The neocon policy has brought war, disaster and danger to the world. Surely we can do rather better than that by a more intelligent examination of the issues facing the world rather than the need to keep in with Washington at every turn.
The Queen’s Speech specifically mentions peace in the middle east, which has been discussed and which I shall address, the situation in Darfur, securing an agreement on the Doha round and the climate change Bill. Those points all relate to the politics of international development—the poor will suffer most from the consequences of climate change.
The International Development Committee, which I have the honour to chair, is in the middle of an inquiry on aid and development in the occupied territories, and it visited Palestine, Jerusalem and Israel just two weeks ago. Because we are in the middle of that process, I must make it clear that I am not speaking on behalf of the Committee, but I will reflect what we have seen and heard so far. Regrettably, the Committee was unable to visit Gaza on security advice—although we were given that advice, a group of MEPs from the European Parliament were able to visit Gaza when we were told that it was unsafe.
The situation that the Committee saw in the west bank and heard reports about in Gaza is extremely serious—public services have effectively been choked off; the economy is in sharp decline; and poverty is rising. Since the election of Hamas, not only has donor aid been denied to the Palestinian Authority, but the tariff revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, which amount to between $55 million and $65 million a month, have been withheld in their entirety. The consequence is that civil servants and key workers in health, education and public services across the west bank and Gaza have not been paid for nine months. Unsurprisingly, those people have now gone on strike.
When the Committee visited two weeks ago, every emergency room in the west bank was closed and access to private hospitals in east Jerusalem was also restricted, because permits had passed their expiry dates and could not be renewed—there were few, if any, patients. We were told about the case of a 10-year-old boy who has cancer. He was allowed through the checkpoint into east Jerusalem, but his mother, who was accompanying him, was not. The Foreign Secretary referred to money promised through the temporary international mechanism, which is specifically for health emergency funding and which is administered by the European Commission, but the Committee was told that that money had not reached any of the hospitals that required it and that those hospitals were running out of resources, equipment and funding.
Restrictions on movement and access have compounded the situation. Gaza has effectively been sealed off, which has led to the near collapse of the economy and services. Movement not only in and out of the west bank, but more seriously, within the occupied territories has become so restricted as to undermine daily life. People cannot get to work, and they cannot access services or can do so only with extreme difficulty and delay.
Does it not now seem that it is the direct intention of the Israeli authorities to make the presence of Palestinians who have historically worked in Jerusalem so impossible that they will cleanse the whole of that area of people who are indigenous to it?
I will address that point. It is now the policy of the Israeli Government entirely to eliminate migratory workers from Gaza and the west bank from the Israeli economy by the end of next year. That is apparently the stated policy.
The Committee stayed in a magnificent five-star hotel in Bethlehem, which should be full for Christmas. However, the hotel is operating at 2 per cent. occupancy in spite of very competitive rates, because the construction of the wall around Jerusalem has led people to perceive that it is impossible to travel safely.
When the Committee asked how the tightening of the situation had come about, we were initially told that it dated from the election of Hamas, but that is simply not true, because it has intensified since then. It must also be acknowledged that Israel has been terrorised by suicide bombers and rockets and missiles fired from Lebanon and Gaza, and the kidnapping of one Israeli soldier from Gaza and two from Lebanon led to activity by Israel. Regardless of the provocation, the activity by Israel is widely understood to be disproportionate. The security response, which long predates Hamas, has been to build the barrier on the west bank, which has effectively closed the border at Gaza. Israel also fires back at missile launch sites, which has resulted in tragic civilian casualties mainly to women and children.
In that context, there was widespread dismay, not least among those hon. Members who called for the recall of Parliament, that the UK Government did not call for an immediate ceasefire in August, which is still a matter of shame for this country. That failure has contributed to the strengthening, not the weakening, of Hezbollah and to the destabilisation of Lebanon towards a possible renewal of civil war, which is a consequent further threat to Israel’s long-term security. That approach has not served the interests of Israel.
As recently as a week last Friday, the UK abstained on the most recent Security Council motion, which condemned Israel for the latest civilian deaths. However, I believe that British diplomats worked hard to renegotiate a more balanced resolution, to which I am happy to pay tribute. The refusal of Hamas to recognise Israel or, more importantly, to renounce violence and honour previous agreements, does not help the Palestinian cause any more than the continual firing of missiles from Gaza. However, to answer the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), that does not justify the wholesale annexation of land not only behind the barrier, which is way beyond the green line, but across the west bank, where Israeli settlements are used to justify the existence of road blocks, bypass roads for the exclusive use of settlers and the confiscation of and restrictions on land around settlements in, it is said, the interests of the security of the state of Israel, whereas in reality it is for the security of illegal settlements within the occupied territories.
The military control of the Jordan valley, which is effectively treated as an administered part of Israel rather than part of the west bank, the proposal to build a new settlement, E1, which will cut off east Jerusalem from the west bank entirely, and the escalating restrictions on access and movement raise some direct questions. Israel argues that the election of Hamas and the continuing terrorist attacks mean that the Palestinians are not interested in peace, but the converse is also true. The strangulation of Gaza, the erection of a barrier deep inside the green line and the consolidation of a patchwork of settlements that chops the integrity of the west bank to pieces suggest that Israel is not interested in peace, either. Those actions are incompatible with any viable two-state solution—I defy anybody to explain the two-state solution on the current division of territory.
It may be that any credibility that the United Kingdom had as a potential peace broker evaporated on the day when we invaded Iraq. For there to be peace, Israel needs security and Palestine needs a viable, economically productive state. There can never be absolute security, and confidence building and a reduction in tension is required if there is to be a long-term, peaceful future. The Quartet and Israel appear to believe that starving Hamas of funds will lead to its collapse. I suggest that that approach is more likely to strengthen Hamas as the Palestinian people suffer even greater deprivation.
Even if Hamas is not funded, surely somebody should talk to it. If a technocratic Government of national unity, who have been much talked about but who have not been formed, were to come about, it has not been agreed that funds would be made available to them. If funds were not made available in that circumstance, then the good will towards and faith in the international community that remarkably still exists among many Palestinians could be extinguished for good. The irony is that we invaded Iraq, we are told, to impose democracy, while we undermine the potential for an emerging democracy in Palestine. Since 9/11 we have pursued a foreign policy much of which has been counterproductive and damaging to British national interests.
The reason why I, as Chair of the International Development Committee, feel so strongly about this is that massive resources from the British aid budget are being diverted into Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, all of which could be viable economic states not requiring aid, at the expense of poor communities in other parts of the world. We have to attack the scourge of AIDS—something that the British Government are giving a lead on and setting a standard for—and we could put more resources into that. We could put more resources into Africa—the Prime Minister claims that he has a passion to solve the problems of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa—but we have diverted too many of our resources to one area. We have undermined our influence and credibility as a peacemaker and denied poor people in other parts of the world resources that they could reasonably have expected from the British aid budget, which has been diverted into other areas.
I hope that our efforts to bring peace to Darfur and the pressure that is required to do that will have a real effect. It has been remarked that we should plead with China to recognise that it has a long-term interest in the rule of law. We should recognise, too, that if we are to secure a trade agreement in the Doha round, we in the United Kingdom have to give a lead in showing where concessions can be made, where fair trade can be delivered, and where poor countries can have the economic space to be able to achieve poverty reduction and to reduce their dependence on aid.
We created the Department for International Development to separate aid and development from foreign policy, yet resources are being diverted from the aid budget to support a foreign policy that has failed conspicuously and which no Member has supported during this debate.
I was saddened the other week that more of my hon. Friends did not join me and others to call for a proper inquiry into the Iraq situation. It is a scandal that our Prime Minister can give evidence to an American organisation but not to one set up in this country.
I always think that the real reason why we are in Iraq can be summed up in one word—oil. The dangers that we are seeing now were forecast by many of us. In fact, in the week before the invasion of Iraq I spoke at a meeting of the parliamentary Labour party where the Prime Minister was present. I said, “Invade Iraq, and you might as well put a banner over the front of the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall with the words, ‘Recruiting agency for al-Qaeda’”. There is no doubt that al-Qaeda did not previously exist in Iraq. When I was in Iraq and in Palestine, on the west bank, in 2002, I know where I felt safest, and it was not on the west bank. I can confirm everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) said about the situation in those occupied territories. I am convinced that we will not solve the problem of Palestine and Israel until the occupation ceases. That is not the finishing point, but the starting point, in that part of the world.
In 2002 and 2003, Front Benchers were always telling us about weapons of mass destruction. That was the reason for being in Iraq that was given at the time. We refused to allow Hans Blix to carry on with his investigations. If they had been carried through to the end, perhaps the estimated 650,000 Iraqis, more than 100 British soldiers and nearly 3,000 American soldiers who have died would still be alive today—but the British Government, subservient as they have been all along to President Bush, bowed to the necessity of invading Iraq.
I remind the House of something that I mentioned during Prime Minister’s Question Time in October 2004. One month before the invasion of Iraq, the Prime Minister was saying that Saddam Hussein could stay in power—oh yes, he detested him, but he could stay in power—if he complied with all the United Nations resolutions. Let us not have any of this nonsense that those of us who opposed the British-American policy in Iraq have ever in any way been in favour of Saddam Hussein. Indeed, many of us were opposing the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein when many of our Front Benchers were ignoring the 12 early-day motions on the subject that were put before the House between 1986 and 1990. Only one member of the current Cabinet was a signatory to one of those 12 early-day motions.
On 25 May 1994, the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs reported that America had been exporting chemical and biological agents to Iraq. As late as 1988—two years before the Gulf war—Britain exported £200,000 worth of a component that could be used in producing mustard gas to Iraq.
What is the position now? Every day, more Iraqis are killed by all sorts of insurgent groups, by al-Qaeda, which is now present in Iraq, and by coalition forces. We are told that we will leave Iraq as soon as we have trained the police and the army. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) pointed out, one cannot regard those who are being trained to be police as existing in a vacuum, away from the divisions of Sunni and Shi’a because, after all, they are Sunnis and Shi’as. Indeed, many of the recent atrocities have been committed by people wearing police uniforms that the US provided. The division exists and will continue, whether we are present or not.
The big question that we must ask ourselves is whether we go now—or soon—or allow ourselves to be embroiled in the inevitable civil war that will happen in Iraq. We have a choice and I believe that we should make it in favour of a phased withdrawal, leading to the complete withdrawal of British troops by next summer.
The Prime Minister and other Ministers are in constant denial about the failure of the Iraq policy, although we think that the Prime Minister recently admitted that it is a disaster. In that, he is with the majority of people in this country. That is also true of the American people, if we consider the mid-term elections in the US. It is wrong to believe that attacking American policy means that one is anti-American. I have sometimes attacked British policy. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I marched against the invasion of Suez. Was I anti-British for doing that? Of course not. I have decent American friends and I know that many in the US want an end to its imperialist policy.
I should like an end to our subservience to the US. I do not know whether hon. Members felt the same way as me when I learned about the overheard conversation between Bush and our Prime Minister. He treated our Prime Minister like a little boy. Our Prime Minister wanted to go to the middle east—to give him his due, he has always been in favour of the peace process to end the conflict between Palestine and Israel. He has a genuine and sincere feeling about that. However, what was he told? “Don’t go to the middle east; I’m sending Condi.”
Who on earth does that foreign leader think he is? How does he have the right to tell a British Prime Minister what he may do? Can hon. Members imagine Winston Churchill or Harold Wilson—Harold Wilson kept us out of the Vietnam war—responding in the weak way in which our Prime Minister did? He should have said that Britain would carry out its own foreign policy—of course, in co-operation with other countries, although not only the US. We should look more towards co-operating with our partners in the European Union. Our main partners, France and Germany, did not get involved in the disaster of Iraq.
I shall speak briefly about Palestine, as I was there in 2002, and I can confirm everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton said. The centres of Jenin and Nablus are deserts, caused by the destruction brought about by Israeli bombers, Israeli tanks and Israeli bulldozers. Indeed, in Jenin, people were referring to “Jeniningrad”, making a comparison between their lot and what happened in the siege of Leningrad.
A distinctive British foreign policy is necessary and our priority now should be to ensure that we do not stay in Iraq any longer than at all necessary. We should bring our forces home by the summer of next year.
In March 2005, I visited Iraq, going to Basra and Baghdad. The visit was arranged by the Foreign Office, and I met many groups, including local politicians and women’s groups in Basra and trade unionists and national politicians in Baghdad. One thing was quite clear: they were pleased that Saddam’s regime had come to a head, but they were desperately unhappy about the manner in which that came about. The damage to infrastructure was immense: Basra had electricity only for a couple of hours a day at that time and clean water was at a premium, with open sewers posing a health hazard after their destruction.
We also visited training camps where the new security forces were put through their paces. I was absolutely alarmed to be told by a senior member of the Iraqi military that the life expectancy of the recruits, once their occupation was known, could be counted in terms of weeks. That was ominous and dreadful, and we were constantly told the official line by the Government that in so many weeks there would be so many thousand trained-up soldiers. Even if the estimates were overestimates, they were hardly viable or reliable, given the number of recruits being killed.
I was against the war, but I went to Iraq with an open mind to see what was happening. I came back believing sincerely that a troop withdrawal would have to be events led, but in no doubt about the difficulties of putting those events in train in light of the slaughter of these recruits and the obvious inability to rebuild and repair the infrastructure in a situation where security was bad. That tended to fuel a great deal of animosity, in turn, among the people whom we met. Some even went as far as to say that, in respect of everyday utilities and everyday life, things were worse than they had been under the old regime.
When I look at the situation today, I find that it is no better. Undoubtedly, the battle for hearts and minds is not being won, with the presence of US and UK troops universally seen as being part of the problem, not the solution. There are on average 40 deaths in Iraq every day. The militias are fully armed and, as we all know, the conflict rages. Perhaps it is little wonder that many ordinary Iraqis are dependent on their own militias to offer them real day-to-day protection, but the situation has deteriorated substantially since my visit. US and British troops on the ground are a catalyst for daily murder and mayhem. They should not have to face that sort of danger day in, day out. That is why I believe that the UK Government should now tell Parliament what their current policy towards Iraq really is and what kind of exit strategy is being developed. Merely trotting out the “as long as it takes” policy is unsustainable when there are military deaths and casualties almost daily and the presence of forces escalates into tribal rivalry and conflicts.
