I consider it an enormous privilege to open today’s debate as Foreign Secretary. My purpose is to set out how the Government will engage abroad to help to build security and prosperity at home.
Today, I laid a wreath and led a service of remembrance in the Foreign Office to remember those members of our staff who have been killed in the line of duty, including two in the past year. It is therefore appropriate that I use this debate to recognise the dedication, bravery and skill of Britain’s diplomats, armed forces and aid workers around the world, and I am sure that the whole House will join me in doing so.
Members in all parts of the House agreed last Wednesday that Pakistan must be close to the centre of our foreign policy concerns. I am sure that the House will therefore understand if I start with the crisis in that country. I will not rehearse the proximate causes of the crisis nor our short-term aims and objectives—clarity about free and fair elections, General Musharraf’s resignation as head of the army, restoration of media freedoms, and release of political prisoners—but I spoke yesterday and this morning to our high commissioner in Islamabad, and this is the current position.
The commitment of General Musharraf to elections by 9 January is welcome. Less welcome, however, is the lack of clarity on when the state of emergency will end. Current conditions stand in the way of free and fair elections, and there are mixed signals about the amendment to the Army Act, which allows civilians to be court-martialled, primarily for terrorist charges. This lack of progress on the position of political prisoners, which I discussed with leading human rights campaigner Hina Jalani in London last week, is a major concern for all friends of Pakistan. I am sure the whole House will also deplore the deportation of three British journalists and continuing restrictions on media freedom.
Is the Foreign Secretary satisfied with the operation of the entry clearance system in Islamabad during the crisis? I have had representations from constituents who have been unable to get visitor visas while the situation is ongoing. Is he arranging for any further help to be given, resources-wise, to help the entry clearance operation?
Yes, I am confident that processes are being taken forward with normal speed. If my right hon. Friend wants me to look at a particular case, I shall of course do so. I visited the visa centre last July and saw the work that is going on to deliver 200,000 visitor visas a year with a 24-hour turnaround. I am happy to take up individual cases, but as far as I know from discussions with the high commission, there are not any problems.
The House will agree that the best interests of Pakistan—its security and development—are served by a managed transition to democratic rule, with elections that are genuinely free and fair and allow the voice of the moderate majority to be heard. There is also a Commonwealth dimension. Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister and I, as well as the Secretary of State for International Development, will attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kampala next week. Today, the Commonwealth ministerial action group will meet to discuss Pakistan.
The focus of the Commonwealth conference will be on broader issues of governance, democracy, climate change and the millennium development goals. It is right that the issue of Pakistan is on the agenda for the Commonwealth conference, and if there is no progress on the current position the Commonwealth will have to look at all available options, including suspension, as we discussed last week. The Commonwealth ministerial action group will consider the situation today and take stock, pending the discussion by leaders next week.
As I recall, the ground rules for membership of the Commonwealth that are enshrined in the Harare declaration mean that a dictatorship cannot be a member of the Commonwealth—or at least, that such a state must be suspended from it. At what point will the British Foreign Secretary deem that the line has been crossed so that we must consider suspension of a state from the Commonwealth?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Clear rules were set out in, ironically, Harare. In 2002, we showed that suspension is a tool to be used, and Zimbabwe was expelled from the Commonwealth. We have to judge each case against the criteria as it comes up, but I assure my hon. Friend that matters will be properly dealt with.
The crisis in Pakistan raises many of the central questions facing UK foreign policy. I want to address, first, democracy building and the rule of law, especially the situation in Iraq and the middle east; secondly, counter-terrorism, especially the situation in Afghanistan, which is a key test for the future of NATO; and thirdly, nuclear proliferation, especially the position of Iran. I will then address the important legislation we will consider on the future of the European Union and its institutions.
With those important considerations, is the Secretary of State not concerned that Lord Malloch-Brown has been described by Foreign Office officials in the newspapers over the weekend as a liability? The Prime Minister actually said, in The Spectator and The Times, that had he known it would have caused such a fuss, he would not have appointed him at all.
Lord Malloch-Brown is an experienced diplomat with a huge amount to offer to British foreign policy, and he has an important contribution to make in his work on Asia and Africa. He has already shown in his work on Darfur and Zimbabwe that his experience can be put to very good effect, and I suggest that we judge the noble Lord by his actions, which will show excellence, rather than by rumours that concern the past.
The Foreign Secretary has said that Lord Malloch-Brown is an experienced politician—
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for assisting me even further with the question that will follow. Given that Lord Malloch-Brown is such an experienced diplomat, why has the Foreign Secretary had to reprimand him for describing Burma by a term acknowledged by the United Nations, but not by Britain?
I am about to answer the question. On multiple occasions, the noble Lord referred to Burma, which is exactly how we do it, and on one occasion he referred to Myanmar. The noble Lord will make a major contribution to British foreign policy, his experience will be put to good effect and I suggest that we deal with actions rather than words.
As we are talking about the competence of lords, will the Foreign Secretary say what happened to Lord Drayson, who until last Wednesday was due to open a debate on the very subject we are talking about? I understand he then got into his car and disappeared. Would the Secretary of State explain exactly what happened to him? Why did he depart so quickly?
I just want to inform my right hon. Friend that I have had a very constructive meeting with Lord Malloch-Brown. I went to see him precisely because of his extensive knowledge of Africa and his role with the UN. I think he will prove an invaluable Minister.
On the issue of Pakistan, will my right hon. Friend confirm our position with respect to continuing to fund the Pakistani Government and the development of their systems and democratisation process?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I explained to the House last week, we are determined that no actions that we take could hurt the people of Pakistan. The focus of our development aid on health and on education is widely supported across the House, as is the funding that we are giving for free and fair elections. This is certainly not the time to withdraw that aid.
I said that I would address first the situation in Iraq and the middle east peace process. The decision to go to war divided the country, but nearly five years on from the fall of Saddam Hussein, now is the time not for historical reckoning but for practical engagement. Without prejudice to the sincere views about the original decision to invade, now, following unanimous United Nations Security Council resolutions and the democratic vote of 11 million Iraqis, we have the chance to unite around the vision of an Iraq proceeding step by step to self-government on the basis of better security, stronger economic development and enhanced political reconciliation.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was in Iraq last week and he will speak for himself and for the Government later. However, our priorities are clear: to fulfil our obligations to the people of Basra as we move towards Iraqi security control in December; to work with the Government in Baghdad to promote an inclusive political system and culture; to ensure that the terrorism of the PKK is addressed head on in the north of the country in partnership with the Government of Turkey; to support economic reconstruction across Iraq; to engage all the neighbours of Iraq, Sunni and Shi’a, in a shared commitment to stability in the country; and, finally, to rally the international community around the globe behind the goals set out in UN resolution 1770.
My right hon. Friend quickly passed over the question of the PKK’s working with the Government of Turkey. He made no mention of the autonomous government of Kurdistan. The people there have had a democratic structure since before the invasion and clearly have a role to play in the solution—and that includes the Kurdistan Democratic party, which controls the part of the country where the PKK is hiding out.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Both the Baghdad Government and the Kurdish regional government in the north are critical partners of the Government of Turkey, along with coalition forces led by the United States, in bringing security to that region.
The middle east needs a stable Iraq, but it also needs security for Israel and a viable state for Palestinians. The stakes in the next year could not be higher, with a choice between the best chance for many years to deliver a two-state solution and the alternative of bloodshed and instability on the basis of failed talks. I will see and hear for myself the current prospects when I visit the region next weekend.
Anyone who has stood in the olive groves of Bethlehem or the town centre of Hebron will have seen the deprivation and poverty of a country under occupation. Apparently, the situation in Gaza is 10 times worse. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that he aims for a two-state solution, not a three-state solution with Gaza and the west bank treated separately?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which we have been addressing in this House since the attempted coup in Gaza in June. It is absolutely clear that as well as ensuring a two-state solution and reaching out to all those committed to peaceful means we must also ensure economic, social and humanitarian development in all parts of Israel and the occupied territories. I can absolutely confirm that, although the initiative lies with President Abbas, and it is for him to lead a reconciliation among the Palestinians, we are clear that we must aim for a two-state solution.
I do not for one moment question the right of Israel to exist—that has been my view from the very beginning, in 1948—but how can it be said that Israel is genuinely committed to a two-state solution, with a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, when there is not the slightest prospect of Israel’s giving up so much of the land occupied since 1967? Israel not only refuses to give up that land in negotiations but continues to build settlements. How, therefore, can it be argued that Israel is genuinely committed to the peace process?
I know the passion and long-term commitment that my hon. Friend has brought to the issue. He is absolutely right, and it is our view as well, that the settlement process is not helpful towards the two-state solution that he and I seek. Indeed, I have made clear our views on that to Foreign Minister Livni, too. However, Prime Minister Olmert’s speech to the Saban forum eight days ago was an important and even landmark speech in the way that it followed up his previous speeches in the Knesset and discussed the most difficult issue of Jerusalem. His were the words of a politician who realises that it is in Israel’s vital security interests to help build a two-state solution with a viable and secure Palestinian partner. Israeli security fears and Palestinian economic suffering are two sides of the same coin and they need to be addressed together.
My right hon. Friend has not yet mentioned the apartheid wall that Israel has built. The Antonine wall, the last wall of the Roman empire, ran through Falkirk in my constituency, where ordinary people have formed a friendship link group. They ask how it can possibly be correct for Jayyous, the Palestinian village with which the group is twinned, to be cut off from all its fertile land and for the people to have to travel 20 km to get round the wall. Surely the wall must be an issue that the UK Government should take up with the Israeli Government as something that it is necessary to remove for peace and for two states to be established.
We have indeed taken up the issue, but I say this to my hon. Friend in all seriousness. The wall, he believes, is a cause of problems in the middle east; however, it is also a symptom of problems in the middle east. It is a symptom of Israeli security fears and the fact that the Israeli people were subject to terrible suicide bombing and terrorism. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand when I say that we have to address the causes as well as the symptoms. That means taking seriously Israeli security fears, which are well founded, as we have seen all too tragically.
When the Foreign Secretary travels to that part of the world shortly, will he try to impress on the Israeli Government the fact that they cannot continue to use the cutting off of energy resources into Gaza as a threat? Also, the choking off of Gaza is beginning to exacerbate an already tricky situation, so will he stress the importance of opening up the border with Gaza again, so that that population can continue to trade?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which was the subject of a report on the economic road map to peace that the Government published just a month or two ago. Trade is critical to the future there, but it depends on security; if the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall come to our contribution to Prime Minister Fayyad’s plan.
If I may continue, I shall come back to my hon. Friend in a minute.
I said that I thought that we had an opportunity now that did not exist before. Condoleezza Rice, the American Secretary of State, has visited the region seven times this year. The Arab states are committed to the Arab peace initiative, while the EU action plan has united European opinion behind the Annapolis meeting and practical support for its aftermath. The UK is determined to play its part, politically, economically and on security, which relates to the point that the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) made. We will help to address Israeli security fears through support for Prime Minister Fayyad’s security plan. We will also help to address Palestinian misery, through nearly £32 million in aid, including support for schools, clinics and basic services. We shall work with all those committed to peaceful means to advance a two-state solution.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving way. Does he not realise that, all the time we are talking, more and more settlements are being established on the west bank, more and more Palestinians cannot move around, and more and more of them are living in poverty? While I absolutely and totally condemn suicide bombers and the killing of any civilians, the reality is that more Palestinians have died as a result of Israeli bombardments, that more people are dying as a result of poverty and a lack of health care, and that we—or, if not we, the world—are imprisoning the people of Gaza in a ghastly situation. It is a powder keg waiting to go off unless a serious effort is made to bring about the recognition of a Palestinian state.
I concur with my hon. Friend’s concluding comment that the only answer to this dangerous situation is a two-state solution, although I have to take issue with him on a number of other points. Gaza was sealed off as a result of the murderous attempted coup by Hamas in June; it is important to be clear about that. I do not think that we should be in the business of weighing up Israeli deaths from suicide bombings with Palestinian misery; they are two sides of the same coin and they need to be addressed together.
The suffering of the Palestinians is used to support a narrative of terrorism and extremism globally, but the front line of terrorism in 2001 was Afghanistan, and it is again the front line today. The situation in Afghanistan is tough and dangerous, but, as President Karzai emphasized during his visit here last month, the efforts of UK, other allied and Afghan military and civilian forces are making a difference. The fighting in Helmand is tough, but Helmand is not a no-go area; in fact, British troops are driving back Taliban forces. The Afghan army is not at full strength, but 40,000 Afghan soldiers have been trained and equipped to fight alongside international forces. Afghanistan is very poor, but last year the legal economy grew by 8 per cent. Afghan health and education services are very basic in some places but, since 2001, the number of functioning health clinics has risen by 60 per cent., 2,000 schools have been built or repaired, and 5 million children are now at school—more than a third of them girls. Drug supply in Helmand is rising fast, but 13 provinces are now poppy free.
The next steps are to work with key allies on the big issues: promoting good governance, marginalising extremists, establishing better co-ordination on the borders and among the international forces, developing local civil leadership, and, of course strengthening security. The Prime Minister will say more on this in the House next month.
Lord Malloch-Brown said that the best way to deal with this situation would be to crack down on the three main drug barons. One is a relative of President Karzai and two are provincial governors. Does the Foreign Secretary really think that there is a practical chance of the Karzai Government cracking down on themselves?
I will say two things to my hon. Friend. First, I wish it were as simple as there being only three people responsible for drug production in Afghanistan. Secondly, President Karzai is the elected leader of the Afghan people, and there are good reasons for understanding the support that he has in the community. There are also good reasons for the international community being absolutely clear about taking action against corruption and in favour of good governance. We must be clear about what we expect from the Afghan Government, but it is up to them to deliver. Some of the actions that President Karzai has taken recently have contributed towards that goal.
The Foreign Secretary paints a rosy picture about what is happening in Afghanistan. I agree with what he says about health and education, but I am afraid that we are not able to contain what is going on with the Taliban and we are not seeing the necessary co-ordination between the international bodies. I am afraid that the Karzai Government are seen more and more as being corrupt. Unless we, as part of the international body, recognise what is going on in Afghanistan, I would give the country only a couple more years before it implodes. We need to look at this matter seriously. To start with, we need one central co-ordinator to unify the operations being undertaken by the United Nations, the USA, the Department for International Development and the European Union. Until that happens, we shall be on a losing wicket.
As I said, the hon. Gentleman has taken an interest in Afghanistan. Given the litany of problems that we are discussing, I do not think that anything that I have said could be judged to have painted a rosy picture. I referred to international co-ordination, and there is an essential need for the present UN representative—who leaves in February—to be replaced by a figure who can not only command respect but rally the different international forces. I believe that he will find a lot to agree with in the work that is being discussed with the Afghan Government. In the end, this process has to be Afghan led and international community supported, rather than the other way round.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important question. It is a 2,600 km border and, as I said last week, 90,000 Pakistani border police are there. We have seen no change to their deployment in the last eight to 10 days of the Pakistani emergency, but we are obviously watching the situation very carefully.
The operations in Afghanistan, and also in Kosovo, are test cases for the new NATO that we want to see. This April, allies will meet in Bucharest to agree means of further transforming NATO to meet the needs of the 21st century, to improve the way it works with other organisations, to integrate civilian and development efforts with military activity and to build more flexible, deployable and sustainable forces.
The Government will be active in building democracy in the middle east, active in countering terrorism in Afghanistan and active in countering nuclear proliferation, not least in the debates this and next month on Iran. Last June, along with our E3 plus 3 partners, we gave Iran a clear choice: join the international community in limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and reap the economic and technological benefits, including for civilian nuclear power; or promote proliferation and suffer isolation. Dr. el-Baradei and Dr. Solana will report on Iran’s progress later this month. Unless those reports are positive, the E3 plus 3 Ministers have agreed to seek a vote on a third UN Security Council sanctions resolution. That strategy is agreed across the international community. Meanwhile the EU is considering further sanctions. This is the right strategy to ensure that Iran can take its place as a respected member of the international community while also defending the integrity of the non-proliferation treaty.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned Kosovo, but just in passing. May I encourage him to accept that part of his job is not simply to deal with existing crises, but, along with our allies, to anticipate what may be a future crisis? Within the next month, a very serious crisis could arise about the status of Kosovo. We must try to learn the lessons of Bosnia: if the United States and the countries of western Europe do not try to reach a common position in advance and stick to it on both sides of Atlantic, then Kosovo, which is already a very difficult matter, could become incredibly worse.
I completely share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s position. As it happens, that issue comes a page or two later in my speech. I wanted to say that we need to find time for the House to discuss the conclusions of the troika mission, which concludes on 10 December. The Government have been meeting the Unity team from Kosovo, the Serbian Foreign Minister—and the Greek Foreign Minister, who was here last week. I believe that the following points could be shared ground between us.
First, all sides have responsibilities during the current 120-day troika process. Secondly, we must keep open the long-term prospect that EU membership will be open to Serbia and to Kosovo as an incentive for their behaviour. Thirdly, we must continue to maintain international unity on the issue, but not at the price of a Russian veto on any decisions. Fourthly, the EU has major responsibilities in this area, not just in the traditional aspects of foreign policy, but in the deployment of a European security and defence policy mission into Kosovo. Fifthly, the Ahtisaari plan, in which 14 to 15 months of careful work were invested, provides the right basis if further compromise cannot be found by the troika over the 120-day period.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman might have seen the article I wrote with the French Foreign Minister saying that while additions to the Ahtisaari plan—Ahtisaari plus, if you like—should be on the table, we cannot compromise on the basic principles that Ahtisaari accepted. I completely understand his point that the matter requires further and detailed discussion in the House. The Minister for Europe and I are keen to have such a debate—[Interruption.]
I really must make some progress. I looked up last year’s debate and I know that the right hon. Member Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) spoke for about 36 minutes. I do not want to overdo my stay here. Although I am delighted to have many interventions on various topics, hon. Members might also want to discuss the European reform treaty when we come to it. I want to save up my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) for the appropriate moment. Does the hon. Member for East Devon have a really pressing point?
I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary. Further to the comments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), when the Foreign Secretary discusses Kosovo, will he ensure that he does not ignore the situation in Republika Srpska and in Bosnia itself, as it is beginning to deteriorate quite seriously?
Very simply, the Foreign Secretary referred to not being faced down by a Russian veto, but will he also give an indication to the House that any veto by one or two smaller European states will be unacceptable, as Kosovo’s conditional independence under the Ahtisaari plan is surely the only way forward?
There have been encouraging signals from the successive discussions at every Foreign Affairs Ministers’ meeting that I have attended over the past three or four months. I think that we can build proper European unity.
In all these areas, there is an international coalition of which Britain is a leading member. In three countries marked by repression and destruction, when they should be marked by development and progress, there is also international consensus that needs to convert pressure into action. In Zimbabwe, the suffering of Zimbabweans of all races is the direct result of President Mugabe’s misrule. The next step is the imminent announcement of the conclusion of the Southern African Development Community’s mediation role. We will be looking to see how commitments by the ZANU-PF party to level the playing field for next year’s elections are translated into real improvements in democratic governance on the ground, because it is only through genuinely free and fair elections and an end to political violence that Zimbabwe will be able to start back on the road to recovery.
In respect of Darfur, we have a UN resolution for the African Union-UN peacekeeping mission, but there are problems translating it into troops on the ground. There are peace talks, but not all the parties are engaged, and the comprehensive peace agreement, which ended 20 years of war in southern Sudan, is under pressure. We are working with the UN and allies to overcome impediments to action and to promote security, political reconciliation and economic development.
Finally, in Burma we await this week the report of Ambassador Gambari to the UN Secretary-General. Aung San Suu Kyi’s first statement to the world in four years will have been encouraging to the whole House. The release of some prisoners to meet her is also welcome, but those are only the first steps towards genuine national reconciliation and democratic rule, and the road to what Aung San Suu Kyi has called “meaningful and timebound dialogue” is the only basis on which the international community could be convinced that the Burmese regime is serious.
I say in all candour that on all the issues that I have described, the coalition of international support, of which the Government are a leading member, is strengthened by all-party support in the House. That is why I read the shadow Foreign Secretary’s party conference speech with interest. I have to say that I thought it was a bit odd that Iraq merited 19 words, Afghanistan 18, Iran four, and Kosovo and the middle east peace process none at all, compared with 640 on the European reform treaty. However, I was willing to be charitable because he used his speech to raise the standard for something that I think he and the shadow Secretary of State for Defence believe in—it is what the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks called “humanitarian intervention”. He promised
“to uphold our highest values of promoting human rights, economic liberalism, political freedom”
and concluded with the rallying cry that
“very little matters more than a Conservative foreign policy unceasing in our efforts to make a better world”.
I believe that he was sincere.
However, last week there was a different and opposite message. The Leader of the Opposition explained to a German audience that liberal conservatism is the opposite of humanitarian interventionism. The word he used twice to describe how he believed Britain should engage on the great international issues is a familiar one—the word is “sceptical”. He knocked down a straw man about building utopias, but also sent a clear message—that there would be not just isolation from Europe under the Leader of the Opposition, but introspection on the great causes facing the world. I hope that the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks will reiterate his commitment to humanitarian intervention and to a vision of Britain that rejects the lazy cry, “It has nothing to do with us,” because in the modern world, it does.
Tonight at the Guildhall the Prime Minister sets out our agenda. Labour Members know that our shared planet faces shared problems and needs shared solutions—in the UN, the Commonwealth and the European Union. When we joined the EU in the 1970s, there were six members. Now there are 27. Europe has changed for the better. It is the biggest single market in the world. It has decent social rights. It sets high environmental standards. It is a force for good on its troubled borders, although we have to ensure that the last piece of the Yugoslav jigsaw in Kosovo is properly settled. The European Union also needs serious reform.
This is the parliamentary Session in which we can end the institutional navel-gazing in respect of the European Union, and proceed with the drive for Europe to engage with global problems. The European reform treaty will amend the way in which Europe works. The weight of United Kingdom votes in the Council of Ministers will go up, not down, and I cannot believe that anyone in the House objects to that. The treaty also cements enlargement and paves the way for more in the future, including Turkey. I thought there was cross-party agreement on that.
Cross-party agreement, not intra-party agreement.
The treaty will cut the number of Commissioners. Not only will there be nine fewer of them, but there will be nine fewer teams of officials supporting them, nine fewer official cars, and nine fewer expense accounts. Does anyone seriously object to that change? We will also replace the six-monthly merry-go-round of the changing presidency with a full-time chairman of the European Council, appointed by Heads of Government and accountable to them. Surely that is common sense.
Will the Secretary of State say something about the European Union high representative for foreign affairs? Will he disown the comments of his colleague Lord Malloch-Brown, who said that the EU was heading for a single seat in the United Nations and that he hoped
“it will happen as quickly as possible”,
or does he agree with them?
The United Nations is certainly not heading for a single European seat on the Security Council; it is heading for a continued United Kingdom seat and a continued French seat. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that the reform treaty bolts down those commitments. I am sorry that he has signed an early-day motion not just calling for a referendum after ratification but rejecting the treaty—rejecting fewer Commissioners, rejecting the reforms of the way in which the European Union works, and rejecting greater weight for United Kingdom votes.
I do not agree with any suggestion that the United Kingdom should give up its seat on the United Nations Security Council. More important, it is the policy of the Government not to give it up.
There are also significant things that the treaty does not do. As Giuliano Amato, deputy president of the European Convention, has said:
“If someone in the UK is calling for a referendum, that is not because the text we have in front of us is a Constitution.”
The German Conservative President of the European Parliament, who is from the sister party of Conservative Members here, has said:
“Since making the Charter legally binding and extending Community competence to JHA were two of the most important features of the original constitution, the deal struck by Tony Blair in June means that—for better or worse—much of its substance will simply not apply”
in the United Kingdom.
Let me say more about what the treaty does not do—about the myths that are simply that, myths. First, the treaty contains an explicit, legally binding guarantee that the UK’s existing labour and social legislation will be protected. A legally binding protocol states that
“the Charter reaffirms the rights, freedoms and principles recognised in the Union and makes those rights more visible, but does not create new rights or principles”.
A legally binding document also states:
“The Charter does not extend the ability of the Court of Justice of the European Union… to find that the laws, regulations or… provisions… of the United Kingdom are inconsistent with… fundamental rights”.
It is worth noting the CBI’s statement in its lobby briefing that the commitments secured by the Government mean that it is time for us to move on to other big policy issues rather than becoming bogged down in this one.
Secondly, the treaty extends our existing right to opt into co-operation on visas, asylum and migration to cover co-operation in police and judicial processes. It is right for the UK to decide what is in our interests, and to opt in where we want to and not opt in where we do not.
Could the Foreign Secretary add something to the reply given by the Prime Minister when he returned from the Council meeting? I asked whether the Prime Minister could guarantee that any Bill that was presented would include clear provisions allowing the House to discuss, and voice its opinion on, where we should and where we should not opt into matters that would be ruled on by the European Court of Justice and the Commission, and would no longer be in the jurisdiction of the UK courts.
The new treaty creates rights for this Parliament for the first time in a range of areas. As for the so-called passerelle clause—which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks described as the “ratchet” clause, although it has a lock from every country and a lock from every Parliament—the Prime Minister has said that he wants Parliament to have not just scrutiny powers, but decision-making powers to be used on the Floor of the House. If there are specifics in respect of the Prime Minister's reply or the specific issue of JHA, I will be happy to go into them in detail. My hon. Friend’s Committee is no doubt looking at them.
Thirdly, the treaty makes explicit the independence of our foreign and defence—
The hon. Gentleman should let me carry on because I need to make some progress.
There is a legal lock that says that unanimity will remain the rule for setting the common foreign and security policy. The treaty makes clear and stark the limits on European Court of Justice jurisdiction and it includes, for the first time, a guarantee that national security is the sole responsibility of the member states. Fourthly, we have a strengthened veto on social security.
Fifthly, and this was a concern not only of my hon. Friend’s Committee, but of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, there is no question of the treaty forcing Parliament to do anything—the famous debate about the word “shall”. There is no requirement on this Parliament from any other body to decide how it does its business. That is a matter for this Parliament, but there are rights for this Parliament that we should use.
How is what the Foreign Secretary has just been saying consistent with what is happening on the Galileo project? Has he seen today's devastating report from the Transport Committee, which shows that, on that project, this country is being outmanoeuvred and our veto is being circumvented by the European mafia who wish to impose that project on us at tremendous cost to the taxpayer?
I am afraid that I have not read the report of the Transport Committee, but I look forward—[Interruption.] It was on the “Today” programme, but we try not to make policy on the basis of that programme. I am happy to look into the issue that the hon. Gentleman raised.
With all due respect, the hon. Gentleman has already had one go and I have been speaking for too long probably.
In each and every area where we promised to secure our red lines, they have been secured. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I defy the Opposition to come up with one area in which the red lines have not been secured: the opt-in on every aspect of JHA, the independence on the common foreign and security policy, the veto in respect of social security. The Opposition do not have any argument. They have a series of myths.
Clearly the right hon. Gentleman has not read the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, which looked at the red lines in great detail. The Chairman of the Committee, who is here now, said that one of the red lines, that on justice and home affairs, will “leak like a sieve”. The right hon. Gentleman needs to start reading the reports published by our Committee and to examine the issues, because all his red lines are severely frayed and the one on justice and home affairs has been practically erased.
I have read that report; I just have not read the report of the Transport Committee. As the hon. Gentleman should know from the very long discussion that we had about this, we have the right to opt in to every single area—those aspects of the existing third pillar and those aspects of the first pillar and any amended aspects on justice and home affairs—on the basis of what is right for the United Kingdom. Therefore, it is not right to suggest otherwise. As we go through further debate in the House, we will be able to see that.
In many areas, the treaty constitutes less change than previous treaties. On the Single European Act 1986, with its blueprint for the single market, the treaty of Maastricht in 1992, with the famous EMU, or economic and monetary union, and the less significant treaties of Amsterdam in 1997 and Nice, we never held a referendum to approve changes to the functioning of European institutions. Here is why:
“Only in a country with a strong Parliament is there genuine representative democracy; only with a strong Parliament is government genuinely accountable; only with a strong Parliament is political decision making both robust and sensitive, and only with a strong Parliament do the people of that country have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.”
That is not me speaking. That is the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks speaking in 2000 at the launch of his own Commission to Strengthen Parliament.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman waits a moment.
There is something else that the right hon. Gentleman, who speaks for the Opposition, said. In a book that deserves wider sales, entitled “Speaking with conviction”—not to be confused with another Conservative central office publication “Dealing with convictions” by Jonathan Aitken and Lord Archer—
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman contains his enthusiasm for a moment.
On page 90, under the heading “The relationship between government and the people”, the right hon. Gentleman said in 1998:
“Democratic accountability is under threat—paradoxically—from the Government’s regular use of referendums”.
That is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the threat to the United Kingdom constitution does not come from Brussels. It comes from precisely the referendum that he is now advocating. The man demanding a referendum today, the man who says that only a referendum can save the nation state, the man who says that a referendum is necessary to restore faith in politics and the man who said in his party conference speech that he wanted a referendum on every transfer of competence, however small, turns out to be the same man who, in 1992, voted against a referendum on Maastricht and who said in 1998 that the greatest threat to our democracy was the use of referendums. It is not speaking with conviction; it is bathing in opportunism that the right hon. Gentleman is guilty of.
The Opposition can run away from their principles, but they cannot run from their record and I look forward to the debates on the Bill to show just how hollow and contradictory their position is today.
I agree entirely with the Foreign Secretary’s remarks about the referendum and strengthening Parliament, but will he explain why the previous Prime Minister, who I always thought had held those views, committed himself and his party to a referendum on this subject? Will the right hon. Gentleman say in terms that never again will such an arrangement be entered into with Rupert Murdoch or anybody else by any Labour Prime Minister?
The former Prime Minister, if I quote him correctly, said before the general election that the importance of the referendum on the treaty was not because of its constitutional status, but because he wanted to “clear the air”. [Interruption.] Hon. Members can go back and look at the quotation from Hansard. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to say that referendums should be used only for shifts in the fundamental balance of constitutional power—I think he would accept that the euro, for example, should be the basis for a referendum—I certainly agree with him. This treaty does not match that standard.
In 10 years, Britain has gone from the impotence of the beef ban in the European Union to leadership on energy and climate change; from cheapskate pariah in international development to acknowledged leader; from marginal actor in the great global debates to central player. Now is not the time for Britain to retreat from the world. In the EU, in the UN, in the Commonwealth and in our relationship with the US, our voice is strong and our message clear. As long as this Government are in office, so it will continue to be so.
Mr. Speaker, may I begin by echoing what the Foreign Secretary said about the dedication, often bravery, and sometimes loss of life of people working in government service? May I also give him firm support for what he has said about recent developments in Pakistan? It is right that the international community should demand elections to be held on schedule, the separation of the presidency from the command of the army, the release of political detainees and an early end to emergency rule.
It is obviously welcome that President Musharraf has taken one or two steps in the right direction in recent days, although elections held by 9 January will lack credibility unless opposition activists are out of jail and able to speak freely well before that date. We hope, as the right hon. Gentleman hopes, that today’s Commonwealth meeting and the forthcoming Commonwealth conference will add to the pressure on the Government of Pakistan to make this possible.
It will be no surprise to the Foreign Secretary that I agree with the tone and general direction of much of what he had to say, although one would never have thought that it was the speech of someone who thought we talked too much about Europe. Like him, we recognise that these are important days for the long-stalled middle east peace process. We support, as he does, the vision set out in the road map of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, both at peace, both prosperous and neither threatening the other’s security. The conference in Annapolis later this month is the best opportunity in years to relaunch negotiations on a final settlement and we trust the Government will use British standing and relationships to the full to urge the fullest possible support of, and attendance at, the conference.
We await with interest the Prime Minister’s speech on international affairs this evening. The Foreign Secretary will forgive my hon. Friends and me for waiting to see whether all the varied comments of Lord Malloch-Brown have been incorporated into the text. The noble Lord has described himself, modestly of course, as the
“wise eminence behind the young Foreign Secretary.”
It must be so comforting to the Foreign Secretary to have that presence. He has said today in defence of his colleague that we must judge him by his actions rather than his words, which is what we all say about people who have made a string of verbal blunders. Unfortunately, according to The Sunday Times “Gordon” will not be brave enough to sack him, which is all too believable after all the other things the Prime Minister has not been brave enough to do over the last few weeks, including calling a general election.
The challenges of foreign policy are now such that there is vast scope, even where we agree, for the discussion and scrutiny of Government policy. Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny of foreign and defence policy are no bad starting points for this debate. The Government consultation paper on limiting Executive power over war powers and treaties is most welcome—we called for it in an Opposition day debate earlier this year—but of comparable importance once a conflict is under way is Parliament’s ability to scrutinise its conduct, so far as the need for secrecy in military operations allows. The Government should now set an example by improving Parliament’s ability to hold regular and informed debates on those conflicts where our troops are engaged in theatres of war. We have called for, and I call for again today, regular quarterly statements to Parliament on Iraq and Afghanistan, accompanied by the Government’s definition of the military and political objectives in view, and our success, or otherwise, in meeting them. As things stand, the US Congress receives far more extensive evaluations and reports, and can hold far more informed debates on a regular basis than is possible in our Parliament. That the Prime Minister made a full statement on Iraq last month and is expected to do so on Afghanistan next month is proper and welcome, but when so much of our foreign policy, our national reputation and, above all, the lives of our servicemen and women are at stake, parliamentary scrutiny should be extensive and habitual, not limited and sporadic. I hope Ministers will commit themselves to such regular scrutiny as part of the constitutional innovations the Prime Minister is fond of proclaiming.
The issue of scrutiny inevitably brings me back to a subject we have debated on several occasions in the last year and more: the need for a high-level and independent inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war. On the most recent occasion that that was debated in this House—11 June—Ministers accepted the principle of an inquiry, but insisted that the time to commence it was not yet. It will be important to revisit the subject in this Session, for recent events mean that the arguments for delaying the inquiry that we now all agree is necessary are shrinking by the day. By the end of this Session, important decisions made in the run-up to the war will be seven years distant, and it will soon become impossible for the events and discussions of those times to be recreated. By that time, too, only a small number of British troops—or a relatively small number, compared with the previous deployment—are expected to remain in Iraq and they should be in an overwatch role. In the meantime, memoirs, lectures and diaries of the time multiply, and often give controversial but incomplete assessments. It seems to me, therefore, that if we are ever to have a serious inquiry—which is so important to understand how we can improve the machinery of government, how mistakes made in Iraq can be avoided in Afghanistan, and how our troops can best be used in the future—it must begin sooner rather than later. If the Government do not grasp this issue and make their own proposals, it will return—and to their cost.
Let me turn from accountability to the substance of what is happening in the theatres of war. The operations in Afghanistan remain one of the most challenging tasks NATO has ever taken on. Our troops have done an outstanding job there, always prevailing militarily in some of the most difficult terrain on earth, but unless there is a strengthened and better co-ordinated drive to deliver long-term strategic success in Afghanistan, those hard-won tactical successes will ultimately have been in vain. Some of the mounting difficulties are apparent: Taliban attacks have increased in scope; public support for the Afghan Government appears to have diminished; the contribution of NATO forces, even by some allies who have been highly present and active in recent years, is in doubt; and proceeds from drug trafficking are fuelling the insurgency. Do Ministers think there is a case for an immediate high-level independent assessment of the state of Afghanistan, similar to the Iraq Study Group in the United States, in order to acknowledge publicly that state of affairs and the need for reform? With or without such a study, we have been advocating for more than a year the appointment of a senior co-ordinator of the international effort in Afghanistan approved by the United Nations, the European Union and the United States, with a clear mandate to lead the aid effort on the ground and non-military aspects of the mission there. Has not the need for that now become urgent?
Do we not need also a renewed effort to bring together the different military commands in Afghanistan and to remove more of the national caveats that lead to differing tiers of commitment from NATO forces there? I hope that the Government will be able to tell us more, perhaps in the Defence Secretary’s winding-up speech, about what role the UK is now playing in the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan, since we are no longer designated as lead nation. What alternative approaches to combating the spread of poppy cultivation are being thought about, evaluated or piloted? The problem is immensely difficult, but we cannot give up on it.
Many more of our soldiers, of course, are now deployed in Afghanistan than in Iraq. We have supported the troop reductions in Iraq announced by the Government and we expect to support further reductions, although we hope that future announcements will be unencumbered by spin, double counting or any search for political advantage. The anticipated handover of Basra province to Iraqi forces is of course welcome, but there are, naturally, important questions about the role of our remaining forces in their overwatch capacity. Who will assess when the Iraqi army is capable of operating without British support? In what circumstances would our forces be redeployed, and will the remaining forces be able to protect themselves in all eventualities?
Beyond the involvement of our own forces, we have a continuing responsibility to do all we can to assist the overall strategic position in Iraq. The progress made towards national reconciliation by the Government of Mr. Maliki is disappointing, and I hope that Ministers will intensify the pressure on Iraqi Ministers to make the necessary progress.
Although we are no longer in the headlines because we have withdrawn back to the airport, does my right hon. Friend agree, first, that we should pay tribute to the 4th Battalion the Rifles, which is part of 1 Mechanised Brigade and which has returned to the airport, and also that, although they are not in the headlines over here, the ever-present dangers have not gone away? The Mahdi army, for example, runs rife, and the police do not have people’s respect. The situation in Basra has not changed at all and people are now pointing back at the period between 2003 and 2004, that critical window of opportunity when the Department for International Development failed to get involved with the peacekeeping and reconstruction development that should have happened. That led to the current situation.
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the forces involved, and again I do that on behalf of the Front-Bench team. He is right to say that there must be no complacency. He has made the point about the specific situation in Basra, and I make the same point about the situation in Iraq overall: we have our responsibility to the overall strategic situation. Last year, responding to the Baker-Hamilton report, we called for the creation of an international contact group—a formal group with a permanent secretariat to ensure continuous international co-ordination on the crucial issues facing Iraq. The idea has not been taken up and much time has been lost. Beyond the periodic meetings of representatives of neighbouring countries and the major powers to discuss Iraq, there is no long-term strategy of political support for the Iraqi Government or their security forces.
The difficulty of the issues in Iraq is now rivalled by the dangerously destabilising policies of the Government of Iran. I had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would say more about Iran. A new Security Council resolution on Iran is now six months overdue, as the last one expired in May. That resolution stated clearly that Iran must
“suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities”,
but since then Iran has continued to install, test and feed nuclear material into its centrifuge facility and has reached, or is thought to be close to reaching, the threshold of 3,000 centrifuges. The US Under-Secretary of State Nicholas Burns referred a few weeks ago to
“an agreement that we have with the P5 of countries…made on September 28 in New York…if there is not substantial progress by the middle of the month of November… there will be a third Security Council resolution.”
No, I do not agree with that. Anyone who has listened to anything that I have ever said could not possibly think I agreed with that in any way. Iran is in breach of the non-proliferation treaty and of all the agreements and commitments that it has ever entered into, so I do not agree with the quote that the right hon. Gentleman mentions.
I hope that the new Security Council resolution will include a ban on new arms sales to Iran, more effective steps against those involved in its nuclear programme and action to tackle the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Conservative Members continue to argue for much tougher action by European nations—peaceful, multilateral and legitimate action—to place Iran under economic pressure, which, difficult though it may be, is necessary to reduce the chances of others taking far less peaceful action in the future.
The advent of the Sarkozy Government has seemed to be a major opportunity for Britain and France to drive this agenda forward together, but it must be said that the October meeting of EU Foreign Ministers appears to have been a wasted opportunity, finishing merely with an agreement to
“consider what additional measures might be taken in order to support the UN process”.
Is it not time for an energetic effort by the British and French Governments to secure EU agreement to implement sanctions parallel to those of the United States, banning certain Iranian banks from our financial system and progressively cutting export credit guarantees?
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that in this process concerning Iran it would be a good idea to open a dialogue with all sections—I stress “all sections”—of Iranian society in order to build some degree of confidence and, we hope, peace in the future? Does he share my concern that all the talking being done by him and many others leads us inexorably towards the same kind of crisis we faced in 2003, when we ended up bombing Iraq? That has resulted in 500,000 people dead.
We are certainly in favour of dialogue at all times, but the strong, peaceful action that I am advocating is essential in order to avoid military confrontations in the future. The way to avoid the future crisis is through strength now rather than weakness now—that is the choice now facing Europe and the rest of the world. I hope that Ministers can explain which European Governments are opposing the type of initiative that I have been describing. Since the French Government have said that they are advising French energy companies not to invest in Iran, will Ministers confirm that the British Government are now doing the same?
I hope that Ministers will also be able to elaborate on the specialised teaching or training of Iranian nationals in the UK in disciplines that might contribute to Iran’s nuclear programme. I was told by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor:
“A voluntary vetting scheme is…in place”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2007; Vol. 461, c. 238W.]
However, it was said that a “mandatory scheme” would be introduced “at the earliest opportunity.” Why therefore do we learn, five months later, that 60 Iranian nationals have been granted places at British universities to study advanced nuclear physics and engineering in this year alone? Given that European sanctions are already clear that states must
“prevent specialised teaching or training of Iranian nationals within their territories…of disciplines which would contribute to Iran’s proliferation sensitive activities”,
is it not time for the Foreign Office and others to pull their fingers out and get this mandatory scheme in place?
The subject of Iran brings us naturally to the matter of human rights around the world, as the human rights record of the Iranian Government is truly appalling. I would not want this debate to take place without bringing to the fore the torments of the people of three quite different nations—the very three mentioned by the Foreign Secretary—whose Governments are grievously at fault when it comes to respecting the rights, liberties and lives of their subjects.
One of those countries, of course, is Burma, which we debated in this House only two weeks ago. I will not cover all that ground again, but I repeat the request that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), the shadow International Development Secretary, made in that debate. We ask that the EU tightens targeted sanctions against the military regime, and that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, demonstrates the huge importance attached to this issue by the international community by going to Burma himself to demand talks between the regime and opposition leaders without the farcical normal preconditions.
A second country at fault is Sudan. The adoption at the UN Security Council of resolution 1769 in July mandating a 26,000 strong hybrid peacekeeping force by the end of this year was a major step forward, on which all the Governments involved are to be congratulated. But Ministers will be aware that momentum has seriously stalled since then, with a sharp increase in attacks on peacekeepers and relief workers.
The latest report from the UN Secretary-General warns that the deployment of the peacekeeping force is being delayed because of such problems as obtaining land for the construction of offices and feedback regarding the list of troop-contributing countries submitted to the Government of Sudan. Bringing peace to Darfur is no easy matter, and the refusal of many of the rebel groups to attend the peace talks in Libya clearly demonstrates that, but this country and others must prepare to step up the pressure if necessary, including implementing further sanctions against members of the Sudanese Government and rebel leaders; implementing a UN arms embargo to cover the whole of Sudan; and looking again at the possibility of a no-fly zone over Darfur. If such things are not done, how many more innocent people will die in Darfur and how many more global days for Darfur must there be?
The third great offending nation in our mind at the moment is Zimbabwe. We cannot know how long a political system will survive with inflation at 13,000 per cent.—or whatever it may now be—and shop shelves empty, but I put it to the Government that we should be preparing now for the day after Mugabe, when Zimbabwe may be plunged into a period of change and uncertainty. That preparation should include a clear package of international assistance that would follow as soon as a new Government, committed to democratic reform, are in place. That assistance should include help with the restructuring of the army and police and the disbanding of paramilitary groups, and readiness to supply humanitarian assistance.
In the meantime, international efforts to place pressure on Mugabe and his odious regime are pathetically ineffective. We all understand that the ability of our country on its own to influence these events is very limited, and we certainly support the stand that the Prime Minister has taken on attendance at the EU-AU summit, but is it not a shocking failure of responsibility by the European Union that Mugabe has now been invited to the Lisbon summit next month, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s objections?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was very disturbing to read about the last British Airways flight from Harare? It seems that the only people who could afford a plane ticket were those close to the regime who were coming here to do business or to see members of their family who are studying here or using our health service. Should not the Government do more to ban a wider group of people who are close to that evil regime, to put pressure on them to bring an end to Mugabe’s rule?
I agree with my hon. Friend that there are people who should be added to the reserve list and banned from the EU. But what is the point of having a banned list of individuals from the Mugabe regime who are generally refused visas to travel to Europe when the dictator himself is able to come to Lisbon and be paraded, fed and feted there? Mugabe’s presence at this summit will damage the cause of development in Africa and the moral standing of the European Union. I hope that Ministers will soon explain who will represent Britain at the EU-AU summit and that they will go on to ensure that the prime responsibility of whoever it is—
Well, it might be another job for the Minister of State, but perhaps it should be someone who watches their words more carefully. The prime responsibility of whoever is appointed to do that job should be to lay before the summit the extent of the crimes of the Mugabe regime so that a complacent gathering of national leaders can hear in detail what they currently chose to ignore.
The utter failure of EU ministers to show any collective strength over Zimbabwe is not a good advertisement for the European Union. That brings us, of course, to European Affairs. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary will agree with me that we are approaching a time when we must be extremely vigilant about developments in the Balkans—my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has referred to that. The future status of Kosovo remains the primary challenge for the Balkan region and we agree with the Government that the status quo there is not an option, and that UN Special Envoy Ahtisaari’s comprehensive proposal represents the best way forward.
I hope that Ministers will also agree that any independence package the international community settles upon must enshrine the protection of Kosovo’s minorities and a sustained international presence. Depressingly, the situation in Bosnia is also now giving rise to alarm. The recent report of the Political Directors of the Peace Implementation Steering Board said that the situation had deteriorated further, that responsibility lay with political leaders from both entities and
“that the situation is now of the utmost concern to the international community.”
It is extremely important that the international community’s high representative in Bosnia is given all the support that he needs to implement measures aimed at making the country more functional, and that threats by Serbia to back the secession of the entity of Republika Srpska if Kosovo wins independence will be most rigorously resisted.
Of course, it is on European affairs that there is the sharpest differences of view across the House. The weakness of the Government’s arguments is exposed by the fact that the actions of Ministers are now often characterised by embarrassment or concealment. First on the list is the European Communities (Finance) Bill, which is to have its Second Reading next Monday. It is the first piece of legislation to be presented to the House after the Gracious Speech, yet for some reason it received no mention whatever in that speech, or any previous one. Could that possibly be because it involves giving up £7 billion of the British rebate to the European Union, for nothing concrete in return—a rebate that the Prime Minister once described as non-negotiable—and because it represents a total failure of negotiation, and a betrayal of the national finances, never mind the national interest?
Second on the list is the Prime Minister’s ludicrous statement at the time of last month’s summit that the Government would not support further European political integration in this Parliament or the next, having just agreed to a treaty that sets up a continuing process of political integration, specifically designed to gather pace in the coming years. That is why the treaty contains a ratchet clause: so that many surviving vetoes can be abolished without any further treaty, and the positions of permanent president of the European Council and high representative in foreign affairs are designed to accrue more power as time goes on. Whether Ministers have secured their few negotiating objectives in that area is obscure. Their July White Paper said that the new president of the European Council cannot also hold the job of President of the Commission, yet nowhere in the text of the treaty is there anything to say that he cannot. There is already talk in Brussels of combining the two posts, so we would like to know whether the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary forgot about that objective, or whether they rolled over, as they have done in respect of so many other parts of the treaty.
I cannot understand why the shadow Foreign Secretary is against qualified majority voting, bearing in mind the fact that any analysis of the voting of the European Council shows that in the vast majority of cases Britain is on the winning side. What does he fear about extending QMV in certain areas?
I fear that the extension of qualified majority voting takes more and more decisions away from the people—not only the people of this country, but the people of the other countries of the European Union—by removing their veto, and that the progressive removal of decisions from national Parliaments and national Governments will ultimately create immense discontent with the functioning of the European Union across Europe. Our objection to that extension is therefore fairly fundamental.
Third and most prominent on the list of concealments is the Government’s faltering pretence that the European treaty is not the constitution at all. In the summer recess, I tabled a written question to the Foreign Secretary, asking him to set out in full the similarities, differences, omissions and additions to the articles comprising the EU constitution and the new EU treaty. The European Scrutiny Committee produced a comparative table, and one might have thought that Foreign Office Ministers who wanted an open debate would do the same when asked to do so. Instead, the Foreign Secretary took well over a month to provide any answer at all, and then in effect refused to answer the question—that was long after Parliament had come back, so the recess is not an excuse—simply repeating instead the discredited mantra that the constitution concept is abandoned. That is an argument described by the European Scrutiny Committee as “likely to be misleading”. In the words of Giscard d’Estaing on Saturday:
“You wouldn’t be honest to tell the British voters the substance of the text has changed—because the substance has not changed.”