The Prime Minister acknowledged on 19 October that the continued presence of the UK military could be a “provocation”, but went on to say that he thought that the Iraqi security forces could be in control within 16 months. Many believe that to be a hugely optimistic assessment. General Sir Richard Dannatt took the view that withdrawal should be sooner rather than later. While the Prime Minister is willing to engage with a congressional committee on these matters, he does not give the House an opportunity to discuss them. That is plainly wrong, since the House, albeit misled, was given an opportunity to vote on the Iraq war at the time.
We now need to debate properly, in an informed manner, what kind of exit strategy is being discussed. That is why I and other hon. Members, from several parties and none, have tabled a cross-party amendment to the Queen’s Speech requesting that the Government lay out their policy, so that the House can fully debate that policy.
Absolutely so. That is what one hopes will happen in due course, although perhaps we are hoping against hope there.
The “as long as it takes” mantra is absolute nonsense. The longer Parliament is kept in the dark, the more the Government bring this place into disrepute and, crucially, the more they alienate those who elect us.
Will the hon. Gentleman repeat what a disgrace it is that the Prime Minister of Great Britain finds it possible to appear before an American congressional meeting, but not to appear before the House to give account of the worst foreign policy decision made since the war?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: it is disgraceful and insulting to this place and, more importantly, to our constituents, to the families of the bereaved and to those who are serving out there, not to be told why on earth they are there and what strategy exists. It is probably also true that there will never be a convenient time to withdraw. There is no easy answer and I do not claim that there is, but that is no reason to deny us a proper, legitimate and informed debate about the issue.
The Prime Minister recently told the Iraq study group, quite rightly, that a settlement of the Palestinian question was central to sorting out the wider problems of Iraq and Afghanistan. He described the issue as the biggest factor in getting support from moderate Muslim countries as well. That is right. We in my party believe—as I believe do many others, in all parts of the House—that it is time to establish a full, proper peace conference on the entire middle east question, which should address all the questions in the region, with a view to securing a lasting peace. Paragraph 14 of United Nations resolution 687, from 1991, refers to
“steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery and the objective of a global ban on chemical weapons”.
Part of the scope of the peace conference should be to create a strong regional security solution for Iraq, with contributions from neighbouring states. Foremost among the issues would be a proper examination of the Kurdish question, which has been intractable for many years and is further complicated by the fact that the Kurdish nation is spilt into four different regions. The problem has been difficult for many years, but many believe that there will be no lasting solution in the middle east without a solution to the Kurdish question.
The Palestinian question is of course important too. The situation in Palestine is as bad today as it has ever been. There must be a concentration on the issue, and I hope that the Prime Minister will be part of that. However, politicians often pay lip service to the problem, but then retreat and leave it alone, so I hope that we can all sit down and discuss the issue.
Much has been said about Syria and the Golan heights, and about the situation in Lebanon. I could not have put the matter half as well as the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), and I agree with everything that he said. However, I remind the House of the damage that was caused in that conflict last summer: 145 bridges were damaged, and apart from the human cost, the cost of reconstruction is more than $4 billion, with the Lebanese tourist industry being hit by a $2.5 billion slap in just one year. The damage was immense, so, as was asked earlier, how long can Britain continue to pour money into an area where such damage is inflicted time after time? It probably does not help the middle east peace process to express an opinion one way or the other, but it must be said that the Israeli contribution to that conflict was well out of proportion and continued for a long time before our Government had the guts to stand up and say, “Enough is enough,” although a bit late in the day.
As resolution 687 points out, however, the issue of weapons of mass destruction in the region urgently needs to be addressed. In that regard, it will be seen as unbalanced, and perhaps biased, for a demand to be made that Iran give up nuclear capability without demanding the same of Israel. Sadly, a host of international conferences in the middle east since the tabling of resolution 687 have achieved little lasting progress. If the Iraq study group is now thought to be ready to encourage some form of exit strategy, surely, as I have said, we need to do that urgently.
Many of us are concerned about the lack of debate on Trident. As was said earlier, it is almost as if we are sleepwalking towards a policy of renewal. There have been hints of a parliamentary debate and a vote, but we all hope that it will not be conducted in the same manner as the sham vote on going to war in Iraq. I therefore congratulate the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament on issuing its alternative white paper yesterday, which I commend to all Members of the House, on whatever side of the argument they happen to be, as it is an informative document.
In this day and age, when all of us have constituents waiting for operations—I have one who has waited two and half years for a hip replacement—when our constituencies have inadequate numbers of NHS dentists, and when we are seeing our smaller hospitals disappear, it is absolute madness to contemplate paying £25 billion for commissioning Trident and a total of £76 billion on maintenance. We do not have money for the basics of life, and yet we are pursuing Trident in this way.
The strategic defence review said in 1998 that
“there is today no military threat to the United Kingdom or Western Europe. Nor do we foresee the re-emergence of such a threat”.
It has also been stated that
“Witnesses to our inquiry did not believe that the UK currently faces a direct or impending military threat from any of the established nuclear weapon states”.
One hopes that there will be a debate on Trident. Others in the Chamber will obviously hold different views on the matter; that is what democracy is all about. I call on the Government, however, to give us the opportunity of a reasonable and informed debate, and not to make the decision, then plonk it on the table and tell us to rubber-stamp it.
Like most Members who have spoken in the debate so far, I believe that the consequences of the invasion of Iraq are showing themselves to be more disastrous every day, and are as bad as, if not worse than, those of us who voted against the Iraq war some three or more years ago feared. I am thinking not just of the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq, but of the consequences for the wider region and for Britain’s standing in the world.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) reminded us, it seems an age ago that the US Administration were telling us that the Iraq invasion would establish a beacon for democracy in the middle east, and that Syria and Iran would be next. Now we are reduced, it would appear, to asking those same regimes to help to stabilise the situation in Iraq. In so far as it is not already happening, the involvement of those countries in Iraq is probably inevitable. We are naïve, however, if we do not recognise that that is likely to lead to a strengthening of those countries’ positions, not just in Iraq but in the region. It will also lead—and I am disappointed that this should be the case—to a strengthening of those regimes internally, which is the last thing that we should be trying to bring about.
However, the weakening of our position is not restricted to Iraq and the neighbouring region. I share the condemnation across the House of the assassination yesterday of Pierre Gemayel in Lebanon. Does not that very act of condemnation reveal, however, how little leverage we now have on the situation in Lebanon? We do not yet know, and may never know, who was responsible for the assassination. Certainly, however, if there was any involvement by the Syrian Government or their agents, and if we want to take action in respect of anything that we believe that they may have done in Lebanon on this or any previous occasion, we will not have an easy job trying to persuade Syria to go along with our approach to Iraq.
The situation in Darfur was mentioned earlier. Is there not a strong argument that at least one reason why the Government in Sudan are proving so resistant to pressure to change their behaviour is that they know how limited are the west’s options, because of the weakness of our position in Iraq as it has developed over recent years? In other parts of the world, too, it is possible to identify a relative isolation of the United Kingdom and a relative reduction in our strength and voice, because of our association with what I must call the failures in Iraq.
It is right to recognise that there have been failures. If we do not, we will not be able to escape from the position in which we have found ourselves in Iraq, and will not be able to restore our influence in the wider world. We need to restore that influence, because there are so many important challenges to our security. I accept that there is a challenge from terrorism, but there are also challenges from global inequalities, climate change and nuclear proliferation. We need policies that will re-establish our standing in the wider world.
First, of course, we need to develop the right policy on Iraq. The war was unpopular with the British public. The public were right then and they are right now, when the majority clearly want to see our troops out of Iraq sooner rather than later. Like others who have spoken today, I do not believe it is possible for us to withdraw our troops overnight, but we certainly cannot talk of an involvement lasting years and years into some indeterminate future. We should be talking about withdrawal in a matter of months rather than years.
However, much more than the withdrawal of British troops and disentanglement from Iraq will be required to re-establish our position internationally. I agree with Members on both sides of the House that we need to show our willingness to take a different line from the United States Administration when we know that that Administration are taking the wrong approach. The Secretary of State rightly pointed out that we have differed from the United States on such issues as climate change and world trade. We should do the same on other issues when it is clear that the policy of whatever United States Administration are in power is damaging our national interests and international security.
The key area in which we need to mark out that difference in policy is of course the middle east, and in particular the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Prime Minister has recognised the need to seek a lasting settlement of that conflict, and has said that it will be one of the priorities of his remaining time in office. I welcome his commitment to working towards a just settlement—a long-standing commitment that is recognised in the House and more widely—but whoever leads British policy on Israel and Palestine, it is patently clear that there must be a much tougher line on Israel if we are to achieve any progress towards a real two-state solution. Of course there must be pressure on all who would undermine the possibility of a genuine settlement in Palestine and Israel, but it is Israel that is the power in the land, and it is Israel which, in its daily policies, is undermining the possibility of getting a viable two-state solution up and running at the end of the peace process.
To achieve that, we need more than the right policies from the United Kingdom; we need the right policies from the other institutions where the United Kingdom has a role. Above all, we need a Europe-wide policy to join the initiatives that we take. That underlines why we need a common European foreign and security policy which is coherent and effective, and why we need the institutions and policies that will allow it to be pursued vigorously and made effective. I do not say that because I believe that we can establish some European superpower to challenge the United States of America. That is not a real prospect. We must have good relations with the United States as well as with our European partners, but we need a stronger and more coherent European voice if we are to maximise the effects of our own voice in international issues.
We can also do much more beyond Europe and the United States. We need to build up a wider international coalition to secure international consensus on the key challenges of our times, such as climate change and international inequality. I welcome what the Government have already done following their initiatives at the Gleneagles summit. There will be more opportunities to build international consensus on such issues as a result of the publication of the Stern report and the policies for global action on climate change that it highlights.
I hope that the Government will continue to do what they can to encourage consensus not only among Governments but beyond them, and I am sure that they will. I welcome the fact that the Government have chosen to have direct contact about climate change with certain states in the United States of America. The Government also co-operated with the Make Poverty History campaigns of last year, which are an example of worldwide public pressure being brought to bear on international challenges, and I hope that, similarly, they will help to develop an international coalition of citizens—not just of Governments—for international action on climate change.
If we put those issues at the centre of our foreign policy, that could enable us to re-establish the moral leadership that I am sorry to say we have lost as a result of our policies in the middle east. But we will not be able to pursue those issues effectively if we do not change the policies in the middle east that have led to the loss of that moral authority.
Oh, unhappy debate—unhappy for the Government, as there has not been a single contribution to it that reflects the astonishing complacency that appears to surround those who sit on the Government Front Bench. The Gracious Speech gave us all the usual platitudes about commitment to peace in the middle east, working with the United Nations and our European Union partners to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the strengthening of NATO, but Her Majesty’s Government are not living in the real world.
At present, there is no middle east peace process. The international institutions, which we are told have been the linchpins of United Kingdom foreign and defence policy, have been discredited by events both before and after the invasion of Iraq. As we have heard, last week on a programme broadcast by the al-Jazeera television station the Prime Minister appeared to accept—and, of course, subsequently denied—that the Iraq war was
“pretty much of a disaster”.
The truth is that he does not know what to say.
As shadow Defence Secretary from shortly after the fateful day of 11 September 2001, I supported the Prime Minister’s policy on Iraq. I voted for the war and sincerely believed in that decision at the time. I thought that the world would be a better place without Saddam Hussein, and I still believe that. I also believe that our long-term relationship with the United States is perhaps our most important foreign policy interest, and that doubt about that decision would have to weigh in its favour. But today we have to be realistic about where we find ourselves. The Prime Minister appeared to assent to the view that it is
“pretty much of a disaster”.
To say that the only problem that we faced was a lack of planning is the mother of all understatements. For those in power, post-war planning was simply not the priority. The so-called neoconservatives talked about the democratisation of Iraq as though it was a natural corollary of the invasion, without having any idea of how it would be achieved. Opponents of the war reflected the culture of our broken foreign policy establishments on both sides of the Atlantic, obsessing about international legality and the UN long after President Bush and our own Prime Minister had made up their minds to go to war.
Nobody applied themselves sufficiently to what would happen as a result of the invasion. That reflects a much deeper political malaise in the west as a whole. Big moral ideas about democratisation on the one hand, and placing faith in outdated cold war institutions such as the EU, NATO and the UN on the other, were both denying reality. If nobody in Europe can find even a few helicopters to help in Afghanistan, we begin to question the very existence of NATO as it currently is, let alone the purpose of an EU foreign and defence policy. Unless we all start to accept the world as it is, we will continue to miss the real questions that we must face in the short term or the long term.
Let us start by addressing the consequences of Iraq. A relatively stable, albeit hostile, conglomerate state has been smashed. Far from that having created circumstances that cow potential aggressors such as Iran, Syria and North Korea, they are gloating with delight at the current situation. The war has proved to be a classic pyrrhic victory: tactical victory has become strategic defeat. Far from dividing al-Qaeda and other extremist groups from mainstream Muslim opinion, the terrorists have become the heroes on the Muslim street, and it is the moderates who are isolated. There can be no wiping the slate clean of what we have done. I do not agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram). We must continue to support the United States in attempts to bring the occupation in Iraq to some kind of stable conclusion. I pay tribute to our servicemen and women, who are so bravely and gallantly sustaining that effort.
However, we cannot base future policy on any kind of continuum with previous discredited thinking. We must start again. In the short term, neither Iraq nor the world can wait two years for a new US President and a credible US foreign policy. That is why the Baker-Hamilton commission, backed by George Bush senior and the newly elected Democrat Congress, is in the process of seizing the reins of US foreign and defence policy from the White House. It is testament to the clueless state of UK policy that the British Prime Minister’s role is reduced to giving a few minutes’ evidence down a video link. In the short term, policy in Iraq will be decided in Washington, and that is that.
In the long term, British foreign policy must return to first principles, based on a proper analysis of the wider facts that we face. Europe’s population is ageing and her economy is in sharp relative decline. The huge shift of economic power from west to east will lead to a similar shift in political and military power. The rise of Asia is bringing 2 billion people into the global economy, with incalculable consequences. We must also consider the crisis in the Doha trade talks, global warming, energy security and Africa. We need to be realistic, moreover, about the problem of Muslim extremism, which lies far deeper in history than the establishment of Israel 60 years ago. The Muslim world has been perplexed by its political decline in relation to the Christian world since the failure of the second siege of Vienna in 1683. We must face the fact that only Muslims themselves can win the argument against the extremists in their midst.