Right hon. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The right hon. Gentleman was making a powerful case, as is his wont. He is obsessed with Europe. We remember that before the 2001 election he said that if people voted Labour, Britain would become a foreign land. I wonder if he still endorses that statement. Will he tell the House whether, with all his animadversions on the new treaty, it is now his policy that once the treaty is ratified in the House, it will be Conservative party policy to move to a referendum on it?
I am sorry not to have called the right hon. Gentleman “right hon.”; I did not realise that former Foreign Office Ministers stood on their dignity as much as the current ones.
Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman that the best time for a referendum is now, so that the British people can have their promised say. If we did not succeed in forcing a referendum in this House, if we failed to win in another place, if all other EU member states implemented the treaty and if an election were held later in this Parliament—that is a lot of ifs—we would have a new treaty in force that lacked democratic legitimacy in this country and in our view gave the EU too much power over our national policies. That would not be acceptable to a Conservative Government and we would not let matters rest there; the right hon. Gentleman can be assured of that. In such circumstances—[Interruption.] Does the Foreign Secretary wish to intervene?
The Government’s defence relies on their four so-called red lines. We look forward to debating those in great detail when the Bill is presented, but it is already clear that the foreign policy red line is not even legally binding. The charter of fundamental rights red line has already been dismissed by one of the European Court’s advocates-general, the criminal justice red line leaves national vetoes abolished and, as the Government have admitted, the tax red line was only ever a bit of a con and purely presentational. In such circumstances, the Government’s abandonment of their manifesto commitment to a referendum is a breach of trust with the nation as serious as any that any of us have known in modern times.
It means what it says. It means exactly what I said earlier. Let us remember that this Government promised a referendum; all political parties in this House promised a referendum before the ratification of the treaty. I shall give way for a helpful intervention from my right hon. and learned Friend.
My right hon. Friend has just given a helpful new statement of Opposition party policy, although it came to a rather vague conclusion. It seems to me that the alternatives are as follows: the repudiation of a treaty that this country has ratified; an attempt to renegotiate or reopen that treaty; a parliamentary process of some kind; or a referendum. May I ask whether the leadership of the Conservative party has yet taken its thoughts further down that road and decided which of those options it might be veering towards? In the past, we have always accepted treaty obligations accepted by previous Governments whenever we have taken office.
I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that there will be no veering in any direction. I assure him that if all the things that I have listed happened, there would be wide consultation in the Conservative party as we decided how to proceed.
Even from their own point of view, it is a huge mistake by Ministers not to support a referendum, because a treaty passed without a referendum will not enjoy democratic legitimacy or acceptance in this country. That is the background against which we would have to set our future policy; let me make that very clear today.
Not having a referendum is a breach of trust with the nation, based not on principle but a cynical calculation that the Government will be able to get away with treating the people of this country as fools. The Government ought to be in favour of a referendum, for without being approved in one form or another it will never enjoy democratic legitimacy in this country. Whatever one’s view on European affairs, it would be better for the fate of this important treaty to be determined in a referendum, just as the only right and honourable course for Ministers who so categorically promised a referendum is to permit one to be held. When Ministers vote against a referendum they will be voting against the implementation of their own manifesto. We, and like-minded people in other parties, will be voting for their promise to be kept. The readiness and determination of the Government to break that promise, and the absence of any commitment to a referendum in the Gracious Speech, is a sufficient reason on its own to vote against it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I should like to talk about two peace processes to which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary referred: first, in the middle east; and, secondly, in Sri Lanka—perhaps the world’s forgotten conflict. I want to tell the House how our own country can help in those processes by referring to what we did during the Northern Ireland peace process—the similarities can be helpful. On more than one occasion over the past hour or two, we have pondered how our country can help as members of the Security Council of the United Nations, members of the European Union, or whatever. It strikes me that our experiences in bringing peace to our own country can help considerably.
Every peace process is unique, but our peace process in Northern Ireland was helped by experiences in South Africa. Twenty years ago, no one would have said that today we would have solved the Northern Ireland problem. In that part of our country, 3,500 people had perished and many tens of thousands had been injured, but today the problem is solved, to all intents and purposes, although of course there are political difficulties that must be overcome. Nevertheless, it can be helpful to look back over a number of years and apply some of the principles and experiences to Sri Lanka and the middle east. First, there was and is, happily, a bipartisan approach to Northern Ireland in this country. That does not always apply to peace processes in other countries, but it is a lesson that can be learned by them. Secondly, the involvement of the United States of America and the European Union was critical to our success in Northern Ireland. Thirdly, people wanted peace—they had basically had enough and realised that no one was going to win the conflict. When the Good Friday agreement was eventually signed, subsequent agreements worked on the basis of that one. Constitutional issues were resolved, power-sharing emerged, there was the necessary parity of esteem on all sides, and policing, human rights and equality issues were addressed. Those lessons can be learned elsewhere.
I am interested to hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying about Northern Ireland. Does he think that if our Government, or his, had insisted that Sinn Fein-IRA recognised the legal jurisdiction of Britain over Northern Ireland, the talks would ever have succeeded?
I have dealt with the answer to that, but I know what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is referring to. It was important that Northern Ireland’s constitutional legality, so to speak, was eventually based on the principle of consent, and that after the referendum the Irish Government agreed to change their claim on Northern Ireland. Again, those areas can be looked at by comparison.
About a year ago, I visited Sri Lanka, at the invitation of its President, to examine its peace process. I saw a country that was very much affected by its relationship with our country. Norway was doing its best, in a rather thankless task, to bring people together, and there was some hope of success. However, only a week ago, the political leader of the LTTE—the Tamil Tigers—was killed in the capital in the north of Sri Lanka. That in itself might make it more difficult to achieve success. It was interesting to read recently that the President of Sri Lanka had said that the present conflict cannot be solved by military means. It would be a good start if all sides in Sri Lanka realised that. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be able to raise the matter of this forgotten conflict, in which 70,000 people have died, with his colleagues at the Commonwealth conference. All of us will be interested to hear tonight, and during tomorrow’s Adjournment debate, what our Government will suggest at the Commonwealth conference and at the United Nations.
I returned from the middle east last week, having gone there to talk about Northern Ireland. Despite the great effort that had been made by people in Palestine and in Israel, I was struck and disappointed not quite by a sense of hopelessness, but by a scepticism about what might happen in Annapolis later this year. I assume that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will go to Annapolis, and I hope that when he and the Government address the issues they will put some hope into the process. That is what seems to be most lacking.
I am confident that President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert are deeply sincere in wanting to ensure success, not only in the United States but afterwards. I also notice that both are beset by difficulties and obstacles in their own countries. On the left, so to speak, Hamas is denouncing what might occur in Annapolis, and extreme right wingers in Israel are doing precisely the same and are suggesting that not an inch should be given. There are tremendous parallels with what occurred over 15 or 20 years in Northern Ireland, as my right hon. Friend knows. It is to the credit of President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert that they are standing firm, and it is in our interest to ensure that we support them as best we can in their firmness of purpose.
My right hon. Friend identified issues that are very important to the achievement of success: a two-state solution, security for everybody in the region and the need to deal with Jerusalem, refugees, borders and the economy. Tony Blair is in the region at the moment, dealing very effectively with precisely those latter issues. The issues should be addressed at Annapolis. It should not be simply a vague collection of good intentions that emerges from those negotiations. Instead, there should be a hard look at the issues that need to be resolved.
The other thing that the Government are anxious to deal with is the question of other countries from the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Syria, participating in the conference. I ask my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East to continue their efforts to ensure that Syria, in particular, attends. If those countries do not come to the negotiating table, the process will be very difficult.
Many of these processes could be helped if the United Nations was capable of solving them. Reform of the UN, certainly in how it deals with peacekeeping initiatives, is very important.
I wish my right hon. Friend and all those involved in the talks in Annapolis well. Throughout the House, no matter what our personal or political views are, we believe that the solution to the problems in the middle east is dear to the British people because of our huge involvement in the middle east for so many years.
It is a real privilege and pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). Throughout the House, we recognise his expertise on the matters he touched on and the unique perspective that his vital work and success in Northern Ireland allows him to bring to such debates. I am sure that his comments on Sri Lanka, the middle east and other issues will strike a chord throughout the Chamber.
As others have noted, Remembrance day gave us an opportunity, as Members of Parliament, to join our local communities in paying tribute to those who gave their lives on behalf of our country. When I joined the commemorations in Melrose in my constituency, I was struck, as ever, by the dignity of the veterans on parade and the presence of so many young people from local organisations and with their families. Some were there to see their grandparents honour their comrades or to remember those who have fallen in more recent times. We were reminded today of the professionalism, bravery and commitment of all who serve in the name of Her Majesty and our country in our armed forces and, as the Foreign Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary acknowledged, in the Foreign Office and other Departments, too.
At Chatham House earlier this year, the Foreign Secretary made a brisk start to his new role when he collapsed the number of Foreign and Commonwealth Office priorities from 10 to three. Few of us would challenge the need to focus, or quibble with the three that he chose. We can all agree that tackling the causes and consequences of extremism, radicalism and conflict, establishing sustainable responses to climate change and building an effective European Union are central to Britain’s role in the world. We can also agree that the trends in globalisation that present those challenges to us are gathering pace. Responding to them is no longer simply a matter of foreign policy, but requires proper integration with all our domestic policies. We also agree with the Foreign Secretary that influence and power around the world are changing out of all recognition. That reinforces the need for individual countries such as ours not to try any longer to deal with problems alone. Isolation from the phenomena of globalisation is not possible, and isolating ourselves from others as we attempt to confront those phenomena is also not possible, although that does not stop others trying on occasion.
Our aim, surely, in our international policies is to make the world better not only for us in this country but for countless millions of others, too. Our foreign policy has to start with our national interests, but it must be more than that. It must remain fundamental to our values as a country that we accept our responsibilities to others to promote human rights and development, to tackle humanitarian and environmental disasters, to alleviate poverty and to reduce the risk of conflict. Much of that may be common ground, but we do not always find that the policy responses achieve that level of agreement.
The risk of conflict is the most pressing challenge that we face, nowhere more so than with nuclear weapons. It may be 18 years ago this week since the Berlin wall began to come down, but the end of the cold war has not made the world a more certain or a safer place. Some strides have been taken with significant reductions in some arsenals, but the capability in the world remains terrifying and the risk of proliferation remains real, not least with the threat from Iran that has been discussed and the prospect that others in the region would follow suit if Tehran obtained a nuclear capability. We are at a crucial moment in our dealings with the Iranian regime, as the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary have recognised. None of us is blind to the awful prospects if it were to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, but handling Iran requires more poise than we sometimes see in different parts of the world. The drumbeat for war in some parts of Washington has become sufficiently alarming for senior retired military figures, such as General Zinni and General Hoar, to speak out against it. We need more of that, particularly in this country. After Iraq, we must make it clear that another military conflict is not on the horizon. Our pressing need is to focus international efforts to sharpen both the sanctions and the incentives on offer, to build the diplomatic front to prepare the next, long overdue Security Council resolution and to make it clear to Iran that compliance is essential.
The situation in Iran demonstrates that we are at a perilous moment in the world. It is essential that our strategic actions as a country do not tip things in the wrong direction. Our decision about the future of our nuclear capability is critical in that respect. In seeking to fulfil our most important duty—to protect the citizens of this country—we need to take steps to reduce the risk of nuclear war occurring. We must show leadership in the west to persuade others of the need both to reduce the nuclear threat, by getting rid of more of the current global arsenals, and to reduce the headlong rush elsewhere to acquire them. We cannot create the right conditions for force reductions if we pre-empt the debate by making the decision to replace Trident now, especially when the technical considerations show that we do not have to do so until well into the next decade.
As a country, we have lost our focus on that first priority of arms reduction. We cannot afford the failure of another non-proliferation treaty review conference, as happened in 2005. We need a serious programme for 2010 and a serious statement of intent. That is why we have proposed a 50 per cent. cut in our nuclear capacity now. The rules of engagement also need to alter if we are not simply to see an escalation of nuclear tensions and the associated risks. The outcome of the 2010 talks will be the key moment to assess our future needs. This is not about postponing a decision on replacing Trident, but about making it at the appropriate time.
Another area where bad decision making will not be in Britain’s interest is missile defence. The idea of protecting ourselves from missile attack is clearly attractive, but there is a great deal at stake, not least because of the way in which the United States is developing its proposals. There are already serious doubts about the technical aspects of the programme and the cost issues. They should give us pause for thought; but the failure to pursue the programme multilaterally is the most alarming and potentially the most dangerous aspect.
It is not stretching things to say that we have had very little from the Government on the matter, other than the written statement from the Secretary of State for Defence just before the recess in July. Although it gave little away, it highlighted the fact that nothing has been agreed yet in NATO, only bilaterally, between the USA and individual countries such as the UK, Poland and the Czech Republic. However, missile defence has huge consequences for our strategic defence, both as a country and as part of our key alliances. At the very least, the priority should be to agree it with our NATO partners.
We should also deal with countries such as Russia, whose hostile reaction was perhaps predictable but which can for once be understood. We are seeing a chain reaction, with Russian threats over the future of both the intermediate range nuclear forces treaty and the conventional forces in Europe treaty. We can deprecate the Russians for those actions, but none of us should doubt their intent or the seriousness of the consequences for global stability if the threats are carried out. The growing crisis requires an urgent multilateral response. If there is not to be a multilateral approach to the issue, Britain should play no further part in it.
Our engagement in international alliances and institutions is central to how we cope—or ought to cope—with the many challenges that we face. Through our permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, our key role in NATO and the Commonwealth we have responsibilities to work with others to tackle the many issues already raised today—the ongoing crisis in the middle east, the atrocities in Darfur and the appalling situation in Zimbabwe—and not to lose sight of the traumas in Burma. As has been discussed at length, the complex situation in Pakistan has special resonance for us, with our historic and current ties placing additional burdens on us to influence General Musharraf to honour the latest of his many pledges to hold elections and to lift the state of emergency.
This country remains fully committed in neighbouring Afghanistan, where some unfortunate shortcomings by our partners in delivering what has been promised have become clear. We need to continue to overcome those shortcomings, because too much is at stake, and neither the Afghans nor the international community can afford to lose any of the many different battles being fought there.
Likewise, in Iraq there is still a desperate need to recognise that Britain’s presence has been a major part of the problem. Our priority must be to move on to a multilateral footing and to bring British forces home. Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, I urge the Government to ensure that, beyond this general debate, we will still have regular opportunities to debate matters relating to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. We, too, believe that a public inquiry into how the debacle in Iraq began and unfolded is still urgently required.
The conflict in Iraq highlighted difficulties with Britain’s relationship with the present Administration in the United States, and there is much about that that we would like to see changed. That does not, however, undermine the basic fact that the ties that bind this country to America are stronger than the differences that can divide us. The United States remains our most important bilateral relationship as a country.
However, it is the European Union that, on a multilateral basis, presents us with the opportunity to deal successfully with some of the most pressing issues facing us. Our membership of the EU recognises the need for Governments to work together to tackle problems that they cannot deal with alone. It is fundamentally important to us in terms of our economy, the environment and our security. The system needs to be reformed, however, and to adapt. Even its most supportive friends recognise the need for that.
Enlargement has made the pressure greater, and there is general agreement across the House that more countries should join the EU, including Turkey and those Balkan states that are not yet members. However, there can be no hiding from the difficulties of achieving reform, as the crisis arising from the attempt to ratify the constitutional treaty illustrated. We have experienced deadlock on that for the past three years. With the new reform treaty, however, we can see significant and important changes, including an end to the flummery and trappings of a constitution, and an end to the conceit of a constitutional concept. All the old treaties that were to have been consolidated into that one document have now been stripped out, leaving us with an amending treaty along the previous lines. On key issues such as the charter, important changes have been made that have changed the nature of the treaty.
We are invited to oppose the treaty on the basis of a checklist of issues about the full-time presidency, the high representative and qualified majority voting. But surely all of us—however strongly we might criticise the European Union—recognise that the proposals will improve the situation in Europe. The proposals on the presidency will make things more efficient; we shall no longer have the nonsense of passing on the baton every six months. The high representative will make co-ordination of our common foreign and security policy much more effective, and will ensure that common policies are much more clearly expressed. The proposals on qualified majority voting in areas such as humanitarian aid and intellectual property rights will surely be good moves for Britain. The opponents of the treaty fail to recognise the improvements in transparency, the greater co-decision making with the European Parliament, the better accountability through the enhanced involvement of national Parliaments such as this one, and the more effective decision making by, among other things, reducing the number of Commissioners in Brussels.
On that basis, we believe that the treaty will provide an improvement in the governance of the European Union that will be good for the United Kingdom. We anticipate many happy hours scrutinising the proposals in the House, but we do so from a standpoint of wishing to see the Bill passed. We also believe that it is Parliament’s job to ratify the treaty. In our judgment, the changes made to create this amending treaty have altered its constitutional significance, so we should not hold a referendum on it.
We have heard much about the issue of trust, which is a serious matter that should not be diminished. Maintaining the electorate’s trust is not just about being able to explain what has changed and making clear how significant the changes are, as it is also tied up in the honesty of our debate. The debate in this country is not about the composition of the Council or the future of the high representative. The debate taking place in our constituencies up and down the land is about Britain’s role inside Europe. It is about whether or not, after the all the changes overseen by the Conservatives for 18 years and a further 10 years of changes by this Government, we should remain part of the European Union.
The Conservatives have drawn some lines in the sand that conveniently allow all the vetoes that were scrapped when the internal market was created under the Single European Act to be ignored. They also allow the changes under Maastricht, which introduced a common foreign and security policy and policies in justice and home affairs matters, to be left aside. Now the debate is apparently to be defined by how long the president is to sit in the chair of meetings. Any debate on the reform treaty will not be constrained by what is contained within it. The core of the debate across Britain is about staying in or leaving the EU. It is about accepting how important it is, notwithstanding all its flaws and the various attempts to improve it, or deciding to opt out and leave. Let us not have a phoney debate. Let us debate the merits of our relationship with Europe.
On the Liberal Democrat Benches, we believe that there should be a referendum—but it should be on the real issue of either staying in or getting out of the EU. We are clear that, as a country, Britain’s future lies at the heart of the enlarged and now to be reformed European Union. We must continue to be part of it, not marginalised on the peripheries. It is more than 30 years since Britain took stock of its membership of the then European Economic Community. That is why I, my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) and other Liberal Democrat Members will later this evening table our amendment on that specific issue alone. We invite others from all sides of the House to join us and help to start the real debate about where Britain’s interests lie.
The international environment in which Britain finds itself is as difficult and complex today as it has been since the end of the cold war. The combined challenges of international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional instability and highly organised global crime make it more difficult than ever to plan and effect lasting solutions. The question is how we should devise policies to deal with those challenges in an increasingly uncertain world.
First and foremost, we must be absolutely determined that, however daunting the scale of the problems we face, we will never lose sight of the sacrifices that we ask of our armed forces. Yesterday saw millions across Britain stand in silence to mourn and remember those who paid the highest sacrifice in serving their country. It is right that we should do that. It is absolutely right, too, that we have such expressions of our gratitude as the armed forces memorial in Staffordshire. At this point, I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister who, as I know from my time as a Defence Minister, personally intervened to ensure that the appeal fund for that unique expression of our nation’s gratitude would not founder. When there were difficulties, he certainly made sure that there was funding to enable that project to proceed.
It is vital for our servicemen and women to know that they have full support and understanding back home for the difficult and dangerous work that we ask of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our armed forces need to feel valued, supported and thanked for all they do. I find it amazing that some, even in this House and perhaps in the other place, draw the conclusion that the morale of our troops is somehow helped by the incessant carping of politicians.
Our armed forces are not cut off from what is happening in the news and at home. That imposes on us a responsibility to conduct our debate in a careful and constructive manner. There are issues that require discussion—supply of equipment to our troops, the need to honour the military covenant, and the defence budget. Those require detailed consideration in this place and elsewhere. However, the near hysterical attitude whipped up by some in Parliament and the media which portrays any failure or shortcoming as if it were a betrayal of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan makes me wonder about the motives behind it. Hysteria does not help our troops. What does help is looking carefully at issues such as equipment, the covenant and defence spending in a frank and constructive atmosphere that recognises that these are legitimate matters of concern which need to be debated in a sensible and constructive way to benefit our whole country.
Britain will continue to face serious challenges. There is no place for moral or political cowardice. That means not reneging on our international commitments in Iraq or Afghanistan or stepping back from our efforts with our international partners to bring peace to the middle east. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out a clear strategy for his Government’s approach in Iraq in a statement to the House on 8 October. If our ultimate goal is to help Iraq to build and develop institutions that can sustain its people, it is crucial that we help with economic aid and the reconstruction that is needed. For that reason, I welcome his announcement that the provincial council has created the Basra investment promotion agency to stimulate private sector development and is also forming a Basra development fund to help small business and to kick-start the economy. In the coming years, our ability to offer training, mentoring and support to the Iraqi people as they strive to rebuild and revive their economy will be just as important as the support that we have given to provide security over the past four years.
The same point should be recognised when we are trying to build democracy and bring stability to Afghanistan. The scale of the problem that our troops are tackling there and the lessons of that country’s history serve as a sharp reminder of the terrible and difficult task that we are addressing. British troops are involved in fierce fighting against the Taliban at a level of intensity perhaps not seen since the Korean war. Alongside that, we face the massive problem of the drugs trade there. Afghan opium and heroin production feeds millions of addicts worldwide. If the drugs trade is not tackled, all our hard-won successes of bringing democracy and stability to the country will be for naught.
I am not saying that the drugs problem will go away overnight, and I am not saying that Britain alone can solve the problem. Primary responsibility rests with the Afghan Government, but we must do all that we can to stamp it out. The fight against drugs and the fight against terrorism go hand in hand. In the centre and north of Afghanistan, where the Government have managed to increase their authority, opium cultivation is diminishing, and that is good. However, the opposite trend is seen in southern Afghanistan, where our troops are deployed. In the volatile province of Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is concentrated, opium cultivation in 2006-07 rose by 48 per cent. and more than 100,000 hectares are being used for poppy growing and opium cultivation, such is the scale of the problem that British forces are battling against in Afghanistan.
If we can win that battle, however, we can strike a blow against those involved in the drugs trade here. The big question is: can we win? There are no finer forces than ours, and if peace and security are to be brought to that country, we certainly have a role to play.
We went into Afghanistan with a hope that we could reduce the number of drugs coming to this country. We have been there since 2001 and have spent £250 million of British taxpayers’ money. Last year, the drugs crops increased by 60 per cent. to the highest that they have ever been and the price of heroin on the streets of Britain is the lowest that it has ever been. What does my right hon. Friend suggest we do now?
I would not suggest that we pack up and come home. That would not solve the problem. I accept that there is a problem, and I mentioned the increase in heroin production in the south of the country. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others will be in discussions about how we can best help the Afghan economy to change over to other sources of production and income.
I wish that our allies saw the position in Afghanistan in the same way as us. If they did they might come out of their barracks some time, but to date their response has been shameful. Indeed, they might as well have stayed at home for all the good they have been in many operations in Afghanistan.
I believe that the future of peace in the world will be decided in the middle east. There is a critical need for talks about the two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians. I am heartened by the constructive dialogue between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, but the international community really needs to support those efforts, and that means including both Iran and Syria. As long as Iran—I was heartened to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about it— continues to supply weapons, training and funding to extremists operating in Iraq, and to Hezbollah and others in Lebanon, that will prove impossible.
Sooner or later, the Iranian regime will have to face a choice. Either it must form a constructive partnership with the international community, play a constructive role in the middle east and end its support for terrorism, or it must face political, economic and cultural isolation. The offer is there for the Iranians. They can begin by making commitments to bring their nuclear programme to an end. Syria faces the same choice: it must either act responsibly or hold back progress throughout the region.
We face a new world, a world that is fractured, divided and uncertain, but more than ever we must be sure that we are united in fighting global terrorism in all its forms, or we will have no world in which we can sustain our lives. The solution, however, is not a military one alone. The problems that we face are difficult. Sometimes the struggle seems intimidating and the rewards initially not very great, as was suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). However, I believe that in the long term those rewards will be great. These are struggles that are worth enduring, because the prize is worth winning for the whole of humanity.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), whose sincere support for our armed forces, and indeed our veterans, is recognised in all parts of the House.
I want to make a few brief points arising from both the Gracious Speech and today’s debate. Once again it was confirmed to us that Parliament, not the people of this country, would be asked to approve the European treaty. I cannot think of a British Government who have shown greater contempt for the people of this country. They are motivated purely by fear: knowing that the British people would reject this surrender document, they deny them the promised referendum for which they—the Government—were given a mandate at the general election. Perversely, they have absolutely no mandate, not even in a footnote in their manifesto, to use their parliamentary majority to ratify what I believe is a constitutionally subversive treaty.
In my view, the British people will never accept this gateway to the country called Europe. I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, say that the Conservative party would not do so either. He suggested that nearer the time he might consult on the best way forward. May I give him a little premature advice? I believe that if by the time of the next election the treaty is already implemented and a unilateral retrospective veto cannot undo it, we must still have a referendum. However, the price of not having that referendum now is that the one we do have will need to be more fundamental. It must be not an in-and-out referendum of the sort suggested by the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, but a referendum seeking a mandate either to renegotiate for an agreed Europe of sovereign nations—which is what we originally joined—or, if our partners refuse that, to renegotiate, quite calmly, the status of the United Kingdom within Europe.
For some months I have been unable to fathom what British national interest was being served by our troops’ remaining in Iraq, and I have to say that I am glad they are now being drawn down. I have nothing but admiration for the courage and dedication of our armed forces and for what they have achieved, but at the same time I, too, am absolutely certain that we have no right to ask them literally to risk life and limb without a clear purpose for doing so.
In 2003, the Queen's Speech spoke boldly of our “rebuilding” Iraq, but no more. We now talk about helping with “political reconciliation”. The truth is that once the same Shi’a in Basra whom we liberated from tyranny began to turn their guns on us, we became part of the problem, rather than the solution. Whatever the official explanations may be, I believe that moving to overwatch at Basra airport effectively recognises that. The fact that there has been so much less violence since that move was made illustrates that point.
I would like to see—it is not the first time that I have said this in the House—all our troops coming home now. If they do and when they do, we should give them a great homecoming of appreciation for what they have done on our behalf, but the truth is that we cannot solve Iraq. Nor can America. In the end, Iraq is going to have to solve Iraq, ideally with the combined help of its regional neighbours, which have a direct interest in a stable Iraq: Turkey, which cannot countenance the break-up of Iraq and the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan; Syria, which is currently struggling economically under the burden of 1 million Iraqi refugees, with more coming across its border every day; Saudi Arabia, which is concerned at the potential threat of a Tehran-driven Shi’ite satellite; and Iran, which is anxious to avoid another Sunni-Shi’a conflict. The Baker-Hamilton report pointed the way to that and the Government should now press hard for its implementation.
Afghanistan is different. There, our overstretched but outstanding armed forces are fighting for a clear British national interest: to prevent the re-establishment of a Taliban-controlled country from which al-Qaeda could again with impunity plan and launch terrorist attacks against the west. As has been sad, our troops have an enormously daunting task. It is not unlike driving water uphill, only to watch it flow back down again after we leave. We need to give our troops all the support that they need, both in manpower and equipment, and in letting them know that they are fighting on behalf of the direct interests of this country. At the same time we need to understand that sponsoring a local tribal leadership, an age-old habit of British Governments in the past, and winning the battle of hearts and minds could be as important as the military campaign itself. Those two must go hand in hand.
We should not underestimate the importance of our relationship with Pakistan either. The traffic between our two countries is significant. An Islamist, nuclear-armed Pakistan, which is not an impossibility, would be an enormous threat to international peace and security, with serious domestic implications for us, too. When we look at what is happening there, we must beware risking throwing the baby out with the bath water in our reaction to current political events.
From Lebanon to the west bank, I have rarely seen the middle east so explosively volatile. Polarisation has led to radicalisation and radicalisation has led to confrontation. As we have heard, the west is now backing one side and Iran is backing the other, and each of us is providing them with the arms for violence in future. Military action is not and has never been the answer in that region. Israel's war in Lebanon last year ironically left Hezbollah greatly strengthened and now Lebanon teeters on the brink of internal conflict again. Palestinian opinion is dangerously polarised. It is dangerous because confrontation will not achieve for Israel the security that she rightly requires; nor will it achieve a viable and autonomous Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel. My fear is that it will ensure only another generation of suffering and death.
The proposed meeting at Annapolis fills me with foreboding because failure would be disastrous, yet it is very difficult to see where success can be achieved. In a conference of that sort, there are only a number of ways in which there can be success. They can do one of three things. They can crown a previously negotiated agreement; they can provide a forum for negotiation; or they can launch a new process. In this case, as far as I can see, there is no previously negotiated agreement to crown. Negotiations without a unified Palestinian team representing all parts of Palestinian opinion ultimately would be self-defeating. Merely to exchange a few aspirations and economic packages will in the end satisfy nobody.
The real way forward is, as it has always been, through comprehensive dialogue, including all the elements that inevitably must be part of a lasting solution: Hamas as well as Fatah; Hezbollah as well as Signora and Hariri; Syria as well as Egypt and Jordan—they are all ready to talk. I know that; I have talked to them. Without undeliverable preconditions, I believe they should now be invited to join that comprehensive dialogue. If Israel and the United States cannot find their way to inviting them, we should.
The world is changing. The days of undiluted hard power solutions of “shock and awe”, which we will all remember from the beginning of the Iraq war, are past, not least because we are learning that they did not achieve the purposes that they set out to achieve. In the words of the current Lord Chancellor, it would be “completely nuts” to use hard power against Iran. In these days of the Shanghai Co-operative Organisation, of the powerful Russian energy lever and of the clash of ideologies, my view is that we need to dust down our old manuals on soft power backed by hard. We used to be rather good at that. We had better start being rather good at it again soon.
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the distinguished former shadow Foreign Secretary. It is no surprise to me that even though he ended by talking about the middle east peace process and Iraq—very important foreign policy issues—he began, of course, with the Conservative obsession with Europe. I have attended 20 Gracious Speech debates—I have not heard the right hon. and learned Gentleman speak on those matters 20 times in those debates, although he has of course spoken on them on many occasions—and it is interesting that the Conservative party policy on Europe tends to harden each time we have a further debate on foreign policy.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman always mentions my Beano moment; my JFK moment. I will remind him of his great moment as shadow Foreign Secretary, when he went round the country on the back of a lorry trying to save the pound. I am not sure whether that was as successful as my campaign as Minister for Europe to try to make Britain more aware of what was happening in the EU. It is sad, however, that these debates are dominated by this “fear” of the EU.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman was a Minister in a Conservative Government, he signed away vetoes, made agreements and stood up for British interests, in exactly the same way as Labour Ministers have done over the last 10 years. Perhaps it is because the Conservative party has no cause that it has to pick up on Europe. That is why I am pleased that we will have substantial debates on the European Union in the forthcoming parliamentary Session. I am glad that the Government have agreed to make so much time available for proper scrutiny of the European reform treaty because that will be the opportunity for the Opposition to table amendments calling for a referendum or to set out their alternative vision of what they believe Europe should be doing. Those crucial issues affect the success of our nation.
Of course, we have to reform how the EU operates because a Europe of six is quite different from a Europe of 27. Enlargement has transformed the European Union—how it functions, how its decisions are made, how it makes the regulations that inevitably come before this House to be scrutinised and that mean that our country inevitably must deal with our European colleagues—so it is vital that we have such debates.
I see that the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands) is present. He has been a great champion of the enlargement process. No Member on the Opposition Benches has done more than the hon. Gentleman to champion the rights of the eastern European people who have come here since 1 May 2004. Enlargement has been good for us—there have been benefits—and, because of that, when the crucial decisions are made, we must have a Europe that is much more efficient and effective. Therefore, we will have to examine the treaty in great detail, and some of the issues mentioned by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), might well have to be discussed much more openly. Are those who speak against the reform treaty against Britain belonging to the EU? Is that why they speak so passionately against the reform treaty? There will be an opportunity to examine such concerns, and all the political parties will need to be honest and open about their true feelings.
A few weeks ago, the Chancellor set out in a paper proposals to reform the banking system, and they are now part of the Government’s legislative programme. Seventeen years ago, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International was closed by the then Chancellor and the then Governor of the Bank of England because it was alleged that the BCCI was full of fraud. I well remember 5 July 1991 when the bank closed: thousands of people gathered outside BCCI branches throughout this country and the world—it was the sixth largest private bank in the world—and the then Chancellor and Governor refused to intervene to save the depositors from losing their money. That is why I am so delighted that, 17 years later, the lessons of BCCI have been learned and there are proposals to reform our banking system so that if a bank is in distress and there is a risk that the customers will lose their money, the Bank of England and the Government will be able to intervene and guarantee those people their savings up to a certain amount. The Chancellor mentioned a figure of £100,000, although for Northern Rock the figure is smaller at £35,000. What has finally happened 17 years after the liquidation of BCCI, the largest liquidation in history? The liquidators, Deloitte and Touche, have made millions of pounds, which has all come out of the bank, and the creditors will have got 84 per cent. of their money back, so the original reason why it closed has, of course, disappeared. I hope the banking reforms will reassure people that the Government are serious about ensuring that if such a situation arises again there will be intervention and people’s savings will be protected.
The Government have announced that they will publish a counter-terrorism Bill. In doing so, they rightly did not pre-empt or pre-judge the discussion started by the Prime Minister’s statement of July this year that he wanted there to be a debate in the country about the terrorism proposals. As Members know, the Home Affairs Committee is currently investigating the question of the 28-day detention period. The Government have not set out a time limit in respect of the proposed legislation. I welcome that, because if Parliament is to discuss these issues and the Select Committee is to investigate them, it is important that we have a proper debate before the Government reach a conclusion. That is the right approach to adopt and, to be frank, quite different from the one adopted a few years ago when the Government set out their stall with 90 days and did not change their position. That ended in a Government defeat on the Floor of the House and the House adopting the 28-day limit.
The Select Committee is in the middle of its inquiry and has taken evidence from Liberty and from Sir Ian Blair, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We have had the Home Secretary before us, and tomorrow the shadow Home Secretary and the Liberal Democrat spokesman will give evidence. The head of MI5 has agreed to give private evidence to the Committee in a week’s time, along with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the former Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith. We shall conduct a proper investigation and listen to the views of every stakeholder before coming to a conclusion. It would be wrong of me, as Chairman of the Committee, to pre-empt what it will say, but we are willing and eager to engage with the Government in this important process.
Only a week ago, in his private briefing to newspaper editors in Manchester, the head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, talked about the serious threat that people in this country face. He said that the number of terrorist suspects has increased from 1,000 to 2,000. The threat is serious, and of course Parliament takes it extremely seriously, but it is important that the case be made before the Committee. We look forward to hearing from him, albeit in private, so that we can discuss the matter and conclude our report. I hope, and I think the Committee hopes, that we shall be able to do so before Christmas, which will give the Government and the Home Secretary an opportunity to bring forward their proposals, so that we can have a proper debate early next year on whether the detention period should be extended. That is the third most important limb of the Government’s legislative programme.
I welcome the Gracious Speech, which is full of important Bills that I believe will consolidate this Government’s connection with the British people. I hope that, in the coming months, we will continue to debate the issues that I have mentioned, particularly Europe and counter-terrorism, with the vigour and robustness that we associate with the House.
I am pleased to be able to welcome the Gracious Speech. I hope that the House paid close attention to what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said in his important speech, particularly about the middle east.
I shall speak solely about defence. In the week of Remembrance Sunday, I pay tribute to the fallen who died for their country, and think of their grieving families. I also remember the wounded and wish them the speediest recovery and a return to health. In this debate on the Queen’s Speech, it is appropriate that we think especially of British servicemen and women of all three services currently on operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and mention the civilian staffs across the defence establishment, who do so much to keep operations going.
We have a great deal to be grateful for, yet the Government’s management of defence is, frankly, appalling. We have a Secretary of State who is a placeman of the Prime Minister, and a Prime Minister whose fine words on defence are not matched in any way by his Government’s actions. The main problem is, as it has been for the past 50 years, money. That applies not only to the Ministry of Defence but to the Foreign Office. The Government are not being completely straight with the people, the services or the House if they continue to insist that the defence budget is adequate to cope with our present difficulties, let alone the serious problems that loom in the near future. If we are to continue to undertake all our international obligations and conduct major operations on two fronts, as well as defend the country, the Secretary of State for Defence knows perfectly well that the money that has been allocated is nowhere near sufficient and that further money will have to be found.
I warn the Government, as I have on a number of occasions—many of my hon. Friends have done the same—that the armed forces of this country will not be able to deliver the excellence that they do unless the Government meet their obligations toward them.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I shall not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
I am talking not solely about the military covenant but about the solid, serious funding required for the running of defence.
Among the raft of dismal performances that make up much of the MOD is the Government’s seeming inability, which I cannot understand, to tell the true story about the remarkable achievements of our troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. There are wonderful stories of matchless gallantry, heroism and triumph to tell, but where are they reported? Of course, military reporting in the British press is lamentable, but I believe that, if the press were given a greater opportunity to be shown what is going on and to tell the soldiers’ story, it would be of great advantage to the country and particularly to the soldiers on operations.
There are, indeed, tales of great heroism and daring to be told. These men, with a sense of solidarity, closeness, comradeship and mutual support between servicemen and women of all ranks, take the fight to the enemy with great coolness and skill under the most hostile conditions that it would be possible for anyone to imagine, and they draw great strength from knowing that they are supported, that their fellow countrymen care about them and what they do, that their politicians are knowledgeable—they have largely given up hope on that—that the press care and that what they are doing is both valued and appreciated. So, Ministry of Defence press department—under the control of the Secretary of State, amazingly—for goodness’ sake get on and do a much better job of informing the wider world of those remarkable stories. For a start, bring back the single service PRs, who are capable of telling the story.
Anyone who visits the troops on operations will be amazed at the high standard of their morale, their positive attitude and their continued sense of purpose at all ranks and in all jobs. That is nothing whatever to do with the Government—indeed, it is wholly despite them—but the country is indeed fortunate to have its troops extraordinarily well led at all levels; officers, warrant officers, senior non-commissioned officers and junior ranks are all of quite exceptional quality. The country loves its armed forces and knows how brilliant they are, but people do not get the opportunity to read about their extraordinary successes and achievements on major operations.
I turn briefly to the scandal of how the Government have handled the Defence Export Services Organisation. Since the Prime Minister came to power, it has seemed to me that he had little purpose other than to accrue power and little idea of what to do when he got it. This Government seem to be in power for no good purpose save just being there. They are inefficient, wasteful and expensive; they are often lazy and unserious, and they carry with them the whiff of something not quite right. The DESO disaster is a perfect example of their failures. It was emphatically not a well thought out strategic change to the machinery of Government. It was a ham-fisted and poorly thought out decimation of four decades of outstanding success and service to this country and its industry.
Does my hon. Friend not think that it is telling that, at the precise moment when the Government have taken their extraordinary decision, the French President is setting up an exact mirror of what DESO was and has personally taken control of defence exports? How lamentable that makes the Prime Minister’s decision, smuggled out at the end of a parliamentary Session.
My hon. Friend is right. He led an excellent Westminster Hall debate in which he laid out clearly the great disadvantage that will accrue to British industry as a result of this.
I understand that only nine days after the appearance of an advertisement in The Sunday Times for a new head of DESO, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence was summoned to No. 10 to be told that DESO was to be closed down. The permanent secretary then informed Sir Alan Garwood, the head of DESO, who was not able to inform his staff until the next day. There was no consultation, not even with Sir John Rose, the chief executive of Rolls-Royce or Mike Turner, the chief executive of British Aerospace, and it is my strong belief that the Secretary of State for Defence was himself not fully consulted. As you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that was also the case when the Prime Minister announced in Iraq the return from there to this country of 1,000 men, most of whom were already back here.
I would like the Secretary of State to answer some questions. Was he told and consulted in full about this decision before it was taken? What was his response? Was Lord Drayson, the former excellent Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, consulted? I rather think that he was not, given that he has since left the Government. The point about DESO was that it was an extremely efficient, effective and vigorous promoter of its operations, quite unlike the dud organisation into which it has now been shunted.
I understand that the Prime Minister decided to do this to appease someone called Baroness Vadera, who I am sorry to report to the House is apparently a Minister responsible for promoting Britain’s interests overseas. One can only conclude of her determination to get rid of DESO that she must fashionably dislike this country and its institutions, and that she is clearly careless of our national interest. I suggest that the House keep a careful eye on her. Perhaps she should return to her bank in the City.
It is hard to believe that the Government could have taken so bovine a decision. Wilfully undermining one of the most successful agencies in Government, breaking it up and removing it from the Ministry of Defence is a foolish thing to do, and this Government will come to regret it.
The opening remarks by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs painted a rosy picture of the alleged successes in Iraq and of what is happening now. I would like to put a slightly different slant on things. We should remind ourselves that US troops are in Iraq only because of a presidential veto of two votes of both Houses of the US Congress to withdraw them all and that Congress is now locked in a debate about how much money should be spent on the continuing deployment of forces in Iraq. We should also record that some 500,000 Iraqis have died during this war, that 2 million have gone into internal exile in Iraq because they can no longer live safely in their own homes and that 1.7 million have gone into exile in neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan and Syria, where they obviously put an enormous strain on local resources and facilities.
We should ask ourselves serious questions about how we got ourselves into this situation in Iraq, how much it has cost us and how it has cost the lives of so many people in Iraq and of so many American and British servicepeople. We must ensure that we do not repeat the same mistake by building up to another war in Iran or anywhere else in the region. I am concerned that so much of the debate seems to be about a notion of security involving building up greater armaments and preparing ourselves for yet another disastrous conflict in that region. I agree with the call made by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram): it is time for the small number of remaining British forces to come home from Iraq because their presence is doing nothing other than make the situation worse.
We went into the war in Iraq because we believed the allegation that there were weapons of mass destruction there and because we chose to follow US foreign policy. The war has done immense damage to this country and to the USA, and it has not reduced terrorism or extremism—indeed, it has probably had exactly the opposite effect throughout the region and in the wider world. We should look a bit more seriously at how we can withdraw from Iraq and help to promote a long-term peace process in the whole region.
The Secretary of State did not say much about this, but I am concerned about the continuing conflict in Afghanistan which, again, is presented as one of continuing success. I understand, however, that the Ministry of Defence now talks openly about a 30-year deployment—three further decades—of British troops there. What on earth do the Government expect to achieve in 30 years’ continuing occupation of that country other than the probable build-up of enormous opposition to them and the instability that would then be engendered in neighbouring countries? We might wish to defeat what is termed “extremism” and to defeat a perverted form of Islam, but I am not convinced that bombs, guns and huge deployments of western forces is the way to do it. They are more likely, in the long run, to increase the danger of that particular development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) pointed out in an intervention that despite the presence of a significant number of NATO forces, including British forces and US special forces, in Afghanistan, drug production is at record levels and rising, and is unlikely to reduce in the near future. We should take a slightly more sanguine view of our role in the region.
Iran has been called the bad boy of the region. I am not here to defend the Iranian regime’s human rights record, or its record on trade unions or anything else, but I ask the House to recognise that the vast majority of people in Iran, of all political and religious persuasions, are not in favour of bombing raids by the United States, Israel or anybody else, or of a land invasion of Iran. Such an approach will create a sense of unity in Iran that probably did not exist before. I intervened on the shadow Foreign Secretary earlier, and my point is that we should have a greater understanding of the power structures and social structures in Iran and seek to engage with all sections of Iranian society.
Iran is still a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, unlike Israel or other countries in the region; it has not acceded to the supplementary voluntary protocol, but it is still a signatory. Surely that is worth hanging on to. We should continue to hang on to it through a process of dialogue rather than one of overt threat, which is what we appear to be developing. A war with Iran would be even worse than a war with Iraq. The casualties of such a war would be greater and the long-term consequences probably more dangerous and more serious for the whole region and for the rest of the world.
We are watching the playing out of the situation in Pakistan. The west has given considerable support to President Musharraf over a number of years, and he has now declared a coup almost against himself. Today I received an email from a Pakistani friend of mine who used to live in London. I will not give his name because I fear that he could be in danger if I did so. I shall just read a small part of what he wrote to me. He said:
“My friends are all in detention or imprisoned with no legal access. Most of civil society and human rights and secular progressives are under arrest. We are passing through a very bad phase in our history.”
A report that he sent on to me states:
“no one should be taken in by the semantics as to whether it is emergency or martial law: it is the full-blown martial law with all the associated characteristics of closure of the judiciary and media…along with the wide scale arrest of human rights civil society and political activists”.
That is what is happening in Pakistan.
A large demonstration by ordinary Pakistani people took place in Whitehall on Saturday. It called for us at least to condemn, as I believe we are doing, the state of emergency and to recognise that the chances of having free and fair elections during a state of emergency and while so much of the media has been suspended are non-existent. We have to recognise that the defence policies pursued by the west, especially the US, have not done much to conquer poverty or encourage civil society, but have bolstered the political power of the military, and Musharraf is now showing how much he is prepared to flex his muscles in that respect.
My final points are on Palestine. I intervened on the Secretary of State on the situation there, and I have had the good fortune to visit Palestine and Israel on five occasions over the past few years. I am constantly shocked by the poverty of the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, and their sense of isolation, hopelessness and disillusion that the peace process will mean anything for them. Consistently, Israel has continued, through settlements, construction of the wall and imprisonment of elected Palestinian parliamentarians and lawmakers, to reduce living standards and the opportunities for political discourse in Palestine.
A solution based on the separation of the west bank and Gaza is no solution. Some cosy deal cooked up in Annapolis is not the solution. Too much of the western strategy is based on pumping money into the Fatah-led Government on the west bank and ignoring the needs of the people of Gaza. I have today received a lengthy statement from the Palestinian-International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, which talks about the way in which Israel prevents normal commodities from getting into Gaza; the problems of access to health care and education; and the sense of anger and bitterness felt by the ordinary people there.
If we are to bring about some kind of long-term peace, justice and security for everyone who lives in the region, we need to listen to those voices in the Israeli opposition and the peace movement who say that the current policy is unsustainable. We also need to listen to independent voices in Palestine who want recognition and support, and we need the west to be serious about putting an end to the siege. The sense of anger in the whole region, and in Palestinian youth, is the cause of some of our problems in this world. Through the Balfour declaration and many other acts of colonial control, Britain is partly responsible for the history of the region, and we therefore have a role to play in not allowing any unsustainable, cosy deal cooked up in Annapolis, but in pursuing a solution based on the withdrawal of the settlements, an end to the construction of the wall, the release of the 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and, above all, recognition of the rights of Palestinian people. That will make life safer and more secure for people living in Israel as well as those living in Palestine. The continuation of the conflict through the build-up of arms and separation barriers is not a solution and it will not help us to bring about peace. We have a role to play in that and I hope that we will do so, but I have not been encouraged by what I have heard so far today.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a thoughtful contribution. He knows that we share much common ground on the issue of Iraq and, from what he said today, on the situation in Iran.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate and I intend to confine my remarks to one of the most significant challenges facing British foreign policy today—Iran. I am concerned that the US’s approach is an impediment to a peaceful solution. By opting for confrontation and the rhetoric of regime change, President Bush is playing into the hands of President Ahmadinejad and the hardliners in Tehran. That can only make matters worse. I urge the Government to use their influence to get the US to change tack or at least soften its tone.
We understand that President Bush is seriously considering a military strike. If he is even coming close to doing so, we risk sleepwalking into yet another foreign policy disaster, the scale of which might surpass even the shambles of Iraq. For one thing, it is not even certain that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, a view shared by Sir John Thomson, a former UK ambassador to the United Nations. It may be true that Iran is pressing ahead with uranium enrichment, and that that uranium could be used to build a bomb, but I suggest that Tehran’s nuclear programme has always been as much about status as it has been about security. There is a possibility that Iran, like Japan, wants the prestige of having nuclear know-how without actually wanting to develop a bomb. Indeed, if we look at the region from Iran’s point of view, it is surrounded by nuclear powers, be they China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan or, to the south, the US navy, so status is important.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been unable to uncover any concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme and Tehran has consistently denied any intention of building one. We saw in Iraq what problems can follow when evidence is not properly scrutinised by this place. The situation requires subtlety of understanding and action. That is where President Bush’s rhetoric becomes very important. Talk of an “axis of evil” or regime change is not helpful. Iran can have no meaningful incentive to co-operate on nuclear power if it believes that the US ultimately wants regime change. In fact, it makes the nuclear option more attractive. Regime change is unlikely to happen anyway, as Iranians are already broadly supportive of the political system, even if many are not in favour of President Ahmadinejad. Indeed, the current confrontational approach, through rhetoric and the implied threat of military action, plays into Ahmadinejad’s hands. It gives him the enemy he needs to unite Iran and harness anti-American feeling across the middle east. It helps the hardliners to secure their position at a time when economic difficulties are getting worse.