The destructive power of new technology is growing exponentially, and terrorists can get it ever more easily and cheaply. Faced with these facts, we need to go back to the most fundamental questions. What does Britain stand for in the world? What are our essential national interests, and by what means can we best promote them? The whole policy of the western powers must develop a new idiom, shorn of the messianic or naive pretensions of new right or old left. Practical policy must be based on good old-fashioned enlightened self-interest.
Some in Washington are calling for what is termed ethical realism: ethical, because we must hold to our values; but realistic, because good intentions are not enough. I have heard enough rhetoric about healing the scars of Africa to make me sick. Ethical realism is akin to liberal conservatism, as espoused by the Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), in his address to the Anglo-American project in a landmark speech in September. As he said, we need to hear more about diplomacy and trade, and less about the pre-emptive use of military power; more about building peaceful alliances, and less about dividing the world between the good guys and the bad guys.
Long term, we need more patience with countries that do not share our views, but without losing confidence in our values. We should respect countries’ cultures, religious sensitivities and stable systems of government, even if they would not be acceptable in our own country. Talking with the Iranian or Syrian Governments is neither a means to endorsing their policies nor a solution in itself, as some now seem to be saying. At the moment, they hold all the cards.
The real battle for hearts and minds may take generations, but conflict is about will-power, not physical force. At the moment, this United Kingdom—the fourth largest economy in the world and the west’s second most pre-eminent diplomatic and military power—does not have the first idea of a plan. We need one now. I echo those who have made it plain that we should have a proper, structured debate not just on Iraq, but on the whole middle east region and how the Government are going to take forward their policy.
It is always interesting to follow one of my many constituents, who can be found on both sides of the House. I shall not talk about Iraq, other than to say that I share many of the views that have been expressed on both sides. We do need an early withdrawal. It will not be acceptable to my constituents, most of whom were opposed to the war, for our soldiers to continue to be killed. We need a way out, soon.
I wish to address a crisis in which the UK’s historical position means that we could play a special role. Indeed, we have a right to play a special role in Zimbabwe. I apologise for not being in my place earlier in the debate, but I was chairing the all-party group on Zimbabwe, at which we had the immense privilege of listening to Archbishop Pius Ncube, the very brave Roman Catholic archbishop from Bulawayo, who has repeatedly stood out against Mugabe and the political oppression in his country.
Until now, the Government have preferred to play a behind the scenes role in dealing with the crisis in Zimbabwe, and Ministers have been anxious—perhaps understandably—to avoid playing to Mugabe’s propaganda scripts, which portray the Zimbabwe crisis as a bilateral post-colonial dispute. That has to change, and soon.
The socio-economic position in Zimbabwe has never before been so bad. The country’s inflation rate is almost 2,000 per cent., the highest in the world. The economy has declined at a rate unprecedented in a nation that is supposedly at peace. It is the fastest declining economy in the world. The GDP has shrunk by more than 40 per cent. in the past six years. Such an economic collapse has never happened before in a nation that is not at war.
Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV infection rates on earth, with more than 24 per cent. of the population infected, while pathetically small amounts are spent on antiretroviral drugs by a Government who have been more concerned to import military aircraft from China than to protect the lives of their people.
By the end of this year, there will not be enough grain to feed the nation, although Zimbabwe used to be the bread basket of southern Africa. There is no sign of economic recovery, with the Zimbabwean Government threatening to seize 51 per cent. ownership of all mines in the country. The lack of security of any kind of ownership is hardly likely to encourage the foreign investment needed to reindustrialise Zimbabwe.
Just a few weeks ago I visited for the third time and I saw for myself the hunger, illness and desperation stalking the country. The cemeteries are filling up, but no blood is being spilled. People are just fading away, dying quietly and being buried quietly with no fanfare and no international media attention. Each week an estimated 3,500 Zimbabweans die from a unique convergence of malnutrition, poverty and AIDS. The figures suggest that, far from the media spotlight—no BBC cameras allowed in—more people die in Zimbabwe each week than in either, in the past, Darfur or Iraq. Those deaths are largely preventable, but without significant intervention the situation threatens to develop into a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions.
The Zimbabwean Government continue deliberately to underplay the extent of the malnutrition crisis for political reasons, using food as a political weapon, most recently in the rural elections. The World Health Organisation’s figures, released earlier this year, put life expectancy in Zimbabwe as the lowest in the world—34 for women and 37 for men. Despite attracting little media attention, those figures, which relate to 2004, show the gravity of the situation.
Recently, there has been a crackdown on the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, and I met many of the trade unionists who have been beaten up. Those brave trade unionists are fighting hard to get their voices heard and for the rights and basic democracy that we take for granted.
One of the things that this country can do is try to change international perception of what is happening in Zimbabwe. Mugabe is not stupid. He is a clever operator and he has manipulated world opinion, especially in the African region. He has also played on our memories of past struggles to paralyse progressive opinion that should be expressing outrage at what he is doing. It should be as unacceptable to defend Robert Mugabe today as it was in the past to defend Pinochet of Chile or Idi Amin of Uganda. Our Government cannot expect sustainable development in Africa until we find ways of preventing the plunder of its economies and the destruction of its natural and human resources by rogue leaders. Persuading regional leaders that they must engage in finding a way to end the crisis in Zimbabwe is basic to the future well-being of the entire Government there.
The Government have a real opportunity to support the recent moves towards a resolution of the situation in Zimbabwe by promoting the initiative from within the Southern African Development Community region. The recent decision of the new chairman of SADC, the Prime Minister of Lesotho, to dispatch a ministerial action group to Harare has evoked furious reactions from the ruling ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe. Lesotho’s decision to put Zimbabwe high on the SADC agenda shows an acceptance, at last, that the crisis there is undermining the economies of the region and peace there. I understand that that indictment of Mugabe’s regime at last has the blessing of the Governments of South Africa and Botswana. SADC countries are beginning to face up to the political realities of the crisis in Zimbabwe and accept regional responsibility for dealing with a member state that has long been in breach of its fundamental obligations as a member of that community.
I welcome the recent statements of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Lord Triesman, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Trade, both of whom are now prepared to speak out more clearly and unequivocally on Zimbabwe. I wish that Ministers in other EU countries would stop trying to undermine the targeted sanctions in their own national self-interests and without regard to the plight of the people of Zimbabwe. I hope that the British Government will do what they can to stop France from inviting Mugabe to the African conference in the new year. We must ensure that we support the efforts of those who carry on the struggle inside Zimbabwe—civil society, the Churches and the opposition. They need money and resources, and we have to find ways of ensuring that they get them.
Mugabe’s final term is due to end in March 2008, but there are already moves afoot to extend it to 2010. He is terrified of ending up in a cell in The Hague like Charles Taylor of Liberia. If the opposition in Zimbabwe are prepared to say that one man cannot be allowed to stand in the way of ending the suffering of an entire nation, we could accept that. Offering a way out for Mugabe and, perhaps, other figures in the ruling party could form part of negotiations on a transitional process. That process has to pave the way for a new constitution and genuinely free elections so that the people of Zimbabwe can start to rebuild their country and its institutions under a democratic Government.
Many hon. Members might think that compared with other emergencies around the world, the situation in Zimbabwe is a relatively unimportant problem. In fact it is relatively straightforward, but it requires leadership and political will. The people of Zimbabwe would welcome any serious initiative with enthusiasm. That would not require military involvement from our already overstretched armed forces. With the help of allies in Africa, a solution is possible.
Conditions in Zimbabwe have not got any better; they are getting worse. The brutality of the regime has not declined. It is prepared to disregard all civilised standards when it comes to suppressing expressions of dissent from trade unions, churches or civilians. However, during my visit there I saw that there is a unity of purpose. A cohesive opposition alliance has emerged between trade unions, civil society and the opposition, who are planning together for the future. That gives me grounds for optimism.
There is no point in devoting tens of millions of pounds of my poor constituents’ money from DFID’s budget to food aid and efforts that will at best ameliorate and at worst camouflage the impact of ZANU-PF’s wanton mismanagement if ways of funding the organisations that make up the mainstream opposition cannot be found. The Prime Minister is not going to get his legacy in Iraq; if he wants a real legacy, he should spend the next six months going around the African countries and really working. He could end up getting a solution to the problems in Zimbabwe. The Zimbabweans and the world want that, and it would give the Prime Minister his legacy.
This has been a quite exceptional debate. After the opening speeches, the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) gave us an example of a former Defence Minister quietly dissociating himself from the policy that he supported when he was in office. That was done very gently, as is his style.
As far as I can see, there are no supporters of the Government’s approach, or people who are willing to defend them. Indeed, I think that the Government realise that we are in a pretty pass as a result of the foreign policy that we have followed since 1997.
I entirely agree with the analysis made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I have heard a few speeches by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) in my time—as many as four or five a day in 1997, when I was on regional tours, trying to support the beleaguered Conservative troops in the countryside. Today’s speech, however, was a real tour de force, and I have rarely heard him speak better. It was a pity that during that speech, the Minister for Europe—the former Defence Secretary and the four-hour Secretary of State for Europe—was grimacing and making faces on the Government Front Bench. He does not even answer questions on Europe during Foreign Office questions. Instead, he is reduced to doing his duty of manning the Front Bench.
The Minister for Europe grimaced when my right hon. and learned Friend pointed out the consequences of the failure of our policy, but in Kosovo, our policy had to be rescued by the Russians. In Iraq, we now look to the Syrians and Iranians to help us to get out of our position. In Afghanistan, we have managed it so that platoon positions in the villages were freed up by what were, to all intents and purposes, negotiations with the Taliban. Those are the consequences of using hard power over the past decade. In the speech made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), there were important lessons about the use of soft and hard power today, and later I shall return to his important message about Hamas and Hezbollah.
Imagine if the United States had not, historically, pursued a policy of hard power and isolation towards Cuba, but had instead pursued a policy of engagement. Is there the slightest chance that Cuba would still have the Government that it has today if it had not been isolated by the United States? The same applies to countries such as Syria and Iran. We need to try to engage with such countries, because a policy of isolation has had the unintended consequence of bringing about the ugly Governments that we hope will change in due course—a hope that is shared by the majority of people in those countries.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, gave an excellent analysis of Iraq, and he had something important to say about the need to deepen our cultural, social and educational links with the Arab world. I am co-chairman of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, together with the hon. Members for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin), and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed). A few hon. Members present will, I hope, have heard of it, but sadly our activities are not on a large enough scale, and we are not resourced well enough. I have just been to Bahrain with the director of that organisation to explain that some of us in the United Kingdom Parliament are working towards a greater understanding of the Arab world.
Given the UK’s long history of involvement in the region, and her apparent depth of understanding of the area, our friends in Bahrain express bewilderment that the UK should have been party to the catastrophe in policy of the past 10 years. I have to point out to them that the UK’s deep experience and knowledge of the subject has largely gone. We heard terrific speeches from my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Rushcliffe, for Devizes and for Kensington and Chelsea, but it was the generation before them that had experience of the administration of many of the territories in the Gulf. For all of us in the House, that world has gone, and as my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary suggested, we must now work very hard to rebuild our understanding of a region in which there are many friends of the United Kingdom. We all need to appreciate that those links must be rebuilt. The UK’s reputation has suffered the most awful damage due to the Iraq imbroglio. It is time to put that right, with patience and humility, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said in his speech on the anniversary of 9/11. We have an enormous amount to re-learn.
Bahrain, which has strong links of friendship with the UK, is holding elections on Saturday 25 November, and is gradually and overtly progressing towards a constitutional monarchy. At various events during my visit, I talked to Bahraini ladies who were concerned about the consequences to them of the elections. Their values are liberal and western compared to most of the people of Bahrain and they are waiting with some apprehension to see what will happen on 25 November and what kind of lower House Bahrain will elect. We need to support such countries as they make tentative steps towards a more representative system for their people, but the effect of our policy has been to radicalise populations across the entire region.
I have talked about our friends, but what about movements whose values we do not share, such as Hamas and Hezbollah? We have to find a way of engaging with them. There can be no solution in Palestine without Hamas. There can be no settlement or stable Government in Lebanon without the participation of Hezbollah in some way. We must make it clear in every possible way that the path of violence is not sensible for them, and that it is catastrophic for their citizens and a disaster for us.
The challenge we face is to separate Hamas and Hezbollah and other movements rooted in national issues, such as the Chechen and Kashmiri resistance movements. We have to isolate those movements and analyse them according to the circumstances that have produced them. The real destructive enemy of our values is a cult—a sect called al-Qaeda—but we have created support for al-Qaeda, which is seen by British Pakistanis, for instance, as the exemplar for resisting the west and supporting Islamic values.
All our policy should be aimed at reducing the automatic support for al-Qaeda that is springing up inside our society. We must make clear precisely what the nature of that organisation is, which means that we must understand other conflicts, such as those in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya and Kashmir, and not simply roll them all together in our rhetoric, for example by using expressions such as “the axis of evil”. That is disastrous and produces the clash of civilisations. We must be extremely careful about how we describe people whose methods we deplore. We need to understand why Palestinians voted for Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. We need to understand why Hezbollah has such enormous support among Shi’a Muslims in southern Lebanon.
If we understand those things and take the opportunity to turn the board around—to see what the conflicts look like from the other side—and try to engage by all possible means with people whose values we may not agree with or support, we shall have a much better chance of producing a world for our children that is much more stable than the one they seem likely to face.
I will start by talking about the issue that is at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy: Iraq. There is a shambles out there and death and destruction is unfolding. I was one of those who voted in 2003 against the war in Iraq. I have listened to the vilification of several of my colleagues as though they somehow did not support or back our troops, who are losing their lives and are paying the highest price for our foreign policy. That was brought home to me by the parents of the 100th solider who died in Iraq, who are my constituents. Although I have not been aware of any soldiers from my constituency who have died, their families have asked me what is happening out there. Such people deserve an inquiry. As several hon. Members have said, it is an outrage that although the Prime Minister will take part by video conference in an inquiry that is being held in the United States, he will not come to the House to explain exactly what is happening, what the plans have been up to now and what the plans are for the future.
The House voted to go to war in Iraq because of the hunt for weapons of mass destruction. The intelligence at that time was bad and many have said that the House was misled. Since that day, terrorism has grown in Iraq. At that time, there were those who believed that the regime should be changed. There is now no doubt that Iraq is a hotbed of terrorism, and exactly the same is happening in the Gaza strip.
When the Queen’s Speech was read in the other place, we heard that one of its key aspects was
“to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, including addressing international concerns over North Korea and Iran”.
Iran and North Korea want to join the club of countries that have weapons of mass destruction—nuclear weapons. This country has 1 per cent. of the total number of warheads. The USA and Russia have more than 10,000 warheads. It would be no bad thing if we continued to hold under our control a declining percentage of warheads. We have heard today about choices that have been made about resources. There are serious questions about the resources that are available to our armed forces: the Army, Navy and Air Force. Their resources will be further limited if a massive amount is spent on replacing the Trident missile system.
We have heard excellent speeches during the debate and a thread has run through them. I have been a Member for five years, and I was amazed that the speeches made by the right hon. and learned Members for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) and for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) were similar to those made by the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson). This debate has been a unique occasion.
We have heard again and again about the chaos that is unfolding in Palestine, the occupied territories and the west bank. The subdivision of the west bank by the actions of the Israelis and the construction of the wall, the barrier, the ditches and the fences are separating community from neighbouring community, separating farmers from their farms, separating villages from their wells, and separating hospitals from their patients. The action, which is supported by the United States, might hold back a tide of hate behind the wall, but the risks are growing. We need to engage with all parties out there and ensure that the tension that is rising on both sides of the wall does not continue to increase. Ghettos are now being created in the west bank. Villages are being cut off and the economy is being destroyed.
With Christmas just around the corner, what is happening in Jerusalem and Bethlehem should be on all our minds. We are seeing there individuals who cannot carry on their everyday lives. The majority of the members of Hamas who were elected to Government are in prison, and the Israeli Government are chasing the rest of them to try to put them in prison. That is a complete disaster. Even those who oppose Hamas think that the policy being followed is a disaster, because they believe that although without that policy Hamas would not be delivering what it promised before the election, the fact that the Israeli Government are withholding $60 million to $65 million a month of revenue means that every disaster that unfolds can be blamed on others. Hamas is benefiting from the policies being followed by the Israeli Government, supported by the United States. As I mentioned, the Gaza strip is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda.
The third issue that I shall touch on is the environment. I welcome the inclusion of a climate change Bill in the Queen’s Speech, but we need action. A couple of Members said that we give the terrorists too much credibility. Terrorists thrive on publicity, but the greater threat to future generations is climate change. There must be a financial commitment from the Government. Less than £1 billion is spent on tackling climate change directly, but an estimated £4 billion could cut 12 million tonnes of carbon from domestic output, and £10 billion to £20 billion spent on renewable energy investment could cut emissions from power generation by a further 50 per cent. Investment on a massive scale is required, but the resources would be available if such huge sums were not invested in the replacement of the Trident missile system.
The issues are linked—the lack of support for our conventional troops, the forthcoming debate in the House on the replacement of the Trident system, and the troubles in the middle east—and all were mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. It is interesting that among the range of contributions to the debate, only one supported the Government’s position. That was in relation to their commitment to international development and the work of the Secretary of State for International Development. A number of Members in the Chamber have sat through the entire debate. There has been a lonely figure sitting on the Government Front Bench. One or two Members have joined the debate and may contribute later. Those who have spoken have, by and large, made it clear that the Government do not have a foreign policy. The Government’s policy is a disaster.
I think the hon. Gentleman was referring to me. I understood that most of the House supported the Government’s policy on international development, and until today I thought that that was the position of the hon. Gentleman as well. Will he allow me briefly to clarify my position on Iraq? I voted against the Government. I spoke against the Government. I find it rather confusing that the official Opposition seemed even more desperate to go in than the Government were at the time, but that does not seem to be the tone of their speeches today. I hope that helps the hon. Gentleman.
I had finished speaking, but I am delighted to allow the right hon. Gentleman to clarify matters. I am aware of his position, which is similar to mine in support of international development. I agree that a number of Members on the Conservative Benches have slightly nuanced their position over the past couple of years.
I hope the House will forgive me if I depart from the focus on one or two geographical regions of the world, important though the debate has been in relation to those areas. It has been a privilege to take part in the debate and to enjoy the extremely informative speeches of what I would call the three high towers of the Conservative Back Benches—my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
In my brief contribution I shall concentrate on the general principles of democracy building, and make the case for Britain being at the forefront of building democratic capacity around the world in the way that I shall define it, and certainly not trying to impose it. First, however, I shall flag up two situations that concern me. We have not yet had any reference to Belarus. It is a disgrace that there, on the edge of the European Union, in the heart of geographic old Europe, there is still a dictatorship. The UK and particularly the EU could be doing more to focus our efforts to underpin the forces of opposition in Belarus, and to broadcast to that country truth and media reflections of what is going on in the real world.
There has also been much debate about North Korea, where the situation is desperately grave. I am probably one of the few Opposition Members who has been there—it was three years ago—and it was the grimmest, bleakest experience of my life. Not only does the country have nuclear plans, but 25 million people are cold, hungry and starving, so I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench and the Government will, in the run-up to the six-party talks, use the European Union and other world forums to urge the North Korean Government to allow non-governmental organisations and international charities into the country to help to meet the needs of their starving, cold and oppressed people. Any contact is good and we certainly want more support for that country and its people.
I want to develop the theme that democracy building should be a major plank of British foreign policy. Let me first briefly explain what I mean by democracy. I am certainly not talking about simply promoting the Westminster model or saying that we are perfect, even though we have been at it a long time. I could produce a long list of things that we could change in our democracy, not least the status of the second Chamber, the role of the Whips in Parliament—I hope that is written down in the Government Whip’s little blue folder—party funding and voter turnout. Many things should be changed in our democracy and the constant evolution of the way we do things is entirely healthy. We have been at it a long time and, as my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party has suggested recently, we have experiences that we can, with humility and patience, share with many willing participants in the developing world.
Although democracy will always look different wherever it is to be found, I believe that four pillars must be present in every healthy democracy. The first is the ability to elect and get rid of people we call politicians—those who are brave or perhaps stupid enough to put themselves forward for election—and to elect the Government we want and then to remove them when they do things that we do not like.
I certainly support the election of a certain percentage of the upper Chamber, although I am not sure that I entirely agree with Opposition Front Benchers that the figure should be 80 per cent. However, I agree that we should elect a significant number.
It was a striking disappointment for me to realise some years ago in my work on democracy capacity building that we cannot really have democracy without political parties. I am sorry about that; I wish that we could. We certainly need politicians and they need to cohere around a set of principles and, in the end, that means that they form parties. Party politics is by no means perfect, but we need to support it and build its capacity where it emerges in fledgling democracies.
The second pillar that needs to be found is the rule of law. No one is above the law and we look on with interest at the sight of our Prime Minister possibly being questioned by the police about certain things that he may have done. I have no idea whether he has done anything wrong, but I find it healthy that he is not above the law and that our police force does not conduct itself with partiality. The rule of law also involves independent judges who decide without fear or favour, a commitment to the rights of the individual and a respect for human rights.
The third pillar found in a healthy democracy is freedom of speech and a free media. Sometimes we pull our hair out at our irresponsible media, but I am glad that we have our media rather than those in Belarus or Burma. This pillar also involves the freedom to criticise those in power, the freedom to worship whichever God we choose, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to travel. Freedom is an important pillar of democracy.
The fourth pillar is a strong civil society. A country is not just made of the state and individuals. In between are all those little platoons of charities, organisations, associations, unions, Churches and faith groups that form the glue of that society and hold the whole thing together. That is what I mean by the promotion of democracy.
Churchill described democracy as the worst form of government ever invented, apart from all of the others, and I am sure that he was right. Every democratic country will have its own home-grown version, with all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, and that is how it should be. I am persuaded that democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. If anyone thought—I am not sure that they did—that we could simply go to war in Iraq and impose democracy from the outside, they have been proved wrong, because that has clearly been a non-successful policy. Democracy will look different and it cannot be imposed, but the four pillars of free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech and a strong civil society will be found in every healthy democracy.
In the long run that will mean that a country will enjoy better governance—good governance—and that will lead to better lives for its citizens. If I were to say the one thing that we could do for any of the failing states where people live in such abject poverty or suffer such human rights abuses, it would be to help those countries to build a democratic framework so that they end up with good governance.
Despite what some may claim, Britain has much solid experience in all those four pillars. In fact, we are rather good at them, warts and all, and we have experience to share, albeit with patience and humility. If we add that to our international heritage and our global networks, it soon becomes clear that we should be at the forefront of offering help and support in building capacity in all those nations that aspire to become stronger democracies. We do that in three principal ways.
The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has existed since 1994 and it provides a platform for both party-to-party capacity building work, and institution- to-institution work, both the political and the civil society streams. But its budget is roughly £4 million a year, which is peanuts compared with what other countries, such as America and Germany, spend on democracy building. The budgets of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute are around $100 million each per year, and the Germans also spend a lot of money.
Secondly, last year more than £200 million from the DFID budget went on support for democracy and good governance. That is commendable and to be supported, but I simply ask whether that was spent in a focused way, or whether it could have been better spent on democracy building and good governance projects through a specialist organisation.
The third way in which we build democracy is by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—through various of its posts—buying in specialist capacity building services in a country, not least through the global opportunity fund, and there have been successes. Bahrain was mentioned, and that was an example where the global opportunities fund was put to good use in supporting its fledgling democracy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC World Service also has a part to play, albeit directly in democracy building and sharing British values and the values of the free world across the world? Does he further agree that the Foreign Office might look at extending Chevening scholars more globally in order that people understand the four pillars of democracy that he rightly underlines?
My hon. Friend is right. Those are very much part of the focus that Britain should have in its foreign diplomacy and policy.
Whenever I go to Africa or central Asia—I am fortunate enough to travel quite a lot at the moment—and sit down and talk to people about their lives and ask them what is the biggest problem that they face in Kenya, Zimbabwe, or wherever it might be, interestingly the answer is nearly always the same. They do not say poverty; they say corruption. Linked to that corruption is a sense of powerlessness to do anything about it. The only real antidote to corruption in the long term is a robust democratic framework that produces good governance: the ability to vote a corrupt Government out of office in a free and fair election; judges of integrity who are independent to challenge corrupt practices at every level in society; media that can expose wrongdoing; and a strong civil society that can produce and sustain men and women of values in office.
My call therefore is for the Government to ramp up our democracy-building services in this country by planning for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to grow into a major global player as a specialist arm of British foreign policy, and in particular to develop more specialisation in the two pillars of democracy that we currently do not really do: to strengthen the rule of law and to underpin freedom of speech in various countries. That £4 million business should be encouraged to grow into a £40 million business in the next three to five years, which would increase the impact of our work. That money would be crumbs off the table in terms of the DFID budget, and it would be better spent in a more focused and strategic way.
WFD is often seen as an underachieving institution—of course, that was not true when the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) was its chairman—but a process of renewal is now under way. There is an awful lot of hope for the future of WFD, and it is time that the Government changed their attitude towards it by promoting it as a major arm of Government policy. It has started to win contracts, which is a step in the right direction.
Our grandchildren will live in an increasingly globalised and interdependent world, and decisions made in faraway countries will impact on them. Let them at least know that we, the preceding generation, did our utmost to establish strong democratic traditions all over the world.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), and I appreciate his remark about me.
I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House because I was not here for a period this afternoon as I was chairing a Select Committee meeting. Unfortunately, the way in which the business has been organised led to that clash.
I was here for the opening speeches, when I was pleased to hear the Foreign Secretary refer to the Commonwealth. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office does not always pay sufficient attention to the Commonwealth. The White Paper on active diplomacy, which sets out the 10 strategic priorities, did not mention the Commonwealth, which was unfortunate, so it was good that the Foreign Secretary referred to it today.
The Foreign Secretary also said that there should be no question of cutting and running in Iraq, which is absolutely right. Whatever views hon. Members may have about the current situation—there have been welcome references to handing back Maysan province to Iraqi control before Christmas, and there are plans involving Basra in the spring—we must recognise that we need to give a sustained commitment to the democratic institutions and constitution, which were established by the 12 million brave Iraqi people who defied bombs and beheadings in order to vote for democratic change in that society.
Two weeks ago, King Abdullah of Jordan spoke to Members of both Houses at a meeting in the Royal Robing Room, and his message was sober and sombre. However, he also told us not to cut and run, because of the consequences not only in Iraq, but for Iraq’s neighbours. In that circumstance, Iraq’s neighbours might try to intervene in Iraq in order to influence the outcome of a breakdown in that society, which would potentially result in three different warring areas.
In 2003, I voted for the intervention in Iraq. I did so because of my long-standing commitment to my Iraqi Kurdish friends, whom I have known for many years from their living in this country, and to those on the left in Iraq who suffered brutality and repression in Iraq at the hands of Saddam’s regime. The Prime Minister has used the word “resile” in a different context, and I will not resile from my support for self-determination and ridding Iraq of a dictator.
I must admit that the situation today is far more difficult than I thought it would be. I have visited Basra on three occasions, and on each visit I thought that the situation was worse than it was on the previous occasion. All hon. Members must learn the lessons from the mistakes that have been made in Iraq. One of the mistakes was clear on my first visit in May 2004, when the British military wanted to open Basra airport. They were not allowed to do so because the matter was under the ambit of the collective decision of the coalition provisional authority, which took the view that it would be politically dangerous to open up the situation in Basra in advance of that in Baghdad. In retrospect, that was one of the most damaging decisions taken, because Basra, which is a port and provides access to the rest of the world, could have achieved normal economic development for a society that operated—as it still does to a large extent—as a state-controlled system with almost no private enterprise. If Basra had been opened up in that way, it might have led to other highly beneficial economic developments.
I have spoken to many Kurdish politicians about that issue and they believe that the best security for the Kurdish people of Iraq is a federal, democratic Iraq. If that fails, I suspect that the Kurdish people would want a separate state, and there would be a danger that Iraq’s neighbours—Turkey, Syria and Iran, each of which has a minority Kurdish population—would intervene. The Scottish Nationalist party proposes simplistic solutions to problems in this country, and they have simplistic solutions, too, for the much more complex problems in Iraq.
It is possible that there will be a significant reduction in the British military presence in Iraq, but we must sustain democratic, humanitarian and other commitments to the Iraqi Government, the Iraqi people and their democratic institutions for a long time to come. There should be an international commitment under the UN—we have authority under UN resolutions even now—but we must recognise, too, the nature of the British contribution in the long term. President Bush will visit Jordan in the next few days. I understand that he will meet the Iraqi Prime Minister, and I hope that he will listen to what he says. I hope that he will listen, too, to the views of King Abdullah and other Jordanians on the importance of engaging countries in the region.