The subtlety of our approach should recognise the election timetable in Iran. Parliamentary elections are due next March and presidential elections in 2009. Both Iranian elections will affect the course that that country eventually takes. One could argue that confrontation is not working anyway. Iran is still enriching uranium and does not feel especially vulnerable, believing the US to be weak and essentially bogged down in Iraq.
The risk is that we underestimate how seriously President Bush is contemplating a military strike. For him, the timetable of dealing with Iran is shortened by his own imminent departure from office. He does not want to leave a nuclear Iran as his legacy and he seems prepared to sacrifice the long game for his short-term needs. However, a military strike by the US or Israel would be wholly unwise. The one thing guaranteed to push Iran into continuing uranium enrichment and developing a nuclear weapon would be a unilateral military strike. National pride, as well as strategic wisdom, would require that. Iran would probably also drop out of the non-proliferation treaty and end all co-operation with the IAEA, as the hon. Member for Islington, North suggested.
Support for the current hardliners in Iran would probably increase as a result of a strike, just as the Iran-Iraq war boosted patriotic support for the regime and helped to cement the revolution. In the same way, Iranians responded to Bush’s talk of an axis of evil in 2002 by going on to remove the reformist President Khatami. Air strikes would not do much damage to the nuclear programme anyway. We do not know for sure where the sites are; some are deeply embedded in mountains. Air strikes would, however, further inflame western and Islamic viewpoints.
Instead of confrontation, there should be more constructive dialogue from the US and the west in general. We need a cessation of US calls for regime change, and an end of talk about an axis of evil. I suggest that we need to offer implicit recognition of Iran’s new status as a major power in the region—a status that we created through the removal of Iran’s rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a precedent for recognising new status: in the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power.
We need a gradual normalisation of diplomatic relations. Without that, discussions on Iraq, the nuclear issue and the middle east peace process will become more difficult. There is no doubt about it: some diplomatic efforts have already been made by the E3 plus 3, but more could be done. The west underestimates the opportunity to influence Iran and to steer the country towards a more moderate and reformist future by appealing over the head of President Ahmadinejad to the country’s population and its middle classes. Iran is a state in transition, with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. The challenge for the west is to influence those struggles. Crude appeals for regime change undermine local proponents of reform by making them look like imperialist lackeys. Offering Iran a new relationship with the US could strengthen the pragmatists at the expense of the hard-liners. The pragmatists believe that Iran has a better chance of achieving regional prestige through negotiation.
We must not forget the opportunities that engagement presents. Like Washington, Tehran is eager to avoid civil war in Iraq, with the instability and refugee movements that that could involve, and is eager to maintain Iraq’s unity, albeit with Shi’ite predominance. Instead of bemoaning Iran’s influence in Iraq, President Bush should seek to embrace that power and try to use it constructively, difficult though that may be. Tehran and the west also have a shared interest in tackling poppy production in Afghanistan—a point that was raised earlier. Iran has a real problem with heroin addiction, and co-operation with Britain might hold the key to reducing supply.
Situations of great complexity are often played out at different levels, and Iran is no exception. For example, Germany, one of Iran’s biggest business partners, is under US pressure for its companies to cut exports, and for export credit guarantees to be reduced. The German Chancellor has responded by saying that any sanctions must be negotiated in the UN. Berlin has evidence of US companies doing undisclosed business with Iran via shadow companies in the middle east. We know that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently made a surprise visit to Tehran to put pressure on the regime to meet the IAEA deadline regarding uranium enrichment. Apparently the key reason is that the Kremlin sees an Iranian climb-down as the perfect way to prevent the US from setting up its planned missile radar intercept sites in eastern Europe. As President Bush insists that the stations are targeted at Iran, not Russia, he would not need them if the Iranian threat disappeared.
Whichever level holds sway, and whatever argument wins through, politicians of all types need to remember that military action should always be the action of last resort; Remembrance weekend was a poignant reminder of that. Once military action is sanctioned by politicians, the way is laid open for uncertainty and unforeseen consequences. Those unwelcome visitors always come knocking at the door of even the best laid plans. That is why military action should be taken only when all other avenues have been exhausted.
I believe that we can and should go that extra mile for peace. The US needs a subtlety of approach that recognises the complexities of the issue, and Britain should use her influence in the US to get President Bush to acknowledge that. We need a policy of genuine engagement to undermine President Ahmadinejad and reassure Iran that her interests need not be threatened by working with the west. While keeping all other options on the table, we need to renounce the option of a military strike in the short term. The nuclear issue is yet to be decided. A peaceful solution is possible if we can succeed in getting the US to change its policy, but time is becoming short, if only because of the presidential election timetable.
The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have required commitments beyond the call of duty on the part of Britain’s armed forces. Disagreement and political point-scoring about whether our forces are stretched or overstretched are, for me, academic in the face of the performance of our armed forces. Whatever the appropriate form of words—whatever side of stretch or overstretch we come down on—our troops are certainly at the edge of their capability, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue.
Matters will only get worse unless there is a significant increase in defence resources, or a significant reduction in our commitments. In any event, further involvement in other operations at this time is out of the question. In some respects, that might well be a good thing, but for Britain to be in such a situation for any length of time threatens our security, and the issue must be addressed. A country with wealth and resources as extensive as ours should never be unable to defend itself effectively against a new and unexpected threat. We should always have a significant cushion between our operational commitments and our security needs. That is one reason why supporting the Americans in Iraq, when we were already greatly committed in Afghanistan, was not only a political mistake, but a dangerous tactical security error. We should thank God that those events coincided with a reduction in our commitment in Northern Ireland, because without the peace dividend that political agreement has delivered our forces would by now be in meltdown.
Even the Americans, with their enormous defence base, are feeling the strain, and the tactical mistake that George Bush made in Iraq has clearly emboldened the Iranians, to the detriment of world peace. We must remember that British troops are the finest pound-for-pound military forces in the world not simply because they are British. They perform to such a high standard because we, as a nation, have traditionally trained and resourced our Army, Navy and Air Force to a much higher level than many other countries. In addition, a successful mix of operations and training experience has left our armed forces with an expertise that is second to none. However, if we put our forces under too much operational pressure, without giving them the time to refresh and retrain, their standards will inevitably slip and our security will be threatened.
The hon. Gentleman rightly praises our armed forces, but does he not agree that if our reconstruction efforts had been correct, and if, in the short window of opportunity that we had in 2003 and 2004, work had been done to bring the country, or indeed the region, up to par, our armed forces would not today face the pressure that they do?
I am sorry to pursue the point, but I feel that I must, because Basra was, and remains, a British responsibility. The task was never up to the Americans; it was up to us. We were designated that area. It was up to us to work out the package of support and reconstruction, and that did not happen. We cannot blame the Americans, and we cannot even blame the Sunnis. The operation in Basra was very different, and that is why we call for an inquiry that will answer some very difficult questions.
The operation in Basra was certainly very different. History has demonstrated that there has been a different result there.
On whether there should be an inquiry, I want to make some points about our commitment in relation to our resources. We must decide to cut our commitments or increase our resources; doing nothing is not an option. In my view, the wise choice would be to cut our commitments and increase our resources at the same time. Although in recent years we have certainly increased defence spending in real terms, we have done so at a time when the opportunities for new and improved defence technology have grown enormously. It is absolutely right to spend on new and exciting resources—new aircraft carriers, submarines, Snatch vehicles and fighter planes. We must stay at the forefront of defence technology. However, those new and effective assets must not come at the expense of our people on the ground. There is much to do if we are to house and reward our people at a level that will recruit and retain them.
Like any others, defence resources are scarce and expensive, so they must be used to our best advantage. In consequence, regardless of the history, we have a responsibility to review our strategic position continuously. We should constantly ask this question: are we helping the situation or contributing to the problem? Although it makes no sense to name a firm date for withdrawal, it is sensible for us progressively to reduce our forces with the firm intention of leaving things to the Iraqis. If we do not make it clear to the Iraqi Government that they must soon deal with their own security, they will never be ready to run their own affairs.
Afghanistan is a completely different kettle of fish. The fear is that the two operations are frequently seen as the same in the public eye. After 11 September, the Americans were justified in demanding from the Taliban the cessation of support for al-Qaeda, and they were right to invade Afghanistan. Appropriately, we supported them and we should continue to do so because the democratic world would be foolish in the extreme to allow the Taliban back to control a nation state and run the affairs of the people of Afghanistan.
The NATO Council was justified when for the first time in its history it invoked article 5 of the treaty in defence of the USA. Let me remind the House of how article 5 begins:
“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all”.
Those are fine words, but NATO membership and the responsibilities that go with it will require the delivery of more than fine words in Afghanistan. There can be no place for a two-tier NATO, with some nations prepared to do the trouble-free bits while others, such as the British and the north Americans, are expected to bring home dead soldiers.
In the light of the current support of some of our European neighbours, we have to wonder what would have happened if, during the cold war years of the Soviet Union, the Russians had invaded mainland Europe. Would some of our so-called NATO allies have hesitated until the tanks ranged at their own borders before they were prepared to put their forces in harm’s way? Who knows? We will never answer that question. However, another question arises: if NATO cannot deliver significant military force from countries such as France and Germany on the back of an article 5 declaration, what is the purpose of NATO at all? After all, Afghanistan is a relatively small task when compared with the threat formerly from the Soviet Union.
If nothing else, NATO’s performance in Afghanistan is already convincing me that we cannot rely on a European defence force for anything but peacekeeping and parades. We must remain masters of our own destiny in military matters. I am afraid that the defence of our liberty will never come cheap; however, the failure to be ready, willing and able could be very expensive indeed.
We have touched on the fact that a lot of time has been spent talking about the European treaty, and I want to make this basic observation. The whole issue of a constitution or a non-constitution arose from the Laeken declaration, put together by the European Council in December 2001. It is worth reminding ourselves of the remit inherent in that declaration. It called for the clarifying, adjusting and simplifying of the division of competencies between the EU and member states and the addressing of the democratic deficit to make the EU more democratic, transparent and efficient. It also called for the EU to be brought closer to its citizens. On the four treaties, the declaration states:
“If we are to have greater transparency, simplification is essential”.
What a long road we have travelled since that remit. The declaration asked exactly the right questions for the long-term viability of the European Union, but one can see that the EU is very far removed from them. The idea that the treaty is bringing the peoples of Europe closer to the structures now being proposed is preposterous.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from the Laeken declaration, I remind him and the House that only in June this year the European Council, continuing what was said at Laeken, called for the
“crucial importance of reinforcing communication with the European citizens…and involving them in a permanent dialogue. This will be particularly important during the upcoming IGC and ratification process”.
So that urge to have democracy came not only at Laeken, but in the ensuing years. Unfortunately, it will not be fulfilled.
My hon. Friend makes his point well, and I absolutely agree with him.
In the next fortnight, Mohamed el-Baradei will report on the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear developments. The vote on a possible third UN Security Council resolution for sanctions will be called if the IAEA and Javier Solana conclude that Iran has failed to make progress on the work programme agreement of last summer. When I was in Iran recently, I was told that it would be fully compliant. However, since then—and we are at a critical juncture—President Ahmadinejad has hinted that Iran is now capable of producing 3,000 centrifuges, which would be an important step in the process of enriching uranium and would lead to the possibility of a nuclear bomb. Iran has indicated that it will expand that capability considerably.
If we go down the route that I have mentioned, there will be huge problems for us and the region. Let us consider, for example, the reactions of two of Iran’s neighbours, which are concerned for different reasons. Saudi Arabia has unveiled a Gulf states initiative for all users of enriched uranium to ensure security of supply for civilian nuclear power programmes and to prevent the diversion of uranium into nuclear weapons programmes. As my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) mentioned, Russia has proposed to be a guarantor of the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme, with the possibility of some exchange resulting from America’s proposal on ballistic missile defences. However, even before the imminent IAEA report, the United States has announced a series of sanctions against the Iranian revolutionary corps as a proliferator of nuclear weapons, and against the al-Quds force division as a terrorist organisation. We therefore have in prospect a freezing of assets, as well as the ban on US citizens doing business with three Iranian banks. However disagreeable it may be to us, the problem is that that sort of action bolsters the reputation of President Ahmadinejad, whose supporters did badly in the local elections nearly a year ago, and who got into office in the first place promising higher employment and prosperity, which has unfortunately completely failed to materialise. There is petrol rationing, amid other signs of a truly sclerotic economy. However, the country is insulated by oil at $100 a barrel, as it has one of the highest reserves in the world. It has become fashionable in Iran to blame Britain, in particular, for its difficulties; that is because of our rather chequered historical relationship with the country.
If Iran does take the alarming route to a nuclear capability, not only its neighbours have reason to be concerned. President Ahmadinejad’s recent comments on Israel and his repulsive observations about the holocaust make Israel understandably anxious. The United States has indicated that Iranian weaponry is being used against soldiers in Iraq. We do not know what the exact provenance of that weaponry might be, but it is undoubtedly being used, and the United States may use that as an opportunity for some sort of attack on Iran in due course. Before that ever happened, we would do well to consider the consequences. Iran has sophisticated weaponry and is most unlikely to fail to react. What could it do? It could close the Strait of Hormuz, which is only 34 miles wide and through which 20 per cent. of the world’s oil travels each day, or even attack some of the Gulf oilfields. A substantial reduction in oil supplies to the world would have dire economic consequences. We must also ask ourselves whether surgical strikes could be effective. Would the Iranians manage to retaliate further afield? If there was no UN mandate because of objections from Russia and China, how would parts of the Islamic world react in such an eventuality? If there was a UN resolution, how would enforcement be viewed when non-compliance is accepted elsewhere in the region? There are huge dangers, but they have to be balanced against the consequences of Iran acquiring a nuclear device.
If there is to be a successful dialogue, the United States will be the key player, as always in this region. Iran has been branded part of the “axis of evil” and has had conditions imposed on it by the United States that make it difficult for any such dialogue to proceed—namely, the cessation of any kind of nuclear enrichment and ceasing to sponsor state terrorism. The simple reality is that no Iranian politician, however moderate, would accept such conditions, so any dialogue that is to work must be based on a different sort of premise. The grim reality is that we have very little insight into the different elements of the country’s ruling group. We have no real intelligence on the ground and can make judgments based on assumptions but not hard evidence. Nevertheless, we must try to identify those in Iran who are more moderate and can persuade the more aggressive to get into some sort of dialogue with us. If we fail, the consequences for Iran, the region and the rest of the world will be very serious. The next few weeks will be crucial. No option should be dismissed in these alarming circumstances, but whatever course we pursue to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear device, we must do so in a tough but calculated and measured way, because we need to assess very clearly what the consequences would be.
The importance of the security and stability of Israel, as a homeland for the Jewish people, is universally accepted in this House, and so it should be. However, we are entitled to ask whether Israel is more secure today than it was, say, 10 years ago; I fear that the answer is no. I welcome the fact that Mr. Olmert and President Abbas appear to be moving towards an understanding. There are many contentious issues to be addressed, and the question is whether either of them can really deliver. I fear that there will be no viable two-state solution and no ultimate security for Israel unless—this is a very disagreeable proposition—Hamas is ultimately part of any deal agreed between Mr. Olmert and President Abbas, because any such agreement will have to be acceptable to the majority of Palestinians; indeed, President Abbas has talked about having a referendum to resolve the situation. As a long-term objective, the inclusion of Hamas in any talks will have to be entertained.
Mention has been made of the Annapolis conference. We must applaud that initiative. There are dangers in terms of whether it will be successful and expectations that may be too high, but it is good to know that Turkey is constructively involved. Yesterday, President Shimon Peres arrived in Ankara—President Abbas arrives today—for what the Turkish press describe as a mini-Annapolis. I hope and believe that Annapolis must succeed, but it should do so by being the first stage in a process of negotiation encompassing not only the Israelis and Palestinians but the broader region. If Annapolis fails, the pessimists will feel vindicated. The Palestinians naturally want a freeze on settlement construction, prisoner release and fewer roadblocks, while Israel understandably wants guaranteed security. All those aspects are hugely difficult. It may be wise to suggest that Annapolis is not some kind of finality but part of a process on the long road towards a resolution of the problem.
Looking beyond the direct Israel-Palestine relationship, there is a wider picture to consider. Israel has good working relationships with its neighbours, Jordan and Egypt, but there is a lively debate in Israel about its relationship with Syria. The Golan Heights, which are legally Syrian, are occupied by Israel. They have no strategic value any more, but for Syria this is a crucial matter. Seven years ago, a deal was nearly struck between the then Syrian President and the Israelis. Syria has offered normalisation and an exchange of ambassadors, and the Israelis should road-test that. I understand the difficulties, given the relationship between Syria and Hezbollah, but the prize would be a normalisation that would enhance the possibility of Israel’s security. Syria is a secular country where religious minorities are protected; indeed, it currently has many refugees from Iraq.
As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, the middle east is of pivotal importance, not only for the region itself but for the world at large. Unfortunately, our reputation has been considerably degraded in the past decade. Our longstanding and firm friendship with the United States has not been successfully deployed. Annapolis beckons, and we all hope that it will work. It is vital that we should assist in this process in any way that we can. The peoples of the middle east—the crucible of our civilisation—whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian, do not deserve to continue in an atmosphere of such fear and insecurity.
I welcome the Gracious Speech, although I was unable to hear it first hand because I was representing this House in Berlin at talks focused on the possible future transformation of NATO. I have been associated with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for 20 years, and having been vice-president in the past, I now hold the position of general rapporteur of the defence and security committee. For the past two years in that post, I have had to write reports on Afghanistan and visit that country. With regard to defence, I would like to concentrate my remarks purely on that subject this evening, because my opinions might be somewhat pertinent. The reports, which can be seen on the internet, concentrate purely on the facts, and have won warm approval from David Richards, who was general officer commanding on my first visit, and favourable comment from Dan McNeil, who is currently GOC.
I would like to start with the point that NATO is doing a brilliant job. Our forces are performing valiantly and with enormous courage, despite the fact that resources are sometimes inadequate or ineffective. The problem is that, in my view, we are doing the wrong job. I shall explain. The role that NATO has had thrust upon it is one of promoting and protecting a system of governance, and ensuring that it is well established. When one considers that system, one finds oneself asking a number of questions. We must remember that Afghanistan is very much a tribal society. If one flies over it, one can see—especially over the Hindu Kush—that its communities are rather like cells in a beehive, which are isolated from each other. In the past, they have not been able to communicate with each other very well. That is not the case any more. People now have mobile phones and laptops, and there are radio masts on the ridges so that they can communicate very easily.
In the past, the Afghan has been the sort of person who would say to himself and his neighbours, “If the leader says it is all right, then it must be all right. I trust my leader.” Of course, they are learning that things are not quite what they ought to be, because so much corruption is clearly evident. The system that they voted for some time ago—I doubt very much whether they would vote for it again—is one in which the normal Afghan is dependent on the patronage and protection of his provincial governor. In return, the provincial governor is dependent on the protection and patronage of Hamid Karzai, the President. Hamid Karzai is dependent on the protection and patronage of the White House. The whole system comes down along rather than going up the ways, as representative democracies should—expressing what the electorate and ordinary communities need and aspire to.
With mobiles and laptops, people are now learning more about the way the world goes round, and they are learning about how corrupt and ineffectual the system is. They are able to phone the next valley and say, “How come you are getting so much of that, and we are getting so little of this?” As they discover that weakness in their system, what will their reaction be? We have to consider the prospect that they will eventually turn their anger on the system that is promoting and protecting such governance—namely, NATO. In other words, the situation will become an even bigger bloodbath unless we do something about it.
What do we need to do? We have to ensure that the Afghan national army is bigger and more effective. It is only about 70,000 strong at the present time, but it is quite fearless in its work, and ferocious when it is asked to do a job. However, there are not enough people in that army. Sadly, the Afghan national police force is nowhere near as effective. It is largely staffed by drug addicts, and they are largely there because they cannot get employment anywhere else. The Afghan border patrols are so thin on the ground, they do not even have supplies of water in their feeble shelters, which are spaced miles apart along the frontier. The Afghan security forces have to be stabilised, increased in size and made more effective so that they can take over the task of securing the nation. Only when we get to that stage, and NATO pulls out, can we have confidence enough to say, “Mission accomplished.” I seem to remember that term being used some time ago, but now we choose to forget it.
As well as establishing good security forces, other measures need to be taken. At this point, I am not taking a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), but he had his finger on the right page. We have to start talking—a dialogue. I am reminded of the quatrain by Edwin Markham, entitled “Outwitted”:
“He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!”
I do not want anyone to laugh at this, but we have to do that with the Taliban and Iran. I am minded of the fact that since the second world war—I have a memory that goes back that far—all the terrorist organisations we have experienced have wound up becoming respectable, and we have had to enter into dialogue with them. We started talking to terrorists, but we ended up talking to representatives of state. It might not be the same with the Taliban, but we should at least start talking to them.
Iran is shunned and demonised by America, along with other aspects of Islam, but we have to bear it in mind that it has the most acute drug problem in the world—far worse than in any other nation—and that it is desperately keen to reach a solution. Currently, in the absence of any sort of dialogue or exchange, it is trying to dig a trench two metres wide—that is fairly wide—by two metres deep, the full length of its frontier with Afghanistan, in an attempt to funnel trafficking into points where it can be controlled. If we could start a sensible, constructive and positive dialogue with Iran, it would create common ground on which we could take forward positive and constructive dialogue on other issues. We must bear it in mind that we have to handle Pakistan as well; the situation in Tajikistan is not quite so bad.
I have about three minutes left. There are all sorts of aspects of the Queen’s Speech that I would love to talk about.
I would rather get to my other point, if I may, which relates to the EU reform treaty and the issue of the proposed referendum.
I had the unique experience of chairing over a period approaching two years every meeting between the House of Commons and the House of Lords when our representatives came back from Europe to report to both Houses, and I have to say that precious little attention was given to the reports by Members of the House of Commons. I was there every time, and as you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, when you occupy the Chair, you have to stay awake and listen to what is being said. It is a difficult job sometimes. I would vote for the reform treaty, but I believe that we ought to pay attention to the calls for a referendum, and let me tell the House why.
I received representations from an area called Norton in my constituency, which wanted a parish council. I said, “If you want a parish council, have a plebiscite.” They did. The people turned it down; they did not want a parish council. People in Billingham said that they wanted a parish council. I told them to have a plebiscite. They did, and it was approved. They now have a parish council. I seem to remember that a gentleman who used to be Deputy Prime Minister had one on the north-east regional assembly, which went down. If we can have referendums on parish councils and regional assemblies, why on earth cannot we have a referendum on this point and trust the electorate, if we get the message over? At the moment, the ground is conceded to right-wing Tory rags. If we had a referendum, I would vote for the treaty and campaign for it, and would be proud to do so. For heaven’s sake, let us have some common sense and trust the people of this country. They pay our wages, and some of us have been representing them for 25 years.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who I know has done a tremendous amount of work on Afghanistan, which I shall deal with in a moment. He and I have discussed the matter before and I fear that he might not agree with everything that I have to say.
I want to start off by dealing with two defence matters that relate specifically to my constituency, although they both involve enormous amounts of defence expenditure. The first is the AirTanker project, for which a company in my constituency—Cobham Air Refuelling and Auxiliary Mission Equipment—provides all the gizmos that enable those tankers to refuel aircraft in flight. The company, which has, essentially, almost a world monopoly, developed the system in the 1930s and has gone on to produce a piece of equipment that is second to none anywhere in the world.
My concern, and that of my constituents, is that we have been almost at the signature point of the contract, which is allegedly worth about £13 billion over 27 years —it is a private sector partnership—but we are still not there. That is giving some cause for concern. What is the delay in the Ministry of Defence in signing off the contract?
There are international implications, too. The configuration of aircraft—the A330 Airbus, with Rolls-Royce engines and other pieces of equipment—has already been bought by and is flying in the Australian force. The United Arab Emirates has already signed up for that configuration. A similar configuration is flying in the German air force. We are on the verge of reaching a bidding round for that equipment for the United States—not the 15 aircraft that the RAF is talking about, but hundreds. The configuration is in with a good chance, but if the British Government have not even signed it off, will not the United States Government question whether it is as good as we claim it is? The Government have a duty to act quickly to sign off that contract and to get those aircraft flying in the RAF.