I raised that subject in my intervention on the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). The American Government must rethink their role towards countries in the region, including Syria and, more importantly, Iran, where it has not had a diplomatic presence since Jimmy Carter was President, when diplomatic relations ended. The US does not have an ambassador in Syria, but it has an embassy and a chargé d’affaires. In Iran, however, it does not have anything. The Americans fail to understand how the Iranians, who are a very proud people, feel about their 3,000-year-old Persian history. The issue is complex because we are dealing not just with the problem of perceptions on the Arab street, but with the Sunni-Shi’a conflict and the fact that Iran is not an Arab country.
If developments in Iran go badly, the country’s Arab neighbours in the region may wish to acquire nuclear weapons in a short time. That is destabilising and it could be disastrous for the peace and security of the whole world. The more countries that have nuclear weapons—particularly countries that lack democratic traditions and have a history of hosting jihadist and Wahhabist groups—the more danger there is that a terrorist group will gain access to weapons of mass destruction and will be prepared to use them. The debate about nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction must therefore be raised to a much more sophisticated level, so I hope that when the Government publish their White Paper on Trident they will address those complex issues. When debating them we should consider not just the costs of particular weapons systems, but the international context. The world we live in today is, sadly, very dangerous and very different from how we had hoped it would be at the end of the cold war.
Reference was made briefly to the situation in North Korea. I went to Korea for the first time in September, and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) was with me. We were in the demilitarised zone and, frankly, it was bizarre. It was like being in a 50-year-old time warp, with giant towers and North Korean and South Korean soldiers in poses standing off against each other. We have to understand that there is serious potential for a resumption of conflict in that area. We need to give more attention to assisting the six-party talks process and what is being done by the neighbours of North Korea to bring about stability.
Finally, I want to make brief reference to the fact that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office budget is under pressure. We continue to close posts in a number of Pacific islands and in southern Africa, and the level of diplomatic representation in several European countries is being run down. Could we not have a more sophisticated approach to some of these issues? I met the Kyrgyz ambassador to the UK yesterday. We do not have diplomatic representation in Bishkek—although the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has been calling for it for a long time—but I discovered yesterday that there is a Department for International Development operation there. Is it not absurd that only one arm of the British Government is there? Could the person who runs the DFID operation perhaps provide visas for four hours or two mornings a week so that people do not have to go all the way to Kazakhstan to get a visa to come to Britain? That seems to be common sense, but we have not yet considered it. I raise that as a suggestion to the FCO and DFID to see whether there are ways in which we can improve our representation internationally.
The Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) made a thoughtful speech, and I agreed with much of it. There has been a remarkable consensus across the Chamber and it has been a real pleasure to listen to many of the speeches.
However, I risk shattering that consensus a little by taking issue with the Foreign Secretary’s statement that there have been some 60 debates on Iraq since 2003, in response to my questioning why the Prime Minister does not come to the House and lead a debate on current and future policy on Iraq. Most of the debates that the Foreign Secretary mentioned looked back into the past. I ask the Minister to understand the deep sense of frustration in the House because the Government refuse to allow a full and proper debate on the future of Iraq, as illustrated by the number of speeches that have dealt with Iraq in this debate.
It is absolutely disgraceful that the Prime Minister refuses to come to the Chamber and discuss current policy when he is more than prepared to contribute to the Iraq study group’s deliberations and to other deliberations around the world. It was the Prime Minister who led us to war, and given the deteriorating situation in Iraq it should be the Prime Minister who comes to the House and leads a debate on the subject. Everybody outside this place is discussing the issue, including politicians in the US. We in this House need urgently to be part of that debate, yet the Prime Minister refuses to make himself answerable to the House of Commons and that has to be wrong.
That is wrong for a number of reasons, the first being that the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate. Whether one agrees with the Iraq body count estimate of 47,000 Iraqi civilians killed or The Lancet estimate of 650,000 civilian dead since 2003, it cannot be disputed that the situation is getting worse. October was the worst month on record. Meanwhile, each week thousands of people are being displaced in Iraq by sectarian violence, and they are then gravitating towards their own ethnic groups. Whatever policy we are pursuing in Iraq, it is clearly failing—yet the Prime Minister still refuses to come to the House and account for Government policy.
The policy must be wrong when we consider the extraordinary intervention of General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army. We should not underestimate that. From their earliest training, soldiers are taught not to disagree with or contradict the elected Government of the day, yet Britain’s top general did just that. He made it clear that the presence of British troops in some parts of Iraq is exacerbating the situation. He also said that the Army was stretched to its limit and meeting challenges on the hoof. The Government must tackle that. Why are troop deployments allowed to continue when they exacerbate matters? Why did the general feel that he had to air his concerns to the media? Is there a lack of communication between the Army and the Government? That has implications for servicemen’s lives and Parliament has a right to ask the Government to tackle those matters. Again, the Prime Minister refuses to come to the House and be answerable for Government policy.
The policy has got to be wrong because there is no clear strategy for moving forward. At a press conference last month, General George Casey and the US ambassador in Iraq pushed for a national compact. Almost simultaneously, our Foreign Secretary conceded in an interview at least the possibility that Iraq could be broken up into three parts. Then, President Bush stated that Iraqi forces could take over in a year. Meanwhile, the Iraq study group is apparently seriously considering suggesting that Syria and Iran become part of the solution. Having listened carefully to the Foreign Secretary today, I remain unsure of the British Government’s position on each option.
Let me be clear: like others who spoke before me, I am not in the camp that supports an immediate withdrawal or believes that we should cut and run. That would simply compound the original error of invading. However, we need a clear strategy, which is currently lacking. Simply saying that we will stay until the job is done or that we will not cut and run is not a strategy. What exactly is the job? Clearly, the original US vision of a liberal western-style democracy has failed. The Chief of the General Staff has clearly stated that we should lower our ambitions in what we hope to achieve.
What is the objective? What is the job? By not answering the questions and not leading a full debate in Parliament on the matter, the impression is given that the Prime Minister is simply ducking the issue and that we shall stay until President Bush gives us the all-clear to leave. That is not a sound policy for this country. We must also remember that a strategy is not the same thing as a timetable.
Parliament needs to press the Government and the Prime Minister on their thinking on those matters. The decision to go to war belongs to the past. Given that the Prime Minister’s justification for war—Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction—has been proven false and that matters are deteriorating, there is no hypocrisy or opportunism in wanting to hold him to account on the current position.
More important are the present and the future. Parliament is failing in its duty if it does not question the Government about a policy that is costing many lives and clearly not going according to plan. Indeed, unless we have a full and proper debate led by the Prime Minister, Parliament runs the risk of repeating its original mistake in not examining or scrutinising the evidence closely enough when it followed the Executive’s will to go to war.
The issue has been given added urgency by the growing evidence to suggest that our invasion and bungled occupation of Iraq exacerbates the terrorist threat in the UK and overseas. We have seen various reports in this country and the US, as reported in The New York Times, which have not been contradicted or denied by the respective Governments, suggesting that the link between continued occupation and terrorism is very real.
US and British policy in this region as a whole has been marked, I would suggest, by double standards, poor assessment of intelligence and bloodshed over the years. The Prime Minister tries to justify our involvement in Iraq by saying that Saddam Hussein has been removed, but we cannot go goose-stepping around the world and invading countries because we think that they may present a threat and then, on discovering that they do not, justifying our actions by claiming that the world is now a safer place. That is the law of the jungle: it is illegal and contravenes the United Nations convention.
One day we will have a foreign policy of which we can be proud—one that will take a principled stand on what is good for the peoples of the region and good for peace around the world. It will be one that will not slavishly follow the whims of a particular faction in the White House, which cannot even muster international support. I speak as someone who respects the United States and its past accomplishments.
For all those reasons, I believe that we need a full debate so that Parliament can properly assess the current situation in Iraq and future policy options. If the Prime Minister can discuss the position with the Iraq study group, he should be prepared to come to the House of Commons and discuss it here. As I say, it is an absolute disgrace that he refuses to do so. I just hope, Madam Deputy Speaker, that we do not have to wait too long before that happens.
In July, the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, paid a visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan to investigate the deployment of British troops over the last five years, particularly in Helmand. Reading the newspapers, it would be easy to believe that it is a simple problem of eradicating the stubborn elements of the Taliban regime, but who exactly are the Taliban and how are they to be identified? If anyone thinks Taliban thoughts, are they automatically the Taliban? If a villager shoots at British troops, does it mean that he is definitely the Taliban?
Simple tags do not work in Afghanistan or any other part of the world. That is why I was particularly taken by President Pervez Musharraf’s comments when the Select Committee met him in Islamabad. He has a troubled and fractious country and his tactics have not always been condoned by the west. However, his strategy in the tribal areas of Pakistan has echoes of the approach adopted in Northern Ireland. He has accepted that a military solution alone is destined to failure. Instead, he is supporting a programme of social development and is striking partnerships with the tribal leaders, who in recent years have been challenged by the extreme religious leaders in that part of the country.
The Pashtuns do not recognise the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. They travel freely between the two countries. Our mission in Afghanistan was initially about supporting reconstruction. We have since been battling to bring about the stable security conditions that would allow that reconstruction to take place, but who delivers that reconstruction is as important as the reconstruction itself. I appreciate that one agreement has been struck in Helmand with a local leader and others have been discussed. However, if we are to advance the cause of peace and security in Afghanistan we must re-examine our approach and learn any lessons that need to be learned from across the border in Pakistan.
When the Select Committee met a group of a dozen Afghan parliamentarians, the final question was posed by an MP from Helmand. He said, and I paraphrase, “You have been here for five years, but nothing has improved and there is no peace. Why are you still here?”
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the fundamental problems that we face in Helmand is that the military cannot deliver reconstruction? The military can deliver only stabilisation. It is down to non-governmental organisations, international organisations and local people to deliver reconstruction, yet we are currently not managing to co-ordinate their efforts to enable them to do that.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I was disappointed to hear that the representative from DFID had only recently returned to Helmand after several months in Kabul, because of the security situation in the south.
Sitting in the room with the Afghani parliamentarians was a British soldier who was mourning the loss of a friend and colleague who had lost his life in Helmand that very day. He was angry with the questioner. To me, that was a poignant moment. It reinforced our important duty as parliamentarians not only to make considered judgments, but to follow through on the commitments that we make in the House.
The US-led mission Operation Enduring Freedom was less interested in long-lasting security and reconstruction, and more concerned with tracking down Osama bin Laden—who, in case we have all forgotten, I remind the House is still a free man—and with eradicating al-Qaeda. However, the NATO mission has a better ethos and better objectives, even though its success will be a test for NATO and its member nations, many of which still need to step up to the plate with significant troop numbers.
The fundamental problem is that we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan when we kicked down the door in Iraq. We desperately need an inquiry into the strategy in Iraq and what we do next. As many hon. Members have said, it is insulting for the Prime Minister to assert that holding an inquiry here would undermine the troops, when that is exactly what the Americans are doing. What makes matters worse is that he then gives evidence to the US inquiry. Apparently Britain is allowed to have its inquiry, but he is the only Member of the House who is allowed to give evidence to it.
By over-committing in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces are overstretched. The Minister will know that in 1997 the Government announced in the strategic defence review that Britain would be able either to mount one major operation, on the scale of the 1991 Gulf war, or to undertake a sustained lesser deployment, like the Bosnia operation in the mid-’90s, while being prepared to mount a second, relatively small operation—say, a brigade-sized operation—elsewhere. That was updated in 2002, to reflect the experience of having to do more small operations than had been planned.
The problem, as both the Armed Forces Pay Review Body and the National Audit Office have said this year, is that the assumptions are always broken. For at least the past seven years, the forces have been operating at levels higher than those contained in planning assumptions, even when the assumptions were revised. That causes overstretch and also means that some equipment wears out more quickly than planned. Resources are allocated against planning assumptions. Although occasional fluctuations above the plan are to be expected, continuous over-tasking causes cumulative problems.
With our current commitments in a range of locations throughout the world, there is little doubt that our forces are suffering from overuse. They have had to call on reservists to plug gaps on too many occasions, which must limit our ability to respond to unforeseen crises. I and others are concerned about the likely consequence of that overstretch. Individuals may suffer from burnout, resulting in reduced lengths of service and a reduction in the average experience levels. Such overstretch may also make the armed forces less attractive to new recruits at a time when recruitment is so important.
Last Saturday, in Inverkeithing in my constituency, two former members of the armed forces came to my surgery. They were frustrated and angry about the treatment that they had received after they had left the Army a few years back. They had both suffered for years from what they now know is post-traumatic stress disorder, which had been caused by their years of service in Northern Ireland. After years of seeking support from the NHS to treat their symptoms, but without success, they eventually discovered the charity Combat Stress, which immediately identified the problem and secured the necessary care for them. They asked me why the NHS was not set up to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder among ex-members of the armed forces. Why did they not know about the charity Combat Stress? Why is it a charity rather than a fully funded part of the NHS? I hope that the Secretary of State will consider those points from my constituents in his response.
I want to turn to the procurement of weapons and platforms for modern warfare. In the coming months, Rosyth is expecting a decision from the Government to proceed with the construction of two future aircraft carriers. Provisionally named HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, they will each weigh 65,000 tonnes, be 265 m in length, be capable of speeds of up to 25 knots and have a hangar capacity for around 20 aircraft. The final stages of the build will be completed at Rosyth, which reflects the high regard for the yard and its work force in the industry. It has a reputation for effectiveness, efficiency and delivering on time and within budget, with which I am sure the Secretary of State will agree.
Will the Secretary of State give us an update on negotiations with the future carrier alliance? When does he expect a decision? Will the Navy base review consider basing the carriers at Faslane? What role does he expect Rosyth to have in the refit? The two future aircraft carriers will be essential for modern warfare, in which we are increasingly involved in conflicts in far-flung parts of the world where we have few allies with the necessary airbase capacity. Those carriers will give us the flexibility and capacity to respond to modern threats. They will also allow us to respond in a targeted and responsible way. That cannot be said of cluster bombs.
Before the hon. Gentleman moves off the subject of carriers, does he recollect that one of his party’s spokespersons in the other place said that it would be preferable for the carriers to be built in the United States? What does he think of that?
I thank the Minister for that—[Hon. Members: “Helpful.”] It was very helpful. As the Member representing Rosyth, I would obviously advocate the effective and efficient dockyard in Rosyth for the building of those carriers. As a Scottish Member, I am sure that the Minister would also advocate that.