The other constituency matter that I want to mention is the defence training review. It is another major public-private partnership, which essentially involves the privatisation of six defence colleges, one of which is in my constituency—the Defence College of Communications and Information Systems. I do not want to reopen the argument about whether it should be privatised, or whether all six defence colleges should be moved to one site at St. Athan in Wales. However, I want to flag up the fact that in the Blandford area of Dorset, where the camp has an economic footprint of nearly £300 million a year according to the regional development agency, we are anxious that we should keep the high-tech presence. If it remains a military establishment, as the Government have made the commitment that it will, it is essential that it should remain the home of the signals. It should be the centre of signals activity, with the signals officer in chief based there, and other signals regiments should be brought on to that site so that it maintains that part of the knowledge economy that is essential to the local Dorset economy.
I said earlier that I wanted to talk about Afghanistan and I want to consider the question of who pays. We all know that the international security assistance force and NATO forces are paid for by the Government and by our taxpayers and those of the other countries that are part of that international force. Obviously, a major contribution is made by the United States. However, have we ever asked ourselves who is paying for the other side? Who is financing the Taliban and the insurgents? We are paying them, too. They are getting their money from the heroin on the streets of this country, of other countries of western Europe and of the United States.
Some 90 per cent. of the heroin on our streets comes from Afghanistan. Not only the heroin costs—that goes somewhere in the black economy—but we as taxpayers face the costs to the criminal justice system, the health care system and the benefits system. My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) wrote a pamphlet earlier this year based on his experience as a distinguished lawyer and district judge. He estimated that the cost of narcotics to the British taxpayer was about £23 billion a year. What is the cost of the heroin? What is the cost of the poppy crop in Afghanistan? I asked questions of the Department for International Development last year, and I was told that the amount collectively made by Afghan farmers from poppies at the farm gate was $600 million. The poppy crop has expanded since then, and it is probably worth an estimated $1 billion. Compared with the £23 billion cost to the United Kingdom—never mind all the other countries that are receiving this poppy product, heroin—that is a drop in the ocean.
My contention—I was surprised to see it on the front page of The Guardian coming from the mouth of Lord Malloch-Brown—is that we in Europe have a great deal of expertise in buying crops from farmers that we were simply going to destroy. We called it intervention under the common agricultural policy. We then developed a policy of paying farmers to grow nothing at all; we called it set-aside. Is it beyond the wit of man to apply our great expertise from the common agricultural policy to the Afghan poppy crop? If it costs us $1 billion collectively among all our allied nations, that is probably worth it. If it costs us $1 billion this year, next year and the year after, I would have thought that that was a price worth paying.
Would the hon. Gentleman like to knit into that thesis the fairly commonly voiced view that at least 65 per cent.—probably 85 per cent.—of the Taliban would give up their Taliban support today if it could be guaranteed that they could feed their families and be protected from repercussions from al-Qaeda?
The hon. Gentleman helps my point. We would then provide an alternative livelihood to the Afghan poppy farmer that he would not have if we simply destroyed his crop or tried to persuade him with a packet of seeds to grow some alternative crop for which there is no market mechanism.
We have to work constructively first, to ensure that we preserve the livelihood of Afghan farmers and their families and secondly, to create the market mechanisms for the alternative crops that I know they can grow. However, that will take time and patience on our part, as well as money. We need to commit that money, because if we cut off the money supply of the Taliban and the other insurgent groups, we will have gone a long way towards winning the battle in Afghanistan.
In the last few minutes left, I want to refer to Europe—not to the treaty or the referendum, but to the common foreign and security policy, which is of course mentioned in the treaty, in the sense that it is intergovernmental. I remind the House that when the break-up of Yugoslavia took place some years ago we all lamented the fact that Europe was unable to respond either politically or militarily. We all had different responses as individual nations, recognising different bits of the break-up of Yugoslavia at different times. It was not until we managed to enlist the United States and NATO that we were able to bring a military presence to the area. We lamented what happened because Europe had no mechanism with which to respond. It did not exist at that stage; it now does exist. We have developed the common foreign and security policy over a number of years. One of the organs of that, through the European security and defence policy, is Operation Althea, the peacekeeping force in Bosnia, which has worked reasonably successfully, although there are currently a few concerns.
At that time there was a security and political situation on Europe’s doorstep that was degenerating fast, but to which we had no means of responding. Today, there are at least two other situations on Europe’s doorstep that are developing in a not dissimilar fashion, although one is about break-ups. I refer to the situation on the border between Turkey and Iraq—a situation involving an applicant member for the European Union and a full NATO member being bombarded from the other side by terrorist groups and on so—and to Georgia. Georgia wants to join NATO and eventually the European Union, but has disputed territory in which Russia is playing an unhelpful part.
Now that we have developed the apparatus of CSFP, with battle groups that are ready to be deployed at 15 days’ notice, are those not areas where we could prove once and for all that European nations can work together to respond to situations that develop in our own backyard and that we are not for ever dependent on the United States to come to our rescue? I make a plea to the Minister to ensure through his representatives in Brussels that both the political and security committee and the military committee of the European Union discuss the issue urgently.
I welcome this opportunity to speak in support of the Loyal Address. I will speak of two islands: Cyprus and Sri Lanka, both of which merit our attention and our action.
Earlier in this debate, the Foreign Secretary spoke of the cross-party agreement on the eventual accession of Turkey to the EU. Yesterday I was privileged to spend an evening in the wonderful company of His Eminence the Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain. We were both guests of the congregation of St. Panteleimon church, which sits on the edge of my constituency. That congregation does not share the cross-party agreement of the House. My constituents urged me to pose the following few questions to my right hon. Friend. How can we in the EU entertain for accession a country that refuses to recognise the legitimacy of one of the EU’s existing members, Cyprus? EU law required Turkey to open its ports and airports to Cyprus by the end of 2006. It failed to do so. More than that, how can we in the EU entertain for accession a country that is currently in military occupation of one of our own members, Cyprus?
There was a perverse incentive for Turkey to increase its settlement in the north of the island. That resulted in the rejection of the Annan plan by the Greek Cypriot community. I urge my right hon. Friend to focus his attention on the need to resolve the partition and occupation of Cyprus. Without a fair settlement of the Cyprus issue that recognises the rights of my constituents and many like them who are refugees and whose homes still stand beyond reach, across the green line and under Turkish occupation, there can be no progress in Turkey’s aspiration to EU membership.
I welcome the wise and worthy remarks of my old boss in Northern Ireland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). I, too, wish to say a few words about the situation in Sri Lanka. It is now almost a year since my friend Anton Balasingham died. He had led the political engagement of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, seeking a peace settlement in Sri Lanka for a quarter of a century. In paying a brief tribute to him, I wish to bring to the House’s attention the appalling deterioration of the situation in Sri Lanka in the year since his death.
From reading reports, I am given to understand that Tamils with a permanent home but no job and also Tamils with a job but no permanent home in Colombo have in the past year been rounded up and summarily transported out of Colombo to the north and east of the country. Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable in a Commonwealth country. I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to be uncompromising in his representations to the Sri Lankan Government on such forced deportations and on the reports that many of those detained and transported have not reached their destinations alive.
Over the past decade, I have been privileged to play a small role in the process of bringing opposing sides into dialogue. In that role, I have spoken with successive presidents and prime ministers, including the current President of Sri Lanka, Mr. Rajapakse, whom I entertained in Northern Ireland when he came to see how the process of dialogue undertaken there might apply to his country. The situation under his presidency has not borne the fruit that I certainly hoped it might after our meeting on that occasion. That is another example of where our Foreign Secretary must engage with the Commonwealth and partner countries in the region to ensure that our demands for human rights observances are met.
In the few minutes left to me, I want to turn from foreign affairs on a small scale to the question of globalisation. Earlier the Foreign Secretary powerfully contrasted the policy of humanitarian intervention that he attributed to his opposite number and the policy of international scepticism that the Leader of the Opposition espoused in a recent speech. Nothing brings us closer to the reason why a policy of scepticism is inappropriate for this and every other country than the issues of globalisation and climate change.
Climate change has made us all aware that we live in a world where the actions of one country integrally affect the lives of those in many others. We have experienced development in this country over the past 250 years or more, and during that period we have contributed to the CO2 emissions in the atmosphere that are now causing the problem of global warming. We shall be involved in the international negotiations in Bali in December that will seek to establish a post-Kyoto protocol and take the matter further. Those negotiations are essential for this country and for our international relationships.
We must understand that the issues of the environment and human development that have long been held to be separate are, in fact, not separate at all. We must regard the environment and development as one issue. We will not be able to tackle the great causes of development and aid around the world if we do not focus on the environment and its needs, because many of the poorest communities in the world depend on their environment.
Equally, we shall not be able to solve the problems of our environment unless we give due recognition to the need to take seriously the development aspirations of people who have not been able to catch up with the western speed of growth over the past 200 years and whose aspiration is to come up to that level and to that quality of life. We must therefore see the two aspects of our international engagement—human development and the environment—as being essentially one. The Foreign Secretary was absolutely right to speak of a need to see the world from a perspective of humanitarian intervention and not from one of scepticism and isolation. For those reasons, I welcome the Gracious Speech.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner), who has spoken some wise words on our approach to the world.
On Saturday morning, a group of people gathered on top of a small, windswept hill in the hamlet of Pattiesmuir. A bottle of beer was opened and shared around the group. The remainder of the beer was poured on to a grave in Douglas Bank cemetery. This was their way of remembering a son, a brother and a friend who died serving his country in Kosovo—sharing a drink as if he were still with us. When so many people have died serving their country, it is difficult to think of them as individuals who had rich lives, but we must.
As well as remembering the fallen, we must also look to those who serve, or who have served, our country. That is why I am backing the Royal British Legion’s campaign to honour the covenant. I want to address some of the Scottish aspects of the campaign. The Ministry of Defence’s housing budget in Scotland has dropped by almost £8 million over the past year. Under freedom of information regulations, we have found out that the MOD spent just over £20 million on service families’ accommodation in 2006-07, compared with almost £28 million the year before. Over that period, the number of complaints about accommodation has risen. These include complaints from people such as Karen, who is married to a sailor and who has lived in married quarters for almost 10 years. She said:
“It has got to the stage where I don’t even know where to turn to. I have problems with damp and the general lack of maintenance. I had a pipe burst in my bathroom and I had to wait years for the damage to be fixed. It’s upsetting for my husband to be off at sea for months at a time with all this on the back of his mind.”
She is not alone; there are many others who complain about the poor accommodation. Will the Minister explain why the spending on MOD housing has fallen in the past year, especially when the Ministry claims to be making significant improvements to the housing?
Colleagues who closely follow the activities of the Defence Committee, of which I am a member, will know that we took evidence last month from Scottish Executive officials about the health services offered to members of the armed forces and their families, and to ex-servicemen. It was one of the most amateurish displays that I have ever seen from Scottish Executive officials. I am disappointed that, yet again, no members of the Scottish National party are here to listen to the debate. This is the second debate this year on matters of importance that are the responsibility of SNP Members and which they have not bothered to attend. It is a shame that they are not here to listen to the complaints.
What concerned me even more was that the national debate on the treatment of the armed forces seemed to have passed the Scottish Executive by. Their officials were unaware of the difficulties faced by service families when registering for a dentist, for example, or of the detrimental effect on the careers of health professionals who volunteer as reservists, or of the lack of engagement with the fast-track process for servicemen in English hospitals. They also seemed unconcerned that they had been unaware of those problems.
I have a theory. When the Scottish Office was responsible for Scottish health, education and other matters before devolution, it took its lead from the UK Departments for Health, Education and so on, which were responsible for working with other Departments across the boundaries to ensure joined-up government. It might not have been a great success, but they were making attempts. Since devolution, however, responsibility for those matters has passed to the Scottish Executive Departments. Although we are assured that there are quarterly meetings with the MOD to discuss matters of defence, the Scottish Executive do not consider them a priority.
Before I joined the Defence Committee, it undertook an inquiry into service children’s education. It found that the Scottish Executive were having similar difficulties engaging with the needs of service families. The Executive seem to think that it is someone else’s problem. I would appreciate it if the Minister could shine a spotlight on this area, to ensure that people in Scotland and Wales do not lose out because of a lack of effective and joined-up partnership working between the different Departments in the UK.
I am pleased that there has been an increase in funding for Combat Stress. There is a great need to expand the support for ex-servicemen who face mental health problems. From the Falklands war, there have been 400 cases in 25 years, but from Iraq there have been 140 in three years. In recent months, there has been a dramatic increase in numbers, as the spotlight has been shone on those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Even more people will present to Combat Stress, and this sleeping monster is about to awaken. The awareness of Combat Stress needs to be improved among nurses, doctors and other health professionals, especially those working in primary care.
Two ex-servicemen approached me earlier this year to express their frustration about the lack of support that they had received for what turned out to be post-traumatic stress disorder. They said that their GP had provided little advice or support, and that things had begun to happen only after they had found out about Combat Stress themselves. Awareness of Combat Stress among primary care practitioners must improve. Much of the funding for Combat Stress comes through the war pension, yet the time delays for ex-servicemen who apply for that pension are excessive. Those delays lead to resentment and frustration, and result in people facing delays in accessing the treatment that they need and deserve.
I have been a Member for 18 months, during which I have seen four Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and a new Secretary of State. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who made a great speech earlier, was surprisingly sacked after much hard work and long hours on the Armed Forces Bill. He was replaced by the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who was sacked after suggesting that his boss, the then Prime Minister, should be sacked. The right hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (John Reid) was replaced last year by the current Secretary of State, who was subsequently given the additional post of Secretary of State for Scotland. The right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram) has been succeeded by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth). Now the well respected Lord Drayson has been replaced by Baroness Taylor. We thus have three very new Ministers in the MOD and a part-time Secretary of State—and all this at a time when our armed forces are under great strain, the defence procurement process is undergoing considerable change and we are at war in two theatres. I am not going to comment on the quality of those Ministers, as they need time to prove themselves, but I hope that the Prime Minister recognises that the MOD needs a period of stability.
Yesterday, after the parade to the Cenotaph, I met a group of reservists from Dunfermline in the Royal British Legion. I also met many who were in the Territorial Army. They were skilled tradesmen, essential to the armed forces. They told me how the expectations of the TA had changed in the past 10 years. When they first joined, they had a slim chance of serving in theatre; now it is almost guaranteed. That shows how overstretched the armed forces have become.
Earlier this year, we heard about military bandsmen being put on standby to replace infantry battalions guarding Cyprus. The first band scheduled to go to Cyprus will be about 50 musicians from the Welsh Guards, followed by the Grenadier Guards and the Rifles. The first deployment is expected in January next year. When I visited Faslane earlier this year, I met storemen who had been asked to volunteer for front-line duties in Iraq. I heard at the weekend that my colleague, Mike Rumbles, MSP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, has been invited to volunteer. My friend has many talents, but I had not realised things had got so bad that he would be required for front-line duties in the service of his country.
The National Audit Office says that the armed forces are about 5,000 below strength, which is about 2.8 per cent. That has been the case for the past five years, yet the armed forces have had to operate above predicted deployment levels. Over that time, some 14.5 per cent. of soldiers have been sent on missions more frequently than recommended by the harmony guidelines. Medical services have been hit worse, with reservists filling 66 per cent. of vacant accident and emergency department and intensive therapy nursing posts.
What are the consequences of that overstretch? According to an MOD survey, a rising number of soldiers are no longer given the full recommended rest period between operations, and only 30 per cent. of ordinary soldiers who responded to the survey were satisfied with the notice given for extra duties. Their families are frustrated as well. Increasing numbers are telling their husbands and wives that they no longer desire a career in the military. One of the reasons for the overstretch is the breaching of the defence planning assumption through our commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I welcome the announcement to reduce force levels to 2,500 in Basra airbase, the withdrawal from Basra palace and the move to provincial Iraqi control in December. Those are long overdue, but do not go far enough. If the situation has become calmer since we withdrew from the palace, is it not logical for us to withdraw altogether? We are clearly part of the problem and should extricate ourselves.
I am also concerned about the minimum force protection required. When the Defence Committee visited Basra in July, we were told that the minimum force protection required would be around 5,000. What has changed? Why is it now 2,500? Are we not putting the lives of our armed forces at risk?
We have heard speeches today that were wise, rational and intelligent; but we have heard others that were maniacally optimistic and foolish. The problem is that the wise speeches came from the Back Benches and the foolish speeches from the Front Benches. It is extraordinary to encounter such a denial of what has gone wrong. I shall confine myself to Afghanistan, but I would like to associate myself with the splendid speech of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who spoke a great deal of sense on Iran and how we appear to be sleepwalking into war, while denying a fair hearing to what people and leaders in Iran are saying. It is so reminiscent of the build-up to the foolish invasion of Iraq, which has caused so many tragedies and achieved so little.
An earlier intervention suggested that I was in favour of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, so let me make it clear that I supported the war in Afghanistan in 2001. I thought that it was reasonable because of the presence of al-Qaeda and its protection by the Government of the country. What I criticised at the time, and continue to criticise, is the idea that we can eliminate poppy growing or the supply of heroin from Afghanistan. That was always going to be impossible, yet we have invested £250 million of British taxpayers’ money and achieved nothing.
In fact, things have gone backwards. We know that production is now at its highest level ever—60 per cent. up on last year. The other side of the policy’s attraction was that we were going to cut off the supply of heroin to the streets of Britain. In fact, it is now worse. Because of the over-supply of heroin, the price has reached its lowest ever point. It is now even more widely available, yet Front-Bench spokesmen continue to be in denial of that blindingly obvious fact. Again and again, they claimed that we were making progress on drugs and had turned the corner. We have turned so many corners in Afghanistan that we have been round the block half a dozen times, yet we have still ended up in the terrible position that we now face.
Governments have never been able to cut off the supply of drugs on the basis of action on the supply side while the demand remains. The real drug problem is demand on the streets of Chicago, London and Newport, which is sucking in the drugs. If through some miracle we were able to eliminate all the production of poppy in Afghanistan in two or three years’ time, it would still make no difference. The supply of drugs in Myanmar, Turkistan, north Pakistan and Kazakhstan would simply increase to fill the gap. It would be exactly the same as what happened in Columbia. For decades, billions of dollars were spent trying to reduce supply. We even had “Plan Columbia”, the result of which was a 20 per cent. increase in the drugs produced there over the last 12 months. It is the squeeze balloon principle: we squeeze the balloon in one area and it grows bigger in another area.
It is always an impossible task, but it is even worse in Afghanistan because of the mythology whereby people like to believe that the Government were democratically elected in something of a triumph and somehow work in the same way as a Scandinavian democracy does—but they do not. Lord Malloch-Brown—we should pay some tribute to him; he has had a bad day—said at the weekend that he recognises the failure. He is the one Minister who recognises that things are going terribly wrong there. His diagnosis is right, but his solution is not. He said that we all know who the big drug barons are. Yes, we all know who they are and the Afghanistan Government know who they are. One of them is a close relative of President Karzai and two others are provincial governors. Many others are also in the Government. We know that the country and the Government of Afghanistan are endemically corrupt. It is not possible to change that, however hard we try, however many bribes we give out, and however many lives we lose. We will not change that.
There is another possibility. According to yesterday’s The Guardian, a former civil servant who used to be in charge of the Foreign Office was in despair about the drugs situation in Afghanistan and now favours the turning over of the drug market to a legal supply of poppies for medicine. The case has been well argued. It happened successfully in Turkey. There is a shortage of morphine in the developing world because of its price. Someone who is dying of a terminal disease in a developing country has a 6 per cent. chance of getting morphine. We could greatly increase the supply and turn the trade into a legal one.
On the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, having supported the war in Afghanistan, the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), who represents the Conservatives on the Front Bench, will recall a debate in Westminster Hall in March 2006, before we went into Helmand province. At that time, the Government’s view—again, it cannot be unsaid because it was said—was that there was a hope, although not a promise, that the Helmand mission would be concluded in three years without firing a single shot. We have spent £1 billion in Helmand. We have discharged 2.5 million shots. In the first four and a half years of our presence in Afghanistan, we lost the lives of seven of our valiant soldiers, mostly because of accidents. Since then, we have lost a further 76 lives, and it is, tragically, an accelerating process. Does it not get through to the Government that perhaps something is going desperately wrong?
I take my information from serving soldiers and hear a worrying message about their disillusionment, their feeling that they are fighting an impossible war and their anxiety to get out of the service, never to serve again. Probably the most worrying message of all is that the mood of that country has changed. It welcomed us in 2001. It was glad to see the back of the Taliban. It was fed up with their rules. Now, the people are so fed up with living in a country that has war without end that many of them would willingly welcome the Taliban back as a group that would create law and order again.
There is no sign of improvement. Who can look at the situation and say that we can carry on as we are? Again, Back Benchers said the sensible thing in that debate. One of them likened it to the charge of the Light Brigade and brought the verse on that up to date. At a time when there was much support for going into Helmand province, that Back Bencher said: “Bush to the right of them, Blair to the left of them, Holler’d and thunder’d, Someone had blunder’d, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die, Into the valley of Death, Into the mouth of Helmand, Drove the five thousand.”
Sadly, that prophecy has come bitterly true. We must urge the Government to reconsider what is going on. I am not talking about pulling out of Afghanistan altogether, because progress has been made, in particular on girls’ schools. We recognise the progress, but we do not recognise the fact that it is in full retreat and, sadly, schools are closing. It is possible to consolidate the gains made around Kabul, but it is not possible to run the whole country and eliminate the main source of income for the farmers who grow poppies. That cannot be done. There is not a military solution. There is a solution by negotiation and by doing deals.
I remember vividly another prophetic comment in 2001 by a Member of the Russian Duma, who told me: “You Brits have conquered Afghanistan. Very clever. We did that in six days and we were there for 10 years. We lost 15,000 of our soldiers. We killed 1 million Afghans, and when we ran out, there were 300,000 mujaheddin surrounding Kabul. It will happen to you.”
We need to get some realism into the situation and decide on practical ways of dealing with the hearts and minds argument, because we are not going to win the hearts and minds when the Americans bomb and kill civilians. We saw on that splendid “Panorama” programme the other night a vivid picture of what is happening in Afghanistan. We know that we have hugely superior air power, and perhaps the most telling part of it was the pathetic sight of an elderly man and three children in a bombed building, terrified by what had happened.
An uncounted number of civilians have been killed. For every death, the opposition to us from the Afghan people increases. That is a further threat to the safety and lives of our British soldiers. I believe that the Member of the Duma was right when he said that we may well turn Afghanistan into a British Vietnam. We can go in there with more troops and fool ourselves with the rhetoric that we heard this afternoon, but ultimately we are heading for a terrible disaster. If we do not make a deal now that is based on the true practicalities of what is taking place, we face a great calamity.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). He knows that we have an awful lot in common when it comes to Afghanistan. I have just returned from a visit to that country, and I shall hold on to my comments in response to his remarks until later in my speech.
I am delighted to participate in the Gracious Speech. It is an opportunity for the Government to roll out their ideas—to present their vision—for the forthcoming year and, in this case, to snatch back the initiative after the election that never was. However, such is the absence of any vision that I felt slightly sorry for Her Majesty for taking the trouble to visit Parliament last week. The Government are looking a bit tired and are battling to provide solutions to the problems that they have created, not least in Europe and international affairs, the very subject that we are debating.
The armed forces were not even mentioned in the Gracious Speech, despite their being involved in two major international operations. It is clear that the Government are not making them the priority that they deserve to be. On defence, they would have us believe that we are spending more, building more and recruiting more to support our military personnel than ever before. In reality, however, that could not be further from the truth. As a share of total Government spending on defence, expenditure fell from 7.8 per cent. in 1998 to 6.1 per cent. in 2006. Manning across all three services has been cut at the very time when commitments have increased, forcing military personnel to be rotated through the front-line operations that we have heard so much about. I am afraid that millions of pounds have been wasted on very poor procurement practices.
It could be argued that the real enemy is not on the banks of the Tigris or in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, but in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence procurement department, such is the length of time that it takes for the equipment to arrive.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that in the last five years of the Conservative Government, the defence budget was cut by £500 million each year. It has increased by £1 billion each year in the 10 years this Government have been in office. The largest ever reduction in the Army took place between 1990 and 1997 and involved a cut of 50,000 troops by the previous Tory Government. [Hon. Members: “The cold war finished.”] The number of troops in the Army is now roughly at the same level as it was in 1997.