To return to cluster bombs, the Prime Minister today evaded my question, refusing to even mention the words “cluster bombs” in his response. They are indiscriminate weapons, which have been used in Lebanon and caused many deaths after the conflict ended. Amnesty International deputy secretary-general Kate Gilmore said:
“The use of cluster bombs in the heart of where people live clearly violates the prohibition on indiscriminate attacks and is therefore a grave violation of international humanitarian law.”
I urge the Government to act now to support an international ban on the use of cluster bombs.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie) who spoke with authority, particularly as a result of his visit to Afghanistan. He also handled the helpful intervention by the Minister with great aplomb—he carried it off well, as Liberals must always do when such internal discrepancies are pointed out.
I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) is no longer in his place, having looked in briefly to contribute to the debate this afternoon. In a debate that has lasted some five or six hours now, he was unique in giving some support, albeit half-hearted, to the Government’s position with regard to Iraq. He and the Foreign Secretary are the only two Members who have so far spoken in favour of what the Government are doing in Afghanistan. We look forward to the Secretary of State for Defence winding up the debate. Let us hear how well he defends the Government’s position.
My right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) made the interesting comment that there was a great deal in the Queen’s Speech about foreign policy and security, but nothing at all about defence. How on earth are we to deliver the Government’s great ambitions, however, without some satisfactory reference to our defence capabilities? The truth is that foreign policy should not drive capabilities; capabilities should be available for whatever foreign policy the Government lay down. We seem to be getting that the wrong way round at the moment in saying that, were certain foreign policy developments to occur, we would not be able to do anything about them. It is interesting that both the Chief of the General Staff and the two brigadiers who have been in charge in Afghanistan have made it plain that they can barely do what they are asked at the moment and that, were some new catastrophe to occur in the world, it is extremely unlikely that the British Army would be able to respond to it.
It was humiliating at the time of the crisis in Lebanon when no consideration at all was given to whether we should form part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission. I hasten to add that I think it would have been quite wrong for us to do so; none the less, the reason given for our not doing so was that we did not have the necessary capabilities. Even had we wished to, we could not have gone to Lebanon because we did not have the soldiers and other capabilities that would have been required.
The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point, but he is surely not suggesting that the only contribution the British can make to any deployment of force where it is necessary is to put boots on the ground. That would be impossible, given the way in which troops from the international community are deployed across it. No country could be represented by boots on the ground in all interventions.
The Secretary of State makes my point for me. My point is that what we should be doing in this great nation of ours is deciding what we wish to do about foreign policy, and that we should be reasonably content that there are capabilities with which to carry it out. It should never be the case that the Foreign Secretary stands at the Dispatch Box and says “I should like, Mr Speaker, to have done X, Y or Z around the world, but sadly I have not the capabilities to do it”—but I suspect that that is precisely the position in which we are at this moment.
Before I leave the difficult subjects of Afghanistan and Iraq, which have been mentioned so much this afternoon, let me say that I bitterly regret one event in my parliamentary career so far. I resigned, or moved on, as one of the shadow Defence Ministers at the time of the invasion of Iraq because I felt so strongly that it was the wrong thing to do. The bit I regret is that the Whips persuaded me not to vote against the war, but to abstain. In retrospect, I strongly wish that I had had the power of my own convictions, voted against the war and returned to the Back Benches then rather than subsequently. The war was wrong, it has been handled entirely wrongly, and now I find that virtually the whole House supports my position on it.
The important question that we must consider this afternoon, however, is not just whether what has been done in Iraq and Afghanistan is right, wrong or indifferent—the House has heard a great many thoughts on that—but whether we are able to carry out the tasks that we have been asked to carry out, there and elsewhere. The truth is that we are suffering from three very significant problems in our armed services, and the Government are showing no inclination whatever to put them right.
The first problem involves numbers. With 102,000 soldiers, the British Army is now the smallest army we have had since Waterloo. We are not able to perform many of the tasks that we would like to perform. Reserves—the Territorial Army—are being used for tasks that we would never have contemplated when I served in the TA for seven years. If I had been told “You will almost certainly spend six or 12 months in Iraq or Afghanistan, often fighting with bayonets fixed”, I would not have been too happy about the prospect, although it is now the norm.
The worrying thing is that in the last two or three years, a quarter of the reserves—some 13,400 soldiers—have left. The fact is that our reserves are becoming smaller and smaller as the dependence of the regular Army on them becomes bigger and bigger. We have problems with both recruitment and retention. I think it right for us to spend some time this afternoon asking ourselves why that should be.
The first and most obvious reason for disaffection in the armed services is, of course, equipment. There were all kinds of causes célèbres during the Iraq crisis when proper equipment was not issued to our services: they did not have the right body armour, or the right kind of desertification for the tanks. That is quite wrong. We cannot ask our boys—or our girls—to go off to dangerous parts of the world and do things without giving them the equipment that they need, including large equipment.
It was interesting to hear Brigadier Lorimer—whom the Secretary of State called General Lorimer earlier—saying that he wants tanks. He wants Warriors. He wants another battalion of soldiers, as he said very publicly and straightforwardly, but he ain’t getting them.
Before the Secretary of State leaps to his feet and says that Brigadier Lorimer did not say that, let me point out that it is very interesting that he is said to have said it. It is also very interesting that his predecessor, Brigadier Butler—grandson of the great Rab Butler, incidentally—said on the “Today” programme that he did not have the resources he needed to carry out the tasks that he was required to perform in Afghanistan. I remember it well. The Secretary of State will immediately leap to his feet and deny it, but it was on the “Today” programme and the extract is available on paper. Now we have the Chief of the General Staff, no less, saying that the Army is close to breaking point and that he needs more equipment. Yet the politicians sit on the Front Bench and laugh. They say “These generals did not say that”, or “These generals are wrong. They have plenty of capabilities. They can do what they like.” I suspect that I would rather listen to Brigadier Lorimer, Brigadier Butler and General Sir Richard Dannatt than listen to them.
What my hon. Friend and I know—I know it from my experience as a special adviser at the Ministry of Defence—is that the business about the request is, in a sense, a fallacy behind which the Secretary of State can conveniently hide. The request will almost certainly come from the working level, but it will then have to be staffed all the way through the MOD chain of command, and part of the discussion on it will take place between officials of the MOD and the Treasury. The art of the possible will then be considered, and a request will be staffed through the chiefs of staff committee to the Secretary of State for Defence. But it will not necessarily be the same request as that which came from the working level. I hope that my hon. Friend will urge the Secretary of State for Defence to make sure that he understands very clearly what is happening at the working level as well as what he is presented with by his most senior officials.
My hon. Friend, who was a special adviser at the MOD, makes his point extremely well. He is right that it might well be the case that what the boys on the ground are demanding has been watered down by Treasury or MOD officials by the time it reaches the ears of the Secretary of State.
Those of us who are in regular contact with soldiers know what they want to happen. We can listen to what the generals are saying, albeit in coded language. We know what they are after, and we know that they are not getting it from the Government. It is disgraceful to ask our boys to do difficult tasks in dangerous parts of the world and not to give them the equipment they need.
The current lack of morale in our services comes about not simply because of lack of numbers or lack of equipment—although there has been a significant number of deficiencies in equipment over the years. That lack of morale stems from something much more subtle and interesting, which could be put right much more quickly than either of the two reasons I have mentioned: the way that the families of servicemen are looked after back at home.
There is a significant problem with the Defence Estates: two thirds of all of our servicemen live in housing of a lower standard than we would expect for our constituents who live in council housing. There is also a significant problem with wages—with pay and conditions of all kinds. While I welcome the bounty that the Secretary of State recently announced for those serving in theatres of war it does not go nearly far enough, particularly for those serving in theatres of war or difficult circumstances elsewhere for short periods, such as my constituents based at RAF Lyneham.
I have discovered some interesting statistics: the fully trained private soldier is currently paid £14,322, the fully trained bricklayer is paid £18,512 and the fully trained police constable is paid £22,770. It is interesting to think back to 1979 when the Conservative Government came into power: the first thing we did was have a fundamental review of the pay and conditions and living conditions of our armed services personnel. If the Secretary of State wants to tackle the problems and cut the leakage that we face in terms of recruitment and retention, and if he wants to be certain that he can deliver in the future, he must not only look at the total number of soldiers, sailors and airmen that we have on our front lines and consider what has gone wrong in terms of equipment, but he must give fundamental thought to the conditions of the families left behind when servicemen go away to serve in difficult conditions.
It will not surprise the Secretary of State to learn that one piece of equipment that I particularly wish to raise with him is the Hercules aircraft, which is of course based at RAF Lyneham in my constituency. We have been campaigning for a considerable length of time to have foam suppressant fitted to the wing tanks of the Hercules, and it has been fitted to two planes. I entirely agree with the Secretary of State that we should not do that to too many planes—there are 50 of them in total—as that might not be cost-effective. However, I understand that there are at least five planes currently operating in Afghanistan and a number of others are in Iraq, and the foam suppressant should be fitted to those planes. I appeal to the Secretary of State—as I have done on countless occasions in this Chamber—to hurry up the process of fitting foam suppressant to the wing tanks of the Hercules fleet.
That same appeal applies, of course, in respect of the heavy armour that our troops have requested and the heavy Land Rovers, and I think that it also applies in respect of accommodation. Too many of our troops in Afghanistan are living in tents. I understand that MI6 staff are the only people who have hard tops; perhaps that is changing as we speak, but until recently all our troops were living under canvas in some very hazardous conditions in Afghanistan. We need to get the provision of such equipment right.
I hold quite different opinions about our activities in Afghanistan and Iraq: I am wholly opposed to what we are doing in Iraq but rather in favour of what we are doing in Afghanistan. But whatever one thinks about Afghanistan and Iraq, and about our foreign policy stance elsewhere in the world, we have to get the fundamentals with regard to our defence right. At present we are getting them wrong.
There are too few soldiers and they have the wrong equipment. The conditions in which our troops’ families live at home are not such that they engender the highest morale on the ground. It is vital that we have an urgent review not just of the money being paid, but of issues such as the way in which our troops are handled. If this current Government will not initiate such a review, I call on my Conservative Front-Bench colleagues to do so, so that, the moment that we come to power three years from now, my hon. Friend the Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), who will then be Secretary of State for Defence, can put such changes in place and restore the morale of our armed forces on day one of a Conservative Government.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate. The Queen’s Speech is supposed to mark a new parliamentary year and set out the Government’s position; in other words, it is an indication of the party in power’s vision of where this country is going. However, having listened to the Foreign Secretary’s contribution, we are all very puzzled as to where this country is going. We would have learned more about the UK’s policy on Kazakhstan by watching the new film starring “Borat” than by listening to the Foreign Secretary.
I begin, as others have done, by paying tribute to our armed forces and their activities around the world. We have commitments across the globe—from Northern Ireland, to Cyprus, Africa, the Falklands, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Germany and Sierra Leone, as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. I therefore find it somewhat ironic that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister are telling the troops, “You are doing a good job—well done.” What they really want is to hear that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are doing a good job. Instead, there are cuts in manpower, equipment and funding. Since 1997, the Army has been reduced by 9,000, the Royal Navy by 10,000, and the RAF by 16,000. As has been said time and again in the House today, we are now experiencing overstretch. Soldiers in Afghanistan do not want a pat on the back; they want the Government to do their job. Our soldiers are rightly respected the world over, but it is increasingly hard for them to do their job when they are constrained by the size of the force and the nature of the equipment that they receive.
The Government’s failure to support our armed forces is having an impact, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) said. There is a recruitment crisis and there are problems with retention. As has been mentioned, the number of Territorial Army reserves has reduced from the 1998 level of 56,000 to 36,000 today. Some 13,000 reservists have actually resigned because of the consequences of current policy.
If that were not enough, people are also demoralised by the procurement process. We have the most complicated procurement process possible, and there are delays in getting equipment to the front line. Let us consider the SA80 rifle. It cost £92 million to modify 200,000 SA80 rifles, which works out at £460 per weapon. However, they only cost £400 each. There are other such examples right across the military spectrum, one of which is the Apache helicopter. This very important aircraft is doing a fantastic job in Afghanistan, and we wanted to buy it. But rather than purchasing it off the shelf, we decided to build a factory in this country and to construct them here. The price went up from $12 million to $40 million per helicopter.
Aircraft carriers, on which we have just had a brief discussion, are an issue that is at the very heart of the problem. Let us get the right kit for our military, rather than deciding what is best for a particular constituency in an effort to save particular jobs. Of course it is appropriate and useful to protect jobs in a given constituency, but the bottom line must be the kit that is being used by our soldiers, sailors and airmen on the front line. If they are not getting it—if there are delays—it is they who are affected. There are other key issues that have not been discussed, such as—as was pointed out—the joint strike fighter. Key decisions are going to be made in America in the next couple of months. Perhaps the Defence Secretary can bring us up to date on what is happening with that project, which is very much in the balance.
I turn now to two major areas of interest that have been covered in depth, the first of which is Iraq. The mid-term elections in America have prompted a new way of thinking, and I hope that the United Kingdom will be able to participate in consideration of the direction that we take with Iraq. The United Nations mandate for the multinational force runs out in December and has to be renewed. That provides us with a chance properly to consider where this country is going on that issue.
I never supported the war in Iraq and I never made the link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. I also fully condemn the complacent attitude to planning for the peace. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short) objected to the war, so she decided not to participate, from the perspective of the Department for International Development, in the post-war planning. She has a lot to answer for, in that we did not take advantage of the small window of opportunity in Basra to win over the local population. Things are getting out of control there. We have a civil war taking place, with more than 3,000 deaths every month.
We have heard many arguments about how we should proceed. The Americans are talking about three options—go long, which means stay in Iraq for a long time; go hard, which means put in more troops; or go home. That is how basic the argument is in the United States. However, we could consider another solution and I suspect that we will come to it in the end, one way or another. We can carry on as we are, heading towards civil war—I do not wish to detract from the work the British and American troops are doing, because removing them would cause chaos. The only solution is to partition the country into three separate areas.
Look at the costs. Britain alone has spent £4,500 million in Iraq since 2003. What have we got to show for that? There is very little electricity, hardly any petrol for cars, no development of communities and no jobs. The atmosphere is very scary. Add that to the billions of dollars that the Americans have spent and we could have built housing estates, hospitals and roads. We need some method of asking the Iraqis whether they would like to have a partitioned country with a federal system to take advantage of the oil that they are sitting on. That is a solution that could lead to peace.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We need more debates in the House so that we may pursue the issues further.
We either continue in denial while the country tears itself apart or we recognise the differences that exist. When a country has gone through what Iraq has gone through, it reaches a tipping point at which ethnic groups can no longer live or work together. We need seriously to consider some form of compassionate regrouping—as opposed to calling it ethnic cleansing. We should seriously consider offering individuals $200,000 to go and live somewhere else, instead of hiding in fear in the middle of Baghdad. The seeds of democracy that were sown by President Bush are dying and we need to review the situation.
I had the opportunity of visiting Afghanistan again three weeks ago and I was pleased to note that communities are developing in the north and roads are being built. Unfortunately, the limited peace has exposed a huge amount of corruption in the Karzai Government, which needs to be corrected. It stems not from President Karzai himself, who is clearly working hard, but from the failure of the G8 countries to fulfil their commitments. The Attorney-General, for example, is very concerned that the Italians have failed to sort out the judicial system, so prosecutors are receiving backhanders all the time. The Germans have also failed to fulfil their commitments on the police in Afghanistan, and Britain, I am sad to say, is failing to produce a strategy to deal with narcotics. The London accord has been signed, but there is no scrutiny and no body that can check whether the G8 commitments have been fulfilled.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Defence is in his place, because I wish to address the question of Warriors. I thank him for his correspondence on the issue, but Brigadier-General Fraser did say that he had requested more Warriors in Helmand province. He has told his Canadian troops to upgrade from their Bisons, which are large armoured vehicles, to Leopard 2s, which are main battle tanks. That shows the seriousness of the threat in Helmand province. We should consider that carefully. Whatever the score is with Brigadier John Lorimer—he probably did not expect to be mentioned so many times in this debate—there is certainly a need for a greater armoured capacity in the province. I have spoken to senior commanders there, so I know that they would very much like that.
I have written to the hon. Gentleman about Warriors, which he has asked about in this House more than once. For the edification of other Members, I placed a copy of that letter in the Library, because it is important that my response to him is shared with the whole House. I do not doubt that he had that conversation with Brigadier-General Fraser or that he reports it properly, but he should not advise the House that that means that a request was made to the MOD or British commanders for that specific capability. That is one reason why I put the correspondence in the Library. Conflating the NATO and British chains of command muddies the waters. I do accept, however, that he had the conversation that he says he had with Brigadier-General Fraser.
I am grateful for that intervention, but the Defence Secretary highlights the need for some cohesion between the British and NATO chains of command. That needs to be addressed because things are difficult there. In our previous exchanges on this issue, I have worried that he somehow challenges my support for what the British are doing.
I understand. We have a huge commitment in Helmand, and I would like to see other NATO countries involved. Of the 37 countries that are involved, one third have only 60 soldiers or fewer in the region. That is nothing compared with the huge might offered by the British.
I move to the issue of narcotics in Afghanistan. That is critical because it is a British G8 responsibility, and it is getting out of control. The drugs trade in Afghanistan has increased by 59 per cent. overall and by 168 per cent. in Helmand province, but the product could be turned into something commercially useful, such as codeine or morphine. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) said in his opening remarks, we have an opportunity here. Let us run pilot schemes in Helmand province to see if we can work with the farmers and prevent terrorists from benefiting from that product. We could put a tax on it that would help President Karzai and the central Administration. That would also wean the Afghans from their dependency on the drug culture.
When I was in Afghanistan three weeks ago the Afghan Government passed a law allowing for the commercial production of poppies for codeine and morphine for medicinal purposes. There was a similar project in Turkey in the 1970s that successfully moved the country away from a culture of growing heroin. We could do the same thing.
The Foreign Secretary’s contribution to this part of the debate on the Queen’s Speech did not contain anything about improvements to the procurement process, the commitment of our armed forces or their equipment, the new aircraft carriers, the reform of the UN, or the new direction of the EU. Much has been excluded and we are left wanting.
Much of the debate has centred on the major issues of the day—Iraq, Afghanistan, and the middle east. It has been a privilege and pleasure for me, as a relatively new Member of Parliament, to listen to the passionate and articulate speeches of hon. Members from both sides of the House.
I want to address a less high-profile area of our foreign policy that is often overlooked, despite its importance. At this stage, I suspect that Government Front Benchers will enjoy a short respite, but I emphasise that it will be short, because when I sit down the onslaught against the Government will doubtless continue.
We need a long-term strategic approach to ensure that Britain continues to punch above its weight—to use the famous phrase of the former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd—with foreign policy. Our status as a world power and a leading member of the UN will diminish unless we look more towards the future. It is vital that we take a more proactive approach in dealing with the newly emerging world powers. When thinking of the future, we must not rely exclusively on our existing allies. We need to expand our relationships beyond established, traditional links such as those with the United States, the European Union and Japan. In short, Britain must ensure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office actively cultivates good working relationships with the superpowers of the future.
India and China are already recognised as the next superpowers. India has the world’s second largest population and is a nuclear power. It has the fourth largest economy in the world, and that economy is growing fast. Of course, India has historic and valued ties with the United Kingdom, but we must not take those links for granted. We must nurture and develop those bonds even further, not least because our competitors are certainly working hard to develop closer links in our place. China has always been classed as a military power because of its military might, but as a result of the startling growth of its economy, its sphere of influence is growing to truly global proportions. China’s markets continue to expand, and it is forecast that, by the end of 2006, its economy will have grown by more than 10 per cent. for the fourth year in a row.
The whole world is trying to cultivate closer links with India and China, and that means that competition is fierce. Although we must continue to strengthen our ties with those two countries, we must also identify and cultivate the major global powers that will emerge after them. Brazil, for example, has the world’s fifth largest population and ninth largest economy, and has a diverse industrial base. Equally important is the fact that it borders every south American country except Ecuador and Chile, and so exerts considerable influence on all affairs on the south American continent.
Indonesia and South Africa are both developing as economic powerhouses. They are important countries in their own regions, and have a great deal of influence on neighbouring nations. Indonesia’s massive population of 223 million people should not be underestimated, and the same can be said of its economy, which is the 15th largest in the world. Moreover, it is the only east Asian member of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and its natural energy reserves mean that it is well placed to play a strong economic role in the region in the years ahead. South Africa is a major economic and military power and it has the potential to be a powerful force for good on the African continent. Our attention must also focus on Mexico, South Korea, Argentina and Thailand, all of which have growing economies and show all the signs of exerting greater influence on the world stage in future.
As Lord Howell said, earlier this week, during the foreign affairs debate in another place:
“the answers for the Middle East lie just as much in Beijing, Delhi, Tokyo and Moscow as they do in Washington and Brussels. We need the Asian powers—the rising powers—both for security in the Middle East and…if we are to solve the…problems of the future”
He went on:
“We will need China and India to be on side”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 November 2006; Vol. 687, c. 121.]
However, we cannot seek closer friendship for our own benefit without recognising the concerns of our potential allies. An obvious example is the frustration expressed by many countries about the United Nations. We must listen to those concerns and, where possible, make the necessary changes. It is in our interests to start taking that approach now, because when such countries reach their full potential, both economically and politically, it is to be hoped that they will remember who their friends were before they became major players, and so include us in their sphere of consideration. We must seize the moment and stay ahead, or risk losing power and influence as the world rapidly changes around us.
Building stronger links with those countries has other advantages, such as co-operation in trying to secure a safer world. Many of those nations have valuable links with countries that are not on such friendly terms with the west as we would like. India, for example, has close relationships with Iran; indeed, during the period of Clive of India, Persian was one of the main languages in that country. Those strong links continue to this day, and that close relationship could be useful, particularly given the present difficulties, and the west must not overlook it when considering dealing with Iran.
In like manner, China is expanding its sphere of influence and taking a much more active role on the world stage. China is probably the only country that can have a proper dialogue with North Korea, and it claimed credit for helping to ensure that North Korea did not repeat its recent nuclear tests by cutting off oil supplies in September and reading the Riot Act to North Korea before restarting and hosting talks.
We should welcome the pressure that China put on North Korea, but China can do more and we should encourage it to do so. China has strong economic links with Iran and should also be encouraged to use its influence in that area. I echo the sentiments expressed earlier by the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who is not in the Chamber at present. He pointed out that China has close links with Zimbabwe and should be persuaded to exert greater pressure on that troubled country. Indeed, the destitute state of Zimbabwe was effectively and passionately described by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) earlier.
I am pressed for time so I trust that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.
Building closer links with emerging nations will also ensure better prospects for Britain’s trade and economy. As the economies of those countries grow stronger, so too our trade prospects could improve, making available huge markets, with huge opportunities for Britain’s businesses—but we must be there now and not follow years later.
In February, George Bush made a highly publicised visit to promote the US’s “ambitious agenda with India”. Indeed, over the past five years, US exports to India have more than doubled and American businesses continue to work hard for that trend to continue. Closer to home, The Economist noted that
“Indian companies are in an expansive, acquisitive mood”,
and cited the example of the recent bid by Tata Steel to acquire Corus. It is crucial that we position ourselves now to ensure that British businesses share the success of those emerging countries.
The huge industrial growth of emerging countries, along with their rising middle classes, will ensure that their people enjoy the benefits of owning motor vehicles, luxury goods and the like, all of which will contribute to the problem of climate change. Closer relationships will assist us in trying to persuade those countries to be more supportive in ensuring that we avoid the catastrophic problems that could result from climate change.
There will doubtless be people who say that the horse has already bolted and that it is too late, but they greatly underestimate our existing strengths. We have the obvious and natural advantage that English is the international language of business and the second language of most of the world. Britain already has business links with many parts of the world, particularly with emerging countries. Moreover, Britain is a leading member of the Commonwealth, which comprises 53 member countries, and we should develop those links even further.
Britain already exercises a fair amount of influence on the world stage, and I think we all agree that we want that influence to continue. We must act now to nurture those relationships.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I would like to pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) who made an excellent speech giving us a global perspective. I pay tribute, too, to my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). As a new entrant to this place, it was a privilege and a pleasure for me to listen and learn from their contributions. I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their consistency and for the passion with which they communicated their views; they were articulate and to the point.
Britain is a force for good in the world, and if we are to extend that good, we need a foreign service. Tributes have been paid to our diplomats today. However, that foreign service has never been so overstretched, so I hope that Ministers will give a commitment that they will listen to concerns, which are often expressed only in private, about the overstretch of the foreign service, not just about the overstretch of our military. We have some of the best diplomats in the world, and they are respected throughout the world, but however good they may be, if they are not physically present that good clearly cannot be recognised and heard. They must be in post, so they need to be recruited, and the appropriate resources for such recruitment must be put in place.
I agree with the Government’s aim of trying to open up the foreign service and the civil service to a wider range of people. However, I hope that that will not lead to quota hunting or, if that happens, any diminution in the standards that have held the foreign service in repute for many generations—indeed, for hundreds of years. We need to ensure that the foreign service recruits the very best people from our universities and puts people in diplomatic posts on the basis of merit and ability, rather than by ticking boxes.
It is right that the debate has been focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, but I hope that the Government are keeping a watch on other important places in the world, such as the Philippines, which has a fragile democracy, and Indonesia, the democracy of which might be destabilised by certain factions in the country. We know that democracies throughout the Asia-Pacific region are subject to shifting public opinion and forces at work inside those countries, because we have seen that recently in Thailand. Although resources are rightly focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, I hope that we will not take our eye off other important countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America.
It is not insignificant that places such as Venezuela and Bolivia have regimes that allow British assets to be seized. Those assets form the pension funds of many people inside and outside the House. It is only right that the British Government should ensure that there are the necessary foreign service resources in all those parts of the world.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said that a common foreign and defence policy would assist Iraq and Afghanistan. I do not think that he has listened to what the French have said about Iraq and Afghanistan from the very outset. A common foreign and defence policy would undermine what has achieved consensus in the House today: the pursuit of a new era in which we seek collectively to have an independent British foreign policy. Yes, we should work closely with the Americans and our European partners when that is in our national interest, but there is no conflict or contradiction between having a global perspective or caring for those less fortunate than ourselves in countries near and far, and the self-interest to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) referred. That self-interest, and Britain being a force for good in the world, can come only from a strong Britain, a Britain that is secure. If we are weak and insecure, we cannot be a force for good in the world.
I shall touch briefly on defence issues. In the context of comments that have been made about the Warrior armoured vehicle, I make no apology for mentioning the Army Base Repair Organisation in my constituency. I am grateful to those on the Government Front Bench for their courtesy in replying speedily, on the whole, to my letters on a range of topics. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for granting a stay of execution to ABRO following the excellent report from the Defence Committee, for which I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). The Committee rightly pointed out that the attrition of vehicles in both Iraq and Afghanistan meant that repairs were required. Many of those repairs are undertaken in my constituency, and I hope the stay of execution to 2009-10, saving 800 local jobs, will be extended and a permanent solution found for ABRO.
That leads me on to the subject of the Defence Storage and Distribution Agency, which is also in my constituency. It has a superb and committed work force and I hope that the current so-called efficiency savings—a euphemism for cuts—will be reconsidered. We need to get kit out to the front line more quickly than ever, and the frequency has increased.
Many of those who work for the Defence Logistics Organisation at Sapphire house in the neighbouring constituency of Telford live in my constituency. I am concerned that the relocation from Shropshire to Bristol will undermine the important work that Defence Logistics Organisation staff do. We rightly honour and praise, applaud and celebrate the work of those on the front line, and I pay tribute to the Royal Anglian Regiment based in Shropshire, which has been committed in Iraq recently.
We should also praise those who supply our front lines, who provide the logistics behind all operations not only in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in Bosnia, Congo, the Falkland Islands, Canada, Germany and all over the world. I hope that the 6,000 defence workers in Shropshire will have a secure future as the Government recognise that if we are to be successful in the operations to which the Government have committed our armed forces, they need the support of all those important organisations.
Much of the defence industrial strategy is right, but I hope that the Government will recognise that in a changing world the only way that we can be ahead of those who seek to undermine our nation is through technological advantage. That ranges from unmanned aerial vehicles to intelligence intercept technology. I hope that the DIS will be flexible enough to deal with the threats that we face now and in the future. The procurement process needs to be speeded up, so that the nation can remain safe.