As you heard, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the shouts from the Opposition Benches indicate that circumstances have changed. We are not comparing apples with pears. What I will concede to the Defence Secretary—I am pleased that he is in the Chamber—is that the procurement process was not necessarily any better 10 or 15 years ago. All Governments need to improve on that.
The shadow Minister exemplifies why he is on the Front Bench. It is clear that this Government have not got their priorities right.
We do not need to listen to voices in the Chamber. Let us listen instead to some of those servicemen—senior officers, both retired and serving—who are frustrated with the Government’s lack of commitment and with cuts in the Army’s regiments, cuts in RAF squadrons, and cuts in our naval ships.
While senior ranks jump on the airwaves to make their voices heard, the junior ranks vote with their feet—hence the shortfall in recruitment. The Government’s answer, however, is not to try to return the numbers to the level where they should be, but to cut target sizes, which worsens the situation still further at a time when we expect so much more from our soldiers, sailors and air personnel.
If cuts in the budgets were not damning enough, there has been—as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames)—the bizarre decision to scrap DESO, the Defence Export Services Organisation. We have yet to hear whether Lord Drayson decided to jump in his car and drive away from government because he was not consulted on the scrapping of a system that, although its promotion of exports cost about £16 million a year, brought in about £500 million a year. That decision was made by the Prime Minister. I am curious about whether the Secretary of State for Defence was even consulted. I shall be delighted to give way if he wishes to clarify the position. He remains seated.
As I said in an earlier intervention, the headlines on Iraq have changed. Our troops have pulled back to the relative safety of Basra airport, and I pay tribute to the 1st Mechanised Brigade and to 4th Battalion The Rifles—my regiment—which has done such an excellent job there. Attacks on British forces have fallen by about 90 per cent., but let us not kid ourselves: Basra is not any safer just because it is not in the British headlines. Little has changed in almost four years, and conditions remain grim. There is no respect for the police authorities, unemployment is rife and power is intermittent. The quality of life has not changed. Militias have filled the power vacuum. Since withdrawing, the British have not set foot in the city, and have even had to ask permission if they want to skirt the edges because of the breakdown in relationships.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the complete lack of new Government thinking in either Afghanistan or Iraq? Earlier this year, the length of the conflict in Afghanistan overtook the entire length of the second world war and that of the conflict in Iraq overtook the length of the Great War, yet we seem to be stuck with the strategy that we had two or three years ago.
That lies at the crux of what I am saying. I know that the Secretary of State is in a very difficult position. He is responsible for our military personnel, but much of the debate on Iraq and Afghanistan is directed less at what our military have been doing than at what has happened under the umbrella of security that they create. That is where my venom lies—in attacking the failure to carry out the reconstruction and redevelopment that should have taken place in the three or four months after the initial invasion, and in the years that followed. That does not happen, and it represents a failure of foreign policy. It is absolutely right for us to pay tribute to our military, but I am afraid we cannot pay tribute to the Department for International Development. DFID was not involved in the debates, the planning and the process in the run-up to 2003 because the then Secretary of State refused to acknowledge her responsibility, and we have suffered ever since.
I disapproved of the initial invasion, but I disapprove even more of the post-invasion planning, which has been deplorable. We depart from southern Iraq leaving a country that is no safer, no stronger and no more prosperous than it was when we first arrived, and I have to ask myself “Was it all actually worth it?”
Let me say something about Afghanistan, in which I have taken a personal interest. After five years of involvement, we are at a tipping point. Having just returned from the country, I believe that optimism is being replaced with frustration and dissatisfaction with the lack of progress on all fronts. I thank the ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, and his staff for looking after me during my visit, but I return from my fourth visit in two years with a very pessimistic report. The international security assistance force is unable to contain or reduce the Taliban threat in the south, the Government are increasingly seen as inept and corrupt, and the poor co-ordination and absence of agreed strategies among international organisations are hampering the progress of long-term reconstruction and development. As I said in an intervention, we are seeing an Afghanistan that is no more prosperous, no more optimistic in outlook and no less dangerous than it was five years ago.
There is a huge synergy between what has happened in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan. NATO is looking more and more like a two-tier operation, and the position will become even worse if Holland and Canada, which are currently reviewing their commitments to the country, decide to withdraw. I also am sad to report that President Karzai’s Government are increasingly being seen as corrupt. The centralised model is inappropriate for a country comprising such a diverse collection of ethnic groups. It represses any tribal, ethic or cultural differences rather than celebrating them, and consequently there is growing resentment that the Kabul power base is now being abused. That is despite the fact that the centralised model hinders corrupt governors from exploiting their power base.
I believe that that is a matter for review. I also believe that we are at a pivotal point. If we do not recognise that the present constitutional model does not acknowledge the myriad differences across the country, that will be the genesis of failure. In the north, the north-west, the north-east and elsewhere, the President is being given a time bar. He is being told to get it right within about two years. Afghans are starting to rearm, to make caches of weapons, to hoard money and to build armies. That is what is happening in Afghanistan, and it is happening under the very nose of the international community.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who called for a study group for Afghanistan along the lines of the Iraq Study Group to expose the shortfalls in the international community, and the lack of co-ordination among USAID, DFID, the European Union and the United Nations. It is appalling to report that Tom Koenigs, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, does not talk to General McNeill. They have no relationship whatsoever. That is scandalous in a country that requires so much effort.
Afghanistan needs a product that it can get out of the country. At present there is only one market, certainly in the south—the poppy market. That is why people use it. Agriculture is the answer. Before 1979, Afghanistan was the world leader in exporting a series of fruits and agricultural products, but that is no longer the case because the entire irrigation system was destroyed. Now 92 per cent. of the water that comes out of Afghanistan leaves the country without being harnessed. We need to find a way of harnessing that water, creating irrigation systems, and allowing Afghanistan to grow and export products that are less robust than poppies.
The second part of the economic model is the building of infrastructure to get Afghanistan’s produce out into the wider international market. A railway is being built to extend west from Herat to Iran, where a market is developing. The other railway that should be built is the continuation of a British effort from the 1920s leading to the Khyber pass. During my visit I went down to see Governor Sherzai, who complained vehemently about the lack of operational funding from central Government. He explained that he wanted to build a number of dams so that he could harness the water and hold it back from the winter months and throughout the summer, and people could start growing and exporting crops.
I will not, because I am running out of time.
The area that I visited is on the main A1 arterial route that leads out of Afghanistan. It was a delight to see that every third vehicle was a huge articulated lorry moving in and out of the country, but the pace is very slow. If we are to leave not in three decades but in, let us say, one decade, we must give Afghanistan an economic plan enabling it to look ahead. The provisional reconstruction teams that operate around the country are engaged in short-term projects. They are doing things for tomorrow. Why? Because the captain or major in charge must leave after his six months showing that something has actually been done. That is outrageous. He should be working to a grander plan, allowing the country, region or community to move forward. A good example of a waste of money is the £420,000 spent by DFID in Lashkar Gar, in Helmand, on a park for women. That is disgusting. It might be an important aspect at some point, but I do not believe that it is a priority today. We see a lack of joined-up thinking there.
There is much to be learned in Afghanistan. Unless we take advantage of the huge international effort there, and harness it in a way that we are not seeing at the moment, we will fail and the situation will worsen. I also believe that it is time to consider talking to the Taliban. I say that with difficulty because my brother was killed by al-Qaeda, but I put forward the question: is it now time to consider talking to the Taliban? Unless we start raising those very difficult questions, we could find ourselves in Afghanistan for a very long time.
I would say that it was a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), and I was not going to talk about Afghanistan, but I have to pick up on the point about money spent on women in Helmand province. One issue that I picked up when I was there was that money was being spent on widows. Without a man to support them, in their community they have nothing. The projects that I saw are training women to set up their own businesses. Micro-finance is enabling them to be respected in their community and to bring money into that community. That is the future of Afghanistan, so I would not say that that money was wasted.
To come back to what I had planned to talk about, like most hon. Members, I attended a Remembrance day service in my constituency yesterday. The poppy is symbolic of the famous battlefields of the first world war: the Somme, Passchendaele, Ypres. In some ways, it was more simple then. There was a clear enemy, a real threat of physical invasion, one side ranged against the other, trench warfare and a war of attrition, in which each side sustained the most horrendous losses—20 million deaths, civilian and military.
World war two was even worse. Over 100 million soldiers were fighting across the world and the casualties were even greater—estimated at over 70 million, civilian and military. However, it was still nation states against nation states. Even the more recent Falklands conflict was nation state versus nation state, an actual invasion of sovereign territory and an easy concept for the British people to understand and get behind.
In contrast, today’s action in Afghanistan is much more complex, much less black and white. There is not a direct threat of invasion but an indirect threat to our security through terrorism. It is not nation state against nation state, but a coalition of forces supporting the elected Afghan Government in order to prevent the country from slipping back into a base for terrorism with which to threaten us.
Iraq is more complex still. I do not intend to go back into the whys and wherefores of how we got into the situation, except to say that I have a sizeable Kurdish community in my constituency and the Iraqi Kurds suffered the most under the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and had been calling on us in the west for years to rid them of that evil dictator.
In the Gracious Speech, Her Majesty stated that the Government will work closely with the Government of Iraq
“to deliver security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction.”
We need to leave behind the arguments about the invasion and focus on the here and now, as Iraq will continue to be a major issue in British and western politics for many decades to come. Calling for troops out now is too easy and does a disservice both to the good work being done by our servicemen and women stationed there and to the Iraqi people.
All that the majority of people hear about Iraq is blood, bombs and failure, but while of course that is a large part of the picture, there are other facets of modern Iraq. We should not forget the emergence of a plethora of democratic political parties, and elections in which more people have participated than in the UK. We should also not forget the emergence of a new independent civil society and chiefly the renaissance of the labour movement. Trade union membership has increased from virtually hundreds to hundreds of thousands in four years—probably the biggest single growth of trade unionism in the world. Those unions are organised on non-sectarian lines and wish to contribute to a growing federal and democratic Iraq after nearly four decades of fascist-type rule under the Ba’ath and Saddam.
In addition, there is the exemplary success of the Kurdistan region in Iraq, which I aim to visit in the next few months. Kurdistan today is relatively prosperous, with a more developed economy than other parts of Iraq—unsurprising perhaps, given its relative security. The region has a young and increasingly prosperous population of nearly 4 million people, seven universities, two of which teach exclusively in English, and a returning diaspora providing a skilled work force with English as a second language. The relative security and stability of the region has allowed the Kurdistan regional government to sign a number of investment contracts with foreign companies, and in 2006 we saw the first new oil well drilled in the Kurdistan region since the invasion of Iraq.
We should not forget that that region suffered terribly under Saddam's brutal regime. It was on the receiving end of the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, where thousands of civilians were killed during chemical and conventional bombardment. Between 100,000 and 200,000 Kurds lost their lives and some 2,000 villages were destroyed. They have been able, since what people here in the UK commonly call the invasion and what the Iraqi Kurds commonly call the liberation that came in 2003, further to rebuild the region with more democratic and unified institutions, a thriving economy and external investment, and their leaders are making a massive contribution to holding Iraq together.
That is not an easy task. We have only to look at the Kirkuk situation. Kirkuk is seen as a historic part of the Kurdistan region, but Saddam forcibly expelled many Kurds from the city and settled it with his supporters. It is one of the most bitter issues in Iraqi politics. However, it has been agreed that there should be a referendum by the end of this year, although it may well run into next year. Kirkuk is an oil-rich city and I note that the Kurdistan regional government has committed itself to sharing the oil revenues from the area, as other Iraqi oil resources are to be shared, roughly on a per capita basis. I hope that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will add his weight to the calls for the agreement on Kirkuk to be implemented.
I was pleased that the Secretary of State for Defence found time in his schedule to visit Kurdistan recently. He stated:
“The Kurdistan Region shows what can be achieved when people cooperate and work together. This is a very strong example for the rest of Iraq. With better security, the rest of Iraq can follow this model.”
I wholeheartedly agree. President Masoud Barzani praised the Secretary of State's visit, saying that it came at an opportune time. He thanked the UK for its role in the liberation of Iraq. Regarding the current tension between Turkey and the PKK, the President called for brotherhood between Turks and Kurds. He said:
“Military action to solve the current tensions between Turkey and the PKK will benefit no one. We believe that only dialogue can secure a long lasting solution."
In an earlier meeting between the Secretary of State and Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister thanked the British leadership and the people for the important role that they have played in Iraq since 2003. Prime Minister Barzani emphasised that Turkey was an important trading partner and that the Kurdistan regional government was ready to do whatever it could to defuse tensions. The Kurdistan regional government does not support the actions of the PKK and it believes that only through dialogue and communication can a permanent peace be found.
There are reasons to be positive. Events in the past few days have been both significant and promising. Just last week, eight Turkish soldiers who had been captured by Kurdish rebels were released and the EU has demonstrated that it is prepared to engage on the issue.
On 23 October, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Anderson) and I met members of the Kurdish community from my constituency and Ms Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government's high representative to the UK, who reiterated its commitment fully to engage in dialogue with Turkey. That is in Turkey's interest, too. I look forward to the day when Turkey becomes a full and active EU member, but with that right comes responsibility. Turkey can represent a proper bridge to the middle east, but that must never be at the expense of minority rights within Turkey. The EU’s norms and values are expressed not by the prevailing religion but by our attitudes of tolerance and respect for those of different faiths and cultures. Turkey's drive towards modernisation and Europeanisation holds the key to that. Turkey's Prime Minister has said that the solution to “the Kurdish problem” lies in
“greater democracy, greater rights, greater social and economic development - in short Turkey's Europeanisation.”
I entirely agree. Turkey must engage with its own Kurdish population, and be prepared to work with the Kurdistan regional government in what is, after all, their mutual interest.
Kurdistan is a model for how Iraq should be: relative peace and stability leading to investment and reform. It is vital to the west, to Turkey and to all neighbours in the region that Kurdistan continues to flourish. We should be doing all we can to help that to happen. I have spoken of the growing trade union movement in Iraq. When some of my colleagues visited Kurdistan last year, they held a five-hour discussion with union leaders from around Iraq where the message was simple: “Help us to stand on our own two feet and contribute to social justice.” Trade unions can help to contribute to social justice, as has been demonstrated over the years in this country.
Just the other day I had the privilege of meeting the visiting Kurdistan region youth and sports Minister, who told me that Iraqi Kurds are fanatical about football and that the Arbil team from Kurdistan was the Iraqi team in the Asian cup. I was very pleased that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport was able to join us and to promise to help to promote greater sporting links between the UK and Kurdistan.
I want to take my hon. Friend back to her previous subject—that of the importance of free trade unions as a part of a developing civic society. I do that because on both occasions when my hon. Friend has mentioned trade unions it has generated a degree of mirth on the Opposition Benches. Does she agree that there is a consistent process of dictators and despots attacking and killing trade unionists in order to undermine civic society across the world? The people of northern Iraq, or Kurdistan as it is known, were not free from that process during the time of Saddam Hussein, which stresses the importance of free trade unions being allowed to operate in Kurdistan.
I entirely agree and I hope that Opposition colleagues, rather than laughing at something that is helping to bring about the reconstruction of civic society in Iraq, would be part of the process. Tomorrow sees the inaugural meeting of a new all-party group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq. I urge all hon. Members, particularly those from the Opposition Benches, to come along and do what they can to help.
Whatever the arguments about the recent history of Iraq, we surely all agree that its future is vital. A secure Iraq, confident in its future, means a secure near neighbour and trading partner and better lives for the Iraqi people. It means that the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women will not have been in vain. Let this unravel, however, and the situation will be too awful to contemplate. No region of Iraq is more central to this struggle than that of Kurdistan. I welcome the Secretary of State’s recent visit and I urge the Government to continue to give this issue full and proper attention.
I want to address my comments entirely to the proposed EU reform treaty. As I outlined at length in the debate of 20 June on Europe, I am a natural pro-European. I thank the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) for his kind comments about my enthusiasm for Europeans in general and eastern Europeans in particular. Nevertheless, I remain deeply sceptical of the direction of the EU at the moment.
The Economist last month called the EU
“an institution desperately short of legitimacy and accountability”
and I agree. I am not someone who is opposed per se to European co-operation or even to the pooling of sovereignty in certain areas such as, for example, in the administration of trade policy. But I believe that any new and/or significant transfer of power to Brussels needs to fulfil two important criteria. The first is that the British people must vote democratically for it to happen; the second is that the ensuing structures and processes in Europe must themselves be democratic. Both are crucial, yet neither is being fulfilled by the treaty that we will be considering at length this Session.
I wanted to focus my comments less on the process—it does not really need to be said any longer that the process of arriving at this treaty has been deeply dishonest and full of subterfuge, practised both by those proposing the new treaty and by the Government here in the lead-up to signing it—and principally on the contents. We are in danger of becoming too fixated on manifesto pledges and red lines—important though they are—and we need to get across what is wrong with this treaty and how it is against British interests. I will outline seven areas of particular concern.
The first was talked about at length by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague): the role of the new EU President. As he rightly pointed out, the federalist vision is that the position be eventually merged with that of the President of the Commission. Giscard d’Estaing said:
“We will probably have to have at least two executives in the beginning”.
The UK fought in the drafting of the constitution against any merging, but the new treaty will allow for it. The final text states only that
“the President of the European Council should not hold national office”
but it is quite possible for him or her to be the President of the Commission. Suddenly we would have a very powerful head of the Executive, combining the roles of the President of the Council and of the Commission, but crucially he or she would be unelected either by the peoples of Europe or even by the Parliaments. Giuliano Amato, the vice-president of the convention that drew up the original EU constitution, has even explicitly called for the two positions to be merged before 2015.
“Can an animal with two heads survive for long?”
On the EU Foreign Minister and the EU Diplomatic Service, the UK’s hard-fought-for position at the top table of the UN Security Council is under threat. Under the treaty the UK at the UN
“shall ask that the High Representative be invited to present the position of the Union”
“the Union has defined a position on a subject on the agenda of the UN Security Council.”
The UK fought twice during earlier negotiations on the constitution to have this struck out and was twice unsuccessful. The clause is with us today.
The third area of concern is the self-amending nature of the treaty, another important provision that was re-introduced from the constitution. At present, the EU treaties can only be amended by an intergovernmental conference, which must then be ratified in each member state, by Parliament or by referendum. However, article 33(2) of the new treaty allows the Council to vote by unanimity to change any of the text of part 3 of the treaty on the functioning of the Union, which is basically all the detail of the treaties.
I could talk about the vetoes that have been abolished and the reduction in our ability to block EU legislation, but I will mention instead the single legal personality, which for the first time would allow the EU, rather than member states, to sign up to international agreements on foreign policy. I take the House back to the words of Tony Blair after the Amsterdam treaty:
“Others wanted to give the European Union explicit legal personality across all pillars of the treaty. At our insistence, that was removed”.
Ten years later, it has come back.
I want to talk about the duty of national Parliaments under the new treaty. The text says that the national Parliaments, including our own, will have a duty to
"contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union."
National Parliaments, unlike the European Parliament, were not creations of the treaties and their rights are not dependent on the treaties. Indeed, the new treaty proposes, for the first time, that national Parliaments be subservient to the Union. The new treaty still says that
“National Parliaments contribute to the good functioning of the Union”
and that they are "seeing to it" that subsidiarity be respected. For the first time, European government is ordering national Parliaments how to behave, which is deeply worrying.
The final and most important point concerns the charter of fundamental rights and the European Court of Justice. They will take from the UK Parliament a significant amount of our ability to govern ourselves, especially in areas of criminal justice and home affairs. On 18 June, Tony Blair told the Liaison Committee that the UK
“will not accept a Treaty that allows the Charter of Fundamental Rights to change UK law in any way.”
That was one of the red lines. The excellent report from the European Scrutiny Committee—of which I am proud to be a member—described in clear detail how this red line has been crossed. The charter of fundamental rights applies to member states when implementing Union law.
Our report raised the question whether the UK would be bound by ECJ case law when the ECJ interprets the charter in relation to implementation and cases in other EU members states—and particularly cases where the same measure has been implemented in the UK. In other words, ECJ judgments would form part of the case law which the UK courts would be obliged to follow in this country so that EU law is applied consistently across the EU.
The Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), said of the protocol that Tony Blair and his successor as Prime Minister believe they have negotiated that
“it will leak like a sieve.”
The former Prime Minister said that the charter would not apply in the UK at all thanks to the protocol, but I am now certain that he was wrong. Moreover, the current Minister for Europe seems to agree. He said to the Committee on 2 October that the protocol
“is a statement of how the Charter provisions will apply in the UK”,
which is rather different from saying they would not apply at all. In practice, the European Scrutiny Committee pointed out in its excellent report of 2 October how the red line has been totally breached.
During the past two and half years that I have been a Member, the euro has been a neglected topic in this House. I wanted to compare the Government’s handling of the treaty and the broken promises made to their commitments on the euro. I ask Members whether it is just me who thinks that the four red lines on the treaty are not unlike the five economic tests on the euro. They are lines and tests that are self-declared, self-policed and—in my view—destined to be broken. The commitment to the referendum on the treaty sounds not unlike the commitment to a referendum on the euro; the commitment was put in place to kick the issue into touch before a general election—in the case of the euro, the 2001 general election, and in the case of the treaty, the general election of 2005. I believe that the Government will ultimately renege on that commitment to hold a referendum on the euro in the coming years.
I might be the only Member who has read the Cabinet Office document “Global Europe”, which the Prime Minister launched in this House to great fanfare on 22 October. There is virtually nothing in it, so nobody has missed a great deal. It is like a “Brodie’s Notes” on how the European Union functions for one of the Government’s very straightforward GCSEs. The only new ideas in it that the Prime Minister announced on 22 October sounded terribly familiar to me, so I checked and discovered that I had, indeed, heard most of them before. They were the same ideas as appeared in a speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), the Leader of the Opposition, in Brussels in March. I invite Members to draw comparisons. The Prime Minister told us last month that
“the priority for the European Union must now be the global challenges that we face in relation to employment, prosperity, competitiveness, climate change and security. Today—in a document, “Global Europe”, published this afternoon and available to the House now—the Government set out how we will advance those new priorities in the future.”—[Official Report, 22 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 19.]
He also talked about the EU’s role in “reducing global poverty”, climate change and competitiveness. Let us compare that with the Leader of the Opposition’s speech in Brussels in March. He said:
“The EU should be focusing on three things. First, the economic challenge of globalisation. Second, the environmental challenge of climate change. And third, the moral and security challenge of global poverty. What needs doing? Globalisation. Global warming. Global poverty. I think of these as the priorities of a 3G Europe.”
The two speeches are almost identical. The big difference is that the Leader of the Opposition’s speech came seven months earlier.
Of course there are issues of trust, issues of manifesto pledges broken, issues of red lines being red herrings, red lines being breached and so on. But it is not just the process that concerns me. What is proposed are fundamental changes to our national sovereignty and the weakening of our role as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. We will have two foreign services, one of them UK, the other EU, and the latter will inevitably gain at the expense of the former The new EU President will, when the role is combined with the president of the EU Council, be an all-powerful Executive figure who, crucially, is unelected. Most of all, this Parliament and the UK courts will lose significant powers to the ECJ in relation to the interpretation of our laws in many important areas.
As was said at Laeken at the start of this EU constitution process, we desperately need more democracy in the EU. Yet this treaty offers less democracy, not more. Moreover, I do not believe that this Parliament has the right to bind its successors to the surrender of all those powers.
It is a pleasure to speak following so many interesting speeches on Afghanistan, such as those of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn). Like many other Members, yesterday I attended a Remembrance service where we remembered a member of my local Territorial regiment—the London regiment—who died in Afghanistan. I shall write to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence on a number of issues that the regiment raised with me.
Like the previous speaker, the hon. Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), I shall concentrate my comments on one subject, although in my case it will be what was referred to in the last part of the Gracious Speech: the commitment to a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine. I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution, and I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s restatement of his total commitment to that. He and his predecessors should be commended for getting the Americans to support that solution and for getting it back on the international agenda. However, I must say that I am extremely pessimistic not only about the outcome of the conference in Annapolis but about the prospects of a two-state solution in the foreseeable future.