This has been a thoughtful debate. Listening to the contributions from all parts of the House, the thought has gone through my mind more than once today that were the public to see and hear more of the sort of debate that we had today, rather than always being fed the bear pit of Prime Minister’s questions, they might have a much higher regard for the House and the politicians in it.
Let me begin by paying tribute to our troops, who have put their safety on the line for our security day in and day out. In particular, I pay tribute, on behalf of all my colleagues, to those who have paid the price in terms of mortality, morbidity and life and limb. Every citizen of this country owes them a very great debt.
As has been said in many contributions, there is no doubt that many of our forces are overstretched—a point that was made particularly well by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). The harmony guidelines are all but disregarded, the Government are regularly breaching their own planning assumptions, and there is now a strong case to revisit them. When we listen to the contributions made here today and when we visit our troops, wherever they happen to be deployed, we realise that, intellectually, no conclusion can be arrived at other than that our Army is now too small for the tasks being asked of it.
The debate began with a long section of the Foreign Secretary’s speech, and an emphasis by my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary, on the situation in the middle east, particularly in Israel and Palestine. At a volatile time in a volatile area, there is a need to maintain a balanced picture and a sense of proportion. Let us remember that Israel is a democratic state with an independent judiciary and a healthy market economy system. Its right to exist, to protect itself and to maintain its borders is indisputable. So is the right of the Palestinian people to determine their future. We all seem to know where we want to end up in a two-state settlement; the question is how we get there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) said, it is very important, on the way, not to make the problems more difficult than they originally were.
There has been much talk in the debate about Hamas. However, it is worth the House understanding why Hamas came to power. It did not come to power because the citizens of Gaza were more anti-Israeli; it came to power because of the corruption of the Palestinian Authority and the fact that Hamas promised to deliver real changes on the ground in the things that mattered to ordinary people. That must be properly understood.
There has been much talk about democracy, but if democracy were simply about the exercise of electoral mechanics, Gaza and not Israel would be the beacon state in the middle east. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) made a telling speech about the need to see democracy in a wider sense. Democracy is not just putting a cross on a ballot paper once every five years; Britain was liberal long before it was democratic. We had 200 years between Adam Smith and universal suffrage. Our liberal institutions and values, our independent judiciary, our rule of law that applied equally to the governing and the governed, our respect for human rights, our ability to exercise our individual liberty in a market system and our ownership of property all underpinned our democracy. Perhaps, now and again, we might want to remember that it took us a long time to get to where we are now, and that other countries will not make the transition overnight. The more often we can make that point politically, the easier it is for us to hold public opinion with us here, and to hold public opinion in the countries where we are involved. Extending democracy is a laudable and noble ambition, but it cannot be done quickly.
That is the message that the United Kingdom should have pressed and should continue to press more and more with our allies in Washington. There is no doubt in my mind that there was—perhaps may still be—a shred of simplicity in some of the views in parts of the State Department that the process could take place more quickly and that democracy could be exported in line with an unrealistic timetable. Part of our robust partnership with the United States is about our ability to question some of the policy pronouncements that it makes.
In any partnership, there will have to be give and take, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) made it clear in his comments about the joint strike fighter that if we are to have a meaningful strategic relationship in defence with the United States, it will have to give as well as take. That means that on the software issues, it will have to make sure that the intellectual property transfer comes to a trusted ally. If not, the partnership will be weaker for that.
There was much talk about the wider middle east, including north Africa and Turkey. Stability in north Africa is hugely important for security in the Mediterranean, a region of huge strategic importance to the UK. It is worth looking at the difference between NATO’s approach and the EU’s approach to the problem. The NATO-Mediterranean dialogue is producing some real results. It should be further up the NATO agenda, and I would like to see it given greater emphasis at the Riga summit, but it stands in stark contrast to a failure in the Euro-Med process, where the free trade area that was promised by 2010 as part of the 2004 treaty of Agadir will not happen. If NATO can push ahead to build relations with some of those north African states so that they can look to the Mediterranean and northwards for their prosperity and security, and not south to the Gulf, that will be of enormous benefit to the United Kingdom and our wider security.
That wider security comes into great focus when we consider the question of Turkey, which is a key NATO ally. It is a secular, westernising, liberalising country, moving in all the right directions, sometimes too slowly, but none the less moving in the direction that we would wish to see. It is an important buffer zone between Europe and some of the more militant Islamic states. We in Europe have a simple choice: either we encourage Turkey to move towards us, holding out the hope of membership of the EU, or we risk a Turkish backlash when those in Turkey believe that no matter what changes they make they will never be allowed into the EU, and instead of having a secular, modernising state on the European borders, we find ourselves with a militant Islamic state on the border of Greece. Those French and German politicians who think that playing to their domestic audiences is smart had better start to understand what the strategic consequences of alienating Turkey might be in the longer term.
Much of the debate, reasonably and expectedly, focused on Afghanistan. From the very outset, we have agreed the basic aims of the Government’s policy in Afghanistan: that to create a stable, democratic state that does not allow the nurturing of terrorism is in our wider national interest and failure would be strategically disastrous, for reasons that we have often set out in the House. The cohesion and reputation of NATO would be at stake and we would embolden our enemies—and if we abandon the people of Afghanistan halfway through, who would believe us ever again when we said that we would help? We undoubtedly have a moral commitment that must be seen right through to the end.
But we need to understand the mission. This is a UN-sanctioned mission, carried out by NATO because it is our common security that is being defended, and it is simply not good enough for some of our NATO allies to fail to pull their weight in this mission. They need to raise their defence expenditure and their political commitment to the whole process. It is simply not good enough to have German, Italian or Spanish troops already deployed, but which cannot be used properly when they are needed by the force commanders.
There seems to be a difference in Afghanistan, where British troops understand that they are a single force under NATO command while too many of our European allies seem to believe that they are national forces under a NATO umbrella. There is a crucial difference between the two, and the Government need to invest a great deal of diplomatic effort in convincing them of the need to make some changes.
There are two matters that the Government need continually to undertake in Afghanistan. The first is a realistic assessment of where we are and the likely rate of progress that we can make, and the second is to ensure that our troops have all that is necessary to maximise the chance of success of the mission and minimise the risk to our troops themselves.
The realistic assessment goes right back to the beginning of the rhetoric that the Government used at the beginning of the deployment in Afghanistan. We were told that our mission was not war fighting but reconstruction, then we sent 16th Air Assault Brigade to do the business—hardly a force for reconstruction and peacekeeping. Only 10 per cent. of the promised reconstruction spending has ever materialised, and if we cannot produce the basic infrastructure benefits for the ordinary Iraqi citizens that they believed we arrived there to produce, we run the risk of finding ourselves much less welcome in the time ahead.
There is a problem here with the Department for International Development, because it is not possible to undertake that reconstruction, which is in itself vital to the maintenance of the military mission, in a zero-risk environment, and there seem to be too many in DFID who do not want anything to do with conflict, and therefore do not want to be involved in any risk. That culture is not acceptable, for the long-term potential success of the mission.
Finally on that point, there was an interesting intervention by the Secretary of State for Defence on my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary on the issue of what Brigadier Lorimer might have asked or may ask for. From the discussion on the Floor of the House I have concluded that the Prime Minister has promised that what our commanders on the ground want, they will get. The Secretary of State for Defence has said that he has not yet been asked for some of the specifics that were mentioned at the weekend. If requests are made for more troops, artillery, armoured vehicles and tanks, I assume that the correct understanding of what we have heard today is that those things will be supplied.
If there is no purely military solution in Afghanistan, that is even more true in Iraq. Yes, we can help to train the army and the police and to support the fledgling democratic Iraqi state, but the bottom line is that peace and stability will come only when the various ethnic groups in Iraq realise that they can have either co-existence or co-destruction.
There are no easy solutions, although a number have been bandied around the Chamber today. Withdrawal is not an easy solution. As several of my hon. Friends have said, it is likely to lead to an increase in insurgency and loss of life. Setting a timetable is not sensible, because it would invite insurgents to try to disrupt it. Partition is not an easy solution, because Turkey will not take kindly to a separate Kurdish state on its southern border. If we were to adopt that solution, we would run the risk of transferring the conflict from one part of the region to another.
It would help if we were to admit some of the mistakes that were made at the outset. Disbanding the Iraqi army, the one institution which commanded public respect, was a mistake; the under-deployment for the reconstruction period was, in retrospect, a mistake; and the length of time taken to give out the contracts for reconstruction was a mistake. That is not to say that the basic decision was wrong, but we need to understand that our mistakes have probably made our involvement in Iraq longer and more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
One strong point coming out of today’s debate has been the demand from the House for accountability. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) has said, we have the right to debate policy with the Prime Minister, whose policy this primarily is, in a proper debate rather than in the context of a statement, where the dynamic is very different, in front of this House and in front of the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made that point very powerfully.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe made another very important point when he said that the Prime Minister no longer has an influence on events. We need to consider whether we have a Prime Minister who no longer has the political weight at home or the longevity to see through some of the things that he is promising and whether, far from being an asset for the country, he is now a strategic liability.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said that the regional dominance that Iran is likely to enjoy is the unintended consequence of policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he discussed the need for a better carrot and a more credible stick. There is no doubt that bringing Iran to the negotiating table in support of a settlement in Iraq would be a desirable end in the right circumstance, which is Iran understanding that it is in its national interest for there not to be a civil war in Iraq that destabilises the region. However, it is not in our national interest to give anything to Iran, especially in relation to its nuclear programme, to try to bring it to the negotiating table. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in particular Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons, cannot be in our national interest, regional interest or global interest, and we must do everything that we can to prevent what happened in North Korea from happening in Iran. I am afraid that that means that we cannot rule out at any point the use of force, if it is ultimately required in some way.
That brings me to the extremely important question of the nuclear deterrent. In a world where proliferation seems less controlled, it would be madness for this country to abandon its independent nuclear deterrent. We cannot predict what sort of threats we will face 20 or 30 years down the line, so the onus to make the case is not on those who want to keep the deterrent, but on those who want to scrap it. This party has always known where it stands on the nuclear deterrent question, and we have never changed our minds about protecting the United Kingdom. It is the Prime Minister, the one-time CND campaigner who was a one-sided disarmer during the threat from the Soviets, who has changed his mind. That particular journey reflects in miniature the journey that he seems to have made with the whole new Labour project.
We live in an increasingly dangerous world, with state threats, asymmetric threats and threats to energy security. We have just celebrated Remembrance Sunday, when we commemorated the sacrifices made by previous generations to provide us with freedom and security. It would be the ultimate betrayal to fail to show the same moral resolve in our generation, to maintain those prizes. We need the structures, resources and political commitment to continue that battle. Failure would be unthinkable and inexcusable. Whatever our differences in the House, in that I believe we are united.
I am pleased to respond to our debate on behalf of the Government. I share the view of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that it has been a thoughtful debate, and it has certainly highlighted the complex challenges that we face. The solutions are clearly not easy, but I believe that we have the right foreign, development and defence policies to deal with the challenges in an increasingly uncertain world, including international terrorism, proliferation, regional instability, and fragile and failing states. Every day, I am struck by the scale and enduring nature of those challenges, particularly by the sacrifices that they ask of our armed forces, who have to deal with them on the ground in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose courage and professionalism make it a privilege to serve in this job.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) was unfairly critical of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. He suggested that debate had been inadequate, and that she had not addressed those issues that he listed in his peroration. The fact is that she made a wide-ranging speech, in which she was extremely generous in accepting interventions. Indeed, she may have accepted an intervention from him, although I do not remember whether or not she did so. I was struck by the immediate response to her speech by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who in large measure suggested that there was a confluence of views across the House and agreement on a significant number of issues. In any event, however, a speech of that nature is time-limited—I have a comparatively short period in which to respond—so it is an exercise in priorities. In the closing minutes of our debate, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) made an interesting speech that would justify a debate of six hours or more. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and others will look carefully at the issues that he raised. Although I will not make a specific response to his contribution, its significance is not lost on me.
Time is short, so let me turn first to Iraq. I accept what is clearly the view of the House, that we face a very challenging situation in Iraq. Every time I have addressed the issue at the Dispatch Box I have recognised the nature and scale of that challenge, and I have neither sought to play down the nature of the violence in Iraq nor to be complacent about it in any way. We must understand who is perpetrating that violence, why they seek to prevent the democratically elected Government from sustaining themselves, and why they have made it their life’s work to do so. That is the most significant reason for our standing by the people of Iraq and their Government in these most difficult of times.
Several times at the Dispatch Box, I have spoken of my appreciation of the Opposition’s long-term support for our actions in Iraq, and I would like to repeat that appreciation. I know how important it is to our people, particularly in the military, to have broad support and understanding back home for the difficult and dangerous work that they do. At this juncture, I wish to break off to make a point about morale. A number of speakers were wrong about the morale of our troops, particularly troops deployed in theatre. I have visited the theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan on a number of occasions, and I have spent a significant amount of time talking not only to troops deployed in theatre but to those who have returned to the UK. I can tell the House without fear of contradiction that morale among our troops in both theatres is of the highest order. I do not accept from those who clearly have not had the opportunity to speak to our troops on the ground, or to our diplomats and others who support them, suggestions that they are disillusioned—that disparages the work that they do. They are not disillusioned; if anything, they are concerned about the failure of others back here in the United Kingdom to appreciate what they do.
Given what I have said about the support that we regularly receive from the official Opposition on such matters, I was surprised by the position that they adopted during the Opposition day debate three weeks ago. Of course, there will come a time when it is right to learn the lessons of the past three years—in fact, at an operational level, as many people know, we do that continuously—but to have an inquiry that focuses on the past when what matters most is the future of Iraq and when our soldiers are there on the ground working for the future seems at best unwise, and it is certainly opportunistic. The Conservatives even admitted during the debate that they did not agree with it. I hope that, as the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks suggested, we can put that behind us and resume the mature and responsible approach that has previously categorised our debates on the subject and that I have always welcomed.
There are limits to how far we should go in debating military strategy given the need to protect our forces who are carrying it out, but I am always happy to debate the broad outline and I am happy to do so again today. The broad outline of our strategy in Iraq is clear and it has not changed. We are there to support the Iraqi Government formed just over six months ago, when 12 million Iraqis braved intimidation and violence to exercise their first free vote in decades. We are there to build up Iraq’s own army and police to the point where they can deal with the security threat and to give the Iraqi Government the space to forge a new political settlement, because in the end only a political settlement can reconcile the rivalries and resentments that underlie the violence.