I deplore the tendency to split people into two camps—pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian—as though they were mutually exclusive. I regard myself as as much a friend of the Israelis as of the Palestinians, and it is as a friend of the Israelis that I say that the essential first step towards a settlement—the pre-condition of the success of any talks—is the relatively simple and straightforward measure that can be taken now of stopping expanding settlements on the west bank. Many people in our country believe that the Israelis have already done that—or at least have agreed to do that—as part of the road map, but having visited the west bank in September I can assure the House that the bulldozers and cranes are still busy building new houses in Ma’ale Adumim to the east of Jerusalem and many other settlements in the west bank. We are not talking here about just outposts that the Israelis accept are illegal; we are talking about a huge new town of 30,000 inhabitants being built, and since the road map 3,500 houses have been built midway between Jerusalem and Jericho along the narrow waist of the west bank, effectively cutting it in two.
I put that to a senior official of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry. He made no attempt to deny that settlements are still being built. He justified it by saying that the commitment to a settlement freeze in the road map is at the end of phase one and he said:
“we have not got there yet.”
I put it to him that nothing was more certain to ratchet up the tension and deepen the hatred felt by many Palestinians towards the occupying power than seeing the continuous expansion of settlements and watching them encroach on more Palestinian land every day. I found his answer deeply depressing. He said that calling a halt to the expansion of settlements could be seen as a victory for terrorism, and the Israeli Government would not do anything that could be seen as a victory for terrorism. I think that the truth is the reverse, and I should be interested to know whether my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agrees with me and will make the point to the Israeli Government that the policy that does most to strengthen the extremists and weaken the moderates among Palestinian politicians is the continued expansion of the settlements. How can moderate Palestinians claim that the ceasefire and the peace process are working if every day more and more Palestinian land is built on?
I liken the Israeli position to that of somebody who stands on somebody else’s toes and says that they will get off only when that person stops screaming. The official Israeli line is that the settlements are what they call a “resolvable issue”, and that they are not what the Palestinians care most about.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the settlements, the so-called security wall or barrier, which is cutting its way not so much through Israeli land or down the green line as through large swathes of Palestinian land, is also a major barrier to the peace process? In addition, the hundreds of checkpoints around the west bank are slicing up the Palestinian economy in a way that is making Palestine as a viable state less and less likely.
Indeed, the settlements and the closures are closely interlinked. Contrary to the opinion of many in this country, there is not only the wall that separates the west bank from Israeli but many internal walls within the west bank. In fact, there are far more walls and fences within the west bank. I put that point to Dr. Fayyad, the Palestinian Prime Minister, who said that the settlements are the central problem—indeed, he went so far as to say that they created Hamas in the first place. I think he is likely to be right, not only because he is a Palestinian politician and should know but because that is the answer that we get from all Palestinians. They blame the breakdown of talks on the increasing number and size of settlements and on the closely connected matter of closures.
My hon. Friend is right: according to the United Nations, the total number of settlements in the west bank is now 149, and the number of checkpoints, road gates, roadblocks, restricted roads, trenches, earth mounds and flying checkpoints is 553. There are checkpoints not just as people go in or out of the west bank—there are only eight of those—but internal roadblocks, built to accommodate and defend the settlements. They also have the effect of encircling every Palestinian town and city with a ring of roadblocks that have strangled almost all the life out of the Palestinian economy.
The situation in the west bank is nothing like as bad as that in Gaza, which I also visited along with colleagues from both sides of the House. I believe that we were the first group of MPs to visit Gaza since the Hamas takeover and the release from captivity of Alan Johnston. We did so with the help of the UN and the Welfare Association (UK). We visited an industrial estate where almost every factory was closed. The borders are closed to everything except food and medicine, which has meant not just that 80,000 Gazans have lost their jobs in Israeli factories, but that all the Gazan factories have closed because they cannot get supplies or fulfil their orders. As a consequence, 80 per cent. of the population of Gaza are now unemployed and 80 per cent. live below the poverty line. Perhaps most dangerous of all, 20,000 students come out of the Gazan education system each year without a single job to go to. As a business man told us:
“We live in a pressure-cooker situation and if the pressure isn’t relieved soon, it’s going to blow up.”
Although Gaza has the worst problems in the occupied territories, and Hebron probably has the greatest tension, with the city centre having been turned into a ghost town to protect the Jewish settlement, to my mind the northern part of the west bank is the key to any settlement. If a Palestinian state is to be viable, it must be viable there. Of course, life goes on for most people in such cities as Nablus. It is still possible to get to and from work, although people may have to wait anything from half an hour to an hour at a roadblock. It is still possible to get to hospital, although in some cases the journey is a lot longer: from one village, an average of 45 minutes has been added to the journey to hospital. But although individuals can survive in the west bank, life is being slowly strangled out of the economy. Nablus has always been a great commercial centre, but the roadblocks, fences and checkpoints are slowly killing the economy. That applies even more to such cities and towns as Qalqilya, which is surrounded on three sides by the wall, which of course Palestinians cannot pass.
Before I am accused of being an extremist, I should say that Palestinians who support terrorist organisations are extremely misguided and are acting against their own interests. However, if the Israelis go on expanding the settlements, they must expect that terrorists will get more recruits. I claim no originality in that view, because everything that I am saying is being said by Israelis as well as by Palestinians. Brigadier-General Ilan Paz of the Israeli defence force says:
“After seven years in which people are not able to move freely in and out of their home towns, after so much distress has built up, so much humiliation, depression and hopelessness, not only are these interior checkpoints inhuman, but they also create an atmosphere that can actually cause terror, not prevent it”.
I oppose terrorism, but I predict that if the Palestinian towns are encircled and their economies are strangled, as is happening in the west bank, and if they are besieged and effectively imprisoned and impoverished, as is happening in Gaza, people will lash out in any way they can and the situation can only get worse. Again, that is being said by Israelis and not just by outsiders. Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Israeli security services, recently said:
“People say that Palestinians behave like madmen. It is not madness but a bottomless despair.”
I agree with him on another point that he makes: if one wants to preserve the Jewish and the democratic character of Israel, the only way to do so in the long term will be to create a Palestinian state. Expanding settlements is not only against the law, the Geneva convention and any number of United Nations resolutions, but it is against Israel’s self-interest.
Some cynics even now say that Israel does not want peace, it wants Palestine. It already has 78 per cent. of the land of historical Palestine, but as a result of the wall, military zones and the creation of military-only areas in the Jordan valley, it will have 88 per cent., leaving only 12 per cent. of the original historical Palestine for the Palestinians. One can only forgive Palestinians for thinking that the Israelis’ secret agenda is to take the whole of Palestine and to allow the Palestinian population to be dispersed or disfranchised or disempowered in small enclaves.
I am not a cynic, and I take the Israeli Government at their word when they say that they want peace and a two-state solution, but I end with two questions. The first was put to us by a Palestinian neurologist. He asked:
“If you are serious about a two-state solution, is not the first thing to do to call a halt to the expansion of settlements?”
I add a question of my own. Is it not time that the UK Government lent their support to the United Nations’ using the powers in chapter VII of its charter to enforce the will of the vast majority of its members that there should be an end to the expansion of settlements in the west bank?
The Gracious Speech by Her Majesty the Queen outlined the direction and the plans of this Government for the coming months and years. Increased security and the encouragement and spread of democracy are integral to those plans, and I will seek to cover some of the key policy areas that affect our relations with other countries and our national security.
Our national security faces many threats: the threat from climate change; the threat to our energy security; the threat from international terrorism; and the threat from weapons of mass destruction. Many of the threats are overlapping or interrelated: for example, our approach to climate change is very much affected by meeting the challenges that we face in terms of our energy supply and consumption, and indeed our energy security.
Europe has limited indigenous energy production capacity. By 2030, the EU is expected to import 94 per cent. of its oil needs, 84 per cent. of natural gas consumption and 59 per cent. of solid fuel used. The dispute between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas prices in January 2006, and more recently Russia’s dispute with Belarus, highlights the risks of dependence on a limited number of energy suppliers. The disputes did not directly affect exports to Europe, but raised doubts about Russia’s reliability as a source of energy.
The middle east is the most important energy producing region in the world, but one of the most politically unstable. Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme have intensified concerns about the stability of supply. In Iraq, tens of billions of dollars are required to bring the oil industry’s output back up to its 1978 peak of 3.5 million barrels per day. That capital has not been invested because of the continuing attacks on the country’s infrastructure and work force, and uncertainty about its political and legal structures.
In zones of conflict or where there is political instability, there is considerable scope for “non-state actors” to target oil and gas resources in pursuit of their objectives. Al-Qaeda has threatened to attack what Osama bin Laden calls the “hinges” of the world’s economy—its infrastructure—of which energy is the most crucial element. Two countries where local groups have been targeting foreign oil companies are Colombia and Nigeria. The latter has become a particularly dangerous environment for oil companies and their staff over the past decade. In 2003, Royal Dutch Shell closed its operations in the western Niger Delta region of Nigeria due to increasingly violent unrest.
It is clear that change in climate, resource scarcity and insecure supplies of energy will have a massive impact on our world. The consequences include growing geopolitical tensions over remaining oil supplies, including a new scramble for Africa’s oil and gas. Conflict zones in Africa are associated with the possession of energy sources, and future superpower rivalries may result from the competition.
In his review for the British Government, Sir Nicholas Stern summarised the far-reaching consequences of inaction on climate change, which will include problems with food security; water security; and immigration and migration. Wars fought over limited resources—land, fresh water and fuel—have been commonplace throughout history. By reducing those resources in some of the most volatile parts of the world, climate change creates a new and frightening prospect for conflict.
The UK is showing strong global leadership in that area. The Climate Change Bill, outlined in the Gracious Speech, will make our country the first in the world to set out long-term targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Bill will create a legally binding commitment to the Government’s target of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. In doing that, it will create a new approach to managing and responding to climate change in the UK through strengthening the institutional framework. It will also establish clear and regular accountability to Parliament and the devolved legislatures.
In March 2007, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—when he was Chancellor—announced the new £800 million environment transformation fund, which will help developing countries to adopt low carbon technology, adapt to climate change and preserve their vital and diverse ecosystems. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett), the former Foreign Secretary, took the climate change debate to the Security Council earlier this year, highlighting its importance to international security.
The UK is also committed to action undertaken by the EU. In March this year Britain and other European nations agreed to the following goals, which are to be achieved by 2020—a 20 per cent. reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions, as compared with 1990 levels; an increase in the use of renewable energy to 20 per cent. of all energy consumed; and an increase in the use of biofuels to 10 per cent. of all fuel used in transport.
Globalisation has led to a number of issues that will be addressed successfully only by co-operating with other organisations such as the EU, the G8 and the United Nations. That is why the Government are committed to working multilaterally. The Department for International Development, for instance, spends two fifths of its budget through the multilateral system. Multilateral action is not a soft option. In Afghanistan, British forces work alongside forces from more than 30 different countries as part of a NATO operation, backed by a UN mandate. That is alongside the development and humanitarian assistance provided by the EU and the UN.
Multilateralism does not replace the need for good bilateral relationships, and that is why the UK will continue to work, and develop its partnership, with the United States. The political reality is that the US not only shares our values but is the world’s largest economy. As such, it has the potential to be an enormous force for good to many nations around the world.
Britain plays a leading role in the EU. The President of the European Commission has commented on the UK’s importance to Europe, and that importance has been demonstrated in many ways. On climate change and energy, UK support was vital in putting the emissions trading scheme in place so quickly. On security and defence, in 2005 Britain was the biggest contributor of troops to European security and defence policy operations. Our Labour Government made Africa a priority for the British presidency of the EU and the G8. As a result of that influence, Britain’s special relationships—for instance with China and India—have been enhanced. Those connections will ensure that the UK will always have influence in Europe. Angela Merkel said recently that it would be impossible to imagine the EU moving forward without Britain.
The Labour Government are committed to ratifying the European Union reform treaty, which makes institutional changes that will enable an enlarged EU to work more effectively. There will be more continuity, with six-month presidencies being replaced by two-and-a-half-year presidencies. There will be more efficiency, as the treaty will cap the number of European Commissioners at two thirds of the number of member states. There will be more fairness, as there will be a new, more representative, voting system, and our share of the vote will increase. There will be more democracy, because national Parliaments will get a direct say in EU decision making for the first time, and can challenge a proposal if there is an object by one third.
The commitment to a referendum was based on the constitutional treaty that was originally agreed. Since then, of course, there has been a period of reflection. People have gone back to the drawing board and redrafted it; it is now not a constitution but an amending treaty to existing treaties.
The treaty will give Britain more weight in the world, as there will be a new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, and there will be more transparency. In plain words, the rights of citizens of member states will be better than they were. It is important to stress that with all these changes UK sovereignty remains intact. Our tax and social security systems are protected, as are our police and judicial systems. Our labour and social legislation remain unchanged and our independent foreign and defence policy is maintained.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that our diplomatic approach to the middle east peace process, and finding a solution that will yield a viable Palestinian state, are key to peace in the middle east. Palestinians are living in terrible conditions in the west bank, and Gaza is a tragedy. We must do everything in our power to bring about the creation of a sustainable Palestinian state if we are to begin to solve our wider problems in the middle east, and I agree with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton).
As the British ambassador put it, bringing peace to Afghanistan was always going to be
“a marathon, not a sprint”.
Since 2001, much progress has been made. The Afghan people were able to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections, and they now have their own constitution. Despite much of what has been said today, a great deal of progress has been made, particularly with regard to health. Since 2001, health services have been expanded, reaching 82 per cent. of the Afghan population, and there are now 856 standard health facilities. A great deal of progress has also been made on Iraq. In the past four years we have helped to train and equip over 13,000 Iraqi army troops. Three of the four provinces in which British troops are engaged have been handed over, and there has now been a move to Basra city.
Equally, there are still problems in Iran; the situation there, particularly in respect of nuclear development, is a matter of grave concern. As the Foreign Secretary has stated, the UK fully respects Iran’s right to security. However, that should not allow it to undermine the stability and security of its neighbours. An international coalition has been brought together to address concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.
Since General Musharraf declared a state of emergency in Pakistan last week, thousands of people have been arrested, judges have been dismissed and detained, and rallies have been banned. The British Government have been swift in voicing their concern. Pakistan is a vital partner for the UK in tackling the serious threat of terrorism and extremism. It is also integral to our operations in Afghanistan and the related issues of the proliferation of weapons and drugs. Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan can be stable while Pakistan is so divided, and greater unity will require a more legitimate Government.
The threats that we face as a nation can be met only by working through international multilateral institutions with our partners and encouraging good governance and democracy throughout the world. We live in very difficult times. We have had 10 years of Labour Governments. Looking forward, I am sure that many threats are still to come. However, the past 1,000 years of our history have shown that we are a nation that can adapt quickly to a fast-changing world, and I am confident that we will adapt to the challenges and threats posed by the 21st century.
I am particularly pleased to take part in this debate on the Gracious Speech in respect of defence. It is most appropriately timed, given that yesterday was Armistice day. I am sure that, up and down the country, virtually all of us took part in Remembrance day celebrations, along with millions of others in an act of remembrance of the sacrifices made by our armed forces in past and current conflicts.
The debate is appropriate because one of the issues raised by our armed forces and the Royal British Legion is society’s perceived lack of appreciation and support for our forces. Related to that is the ongoing debate on what support we should give our troops and their families at home and in theatre. We understand that our armed forces feel that they are not valued; sometimes that can, in part, be the result of the intemperate language used and accusations made in this House and sometimes in the media.
It is perfectly legitimate to have policy positions different from those of the Government and to question the Government when things go wrong. However, in the past few months I have heard inaccurate accusations and comments that call into question the Government’s commitment to our armed forces. The Government are totally committed to our armed forces and totally appreciate their strength and professionalism and the sacrifices that they make. Ultimately, we will be judged by the financial commitment that we make. Under this Government, that will be a real-terms 1.5 per cent. increase per year; there were cuts during the five years that preceded the fall of the previous Conservative Government. I shall return to the issue of funding later.
If attendance at Armistice day ceremonies is any indication of public attitudes, there is a growing understanding of the sacrifices made in the past and a feeling that we must do more in future. That is due to a number of factors. First, today’s global media coverage shows daily reminders of the horrors that our troops have to endure and their bravery on the front line in Iraq and Afghanistan. Credit must also be given to the Royal British Legion for the contribution that it makes. It not only supports veterans and their families but plays an active role in local communities by educating young people on the role of our forces and demonstrating how they provided young people with the freedoms that they enjoy today.
It is not fashionable to say so, but the Government must take some credit for their work in providing veterans’ badges, their support for the D-day, VE and VJ celebrations, and their support for the national memorial centre at Alrewas, which was commented on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) and is a demonstration of the support that the Government are giving to recognising and remembering the role that our troops play.
In that context, I want to pay tribute to a person from my constituency, the late John Bayliss. On Sunday 4 November, I attended a ceremony at the national memorial arboretum where a tree was planted in memory of John, who was president of the Tipton branch of the British Legion. In that capacity, he was the driving force behind not only raising thousands of pounds for the legion but getting war veterans—ex-servicemen—into local schools to tell young people about their experiences, providing pupils with living history. He was particularly active in supporting initiatives in Alexandra school and Great Bridge primary school. He also provided constant socials and support for war veterans in the locality. It is fair to say that, because of that, in my constituency there is probably a greater level of understanding and appreciation of the work of our forces. John died in June, but his legacy will live on. Others like him work day in, day out in other branches of the legion. They add enormous value to the work that the Government have done on the appreciation of our armed forces.
However, we must recognise that that appreciation will not in itself deal with the range of needs of service personnel, and that must be addressed. The change is being brought about by the expertise and lobbying of the Royal British Legion through its honour the covenant campaign. The issues that it has raised about the way that society views and treats service personnel, and what level of support they should receive, challenge both Government and society. I have heard Opposition Members pray in aid evidence from the campaign in criticising the Government. I would point out that in the recent debate on the third sector review many of them were critical of the Government’s support for the role of charities and voluntary organisations in so-called political campaigning, as opposed to party political campaigning. The legion’s campaign for the covenant is a political campaign, but it should be welcomed as a clear demonstration of the importance that voluntary and charitable organisations can have in the development of Government policy.
When I speak to veterans of the second world war, many of whom are on low incomes, I am amazed by the modesty of their expectations from the state, in complete contrast to the enormous sacrifices that they made for it. Successive Governments have failed in the past to provide what servicemen could reasonably expect, and I am pleased to say that this Government are trying to change that. I applaud their efforts to provide a better deal for our current servicemen. While it is important to debate their future needs, it must be recognised that much has already been done to right historic wrongs. Better pay, operational allowances, welfare packages, support for the bereaved and better medical support have all been provided in recent years. That is particularly true for servicemen or ex-servicemen with mental health problems. The money given to Combat Stress, and the support provided for individuals to obtain mental health consultation, is an indication of that.
Housing is still a huge problem for service personnel and their families. I welcome the proposed investment of £5 billion in service accommodation over the next 10 years, but I urge the Government to do everything in their power to help service personnel to buy their own homes, thereby gaining access to the housing ladder. Investment in a home has been the most important single factor in the rise in individual wealth in this country, and if we are to retain service personnel, we must ensure that they do not miss out.
I welcome the announcement of the Command Paper to be published in spring 2008. I feel that now is the right time to debate the issues highlighted by the Royal British Legion. The announcement that the Government are to take stock of current support and set out an agenda for service personnel and their families, and for veterans, is long overdue. A public consensus should be developed and a coherent policy constructed. In the past, improvements have been piecemeal—often in response to particular needs or events. That must change.
It is right that this discussion should take place at a time when the Government are proposing an increase in expenditure. I refer to the 1.5 per cent. per annum increase during the next five years. We must acknowledge as part of this debate that there will be costs. Unfortunately, while I have heard many complaints from Opposition Members, what is lacking is a commitment on their part to spend more to deal with the problems that they have been so quick to highlight.
In the defence debate in this Chamber on 16 October, there was a long discussion on the alleged reduction of defence spending as a proportion of gross domestic product, and about the proportion of the public spending budget that should be devoted to defence. The Conservative party claims that, if elected, it would share the proceeds of growth between public spending increases and tax cuts, which can only mean that public spending would drop as a proportion of GDP. In turn, if the Opposition are to sustain the level of spending proposed by this Government, they will have to increase the defence budget as a share of public spending. To date, we have heard no commitment to do so, and when challenged in the debate of 16 October, no commitment was forthcoming.
If there is no such commitment, so much of what we have heard from Opposition Members today will be just hollow rhetoric. Servicemen, their conditions and the support that we give to them should transcend petty political points. I hope that the Opposition will join a consensus with the Government in this debate to provide the funds that the British Legion proposes are necessary to support the covenant.
It is appropriate and right at this time of year to remember the sacrifices made on our behalf by those brave men and women fighting for security and freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by those of previous generations. In two world wars, sacrifices were made that we can hardly begin to imagine today, so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have. Every one of us sitting in this democratic House of Commons has a particular debt to those who chose freedom over tyranny, whatever the cost to themselves.
However much we might want peace, war is sometimes unavoidable if we are to protect what we believe to be right. There will continue to be disagreements about whether or not it was right to go to war in Iraq, but I still believe that the decision was correct. The reduction in violence and attacks on our forces in Basra is surely an optimistic sign that we might be on the slow path to the greater stability and democracy that so many Iraqis want to see, and for which so many brave Iraqi politicians have paid the ultimate price. We should salute their courage.
We need to be clear, too, where things went wrong. Major mistakes and a lack of planning for the post-war period have made the conflict longer and the casualties probably greater than they might have been. That is why my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary called again today for an inquiry into the Iraq war. The main lesson must surely be that we cannot easily apply democracy to a country whose institutions are unable to support it—a country that lacks institutions such as a market economy, a fair rule of law and a concept of human rights—and expect those institutions to develop overnight. Those concepts took a long time to develop in this country, and they will take a long time to develop properly in Iraq or Afghanistan. It is therefore essential that we set realistic expectations for achieving our noble goals.
Afghanistan remains a formidable challenge. We fully accept and support the strategic aims set out by the Government. It is essential that we create a stable Afghanistan and deny the territory to the Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) pointed out in his speech. There are those who believe that we should not be in Afghanistan at all, or that if we do not interfere, it will put us at less risk from terrorist attacks at home. That is just untrue: 9/11 came before the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. We cannot avoid confrontation with the forces of radical politicised terror groups such as al-Qaeda, because they have already chosen to confront us. Our resolve in tackling the threats that they pose to our values, freedoms and way of life can be no different from the resolve shown by previous generations in defeating the tyranny of Nazi Germany or the totalitarian menace of the Soviet Union in the cold war.
I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence will give us information on two specific issues this evening. The first relates to Nimrod and the second to Mastiff. There has been a great deal of anxiety as a result of the fatal Nimrod crash last year and the emergency involving another last week, particularly related to stories about fuel leaks. Can the Secretary of State tell us the latest position, and how we will balance the risk to our aircrews with the unavoidable need for aerial reconnaissance? In particular, what alternatives to reconnaissance are available from our NATO allies and what discussions have taken place? Mastiff has clearly been a great success, with improved safety for our forces on the ground. Another 140 Mastiffs are awaited. Can the Secretary of State tell us the time scale for the delivery? It would be unacceptable if we had a good solution that, yet again, arrived too late.
While we are on the subject of procurement, perhaps the Secretary of State could clarify a point for the House. On 9 October, the Minister for the Armed Forces said on the subject of urgent operational requirements:
“Since 2003, we have spent more than £2 billion on UORs. All this money from the reserve is additional to the defence budget.”—[Official Report, 9 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 201.]
However, when one compares the figure given by the Minister with the UOR figure in the MOD annual report and accounts, there is a disparity of about £716 million. Will the Secretary of State explain the difference between those figures? Was the Minister using the figure of the total obligated UOR spending rather than the out-turn? If that was the case, will the Secretary of State explain why there was a good enough reason to obligate the money in the first place but not to spend it? How will his new arrangements with the Treasury operate, and what does he consider will be the effect of the new UOR system on the core MOD budget?
In March of this year, the then Minister for the Armed Forces, the right hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram), announced that the time was right to reassess the future of the international military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to withdraw the last contingent of British troops from the country. EU Ministers had agreed to reduce EUFOR, which followed the NATO mission that had kept the peace in Bosnia since 1995, to turn its large dispersed force structure into a smaller, centralised one and to cut troop numbers from 6,000 to 2,500.
At the time the Minister dismissed my sceptical response to the announcement. I was concerned, as we all were on the Conservative Benches, that both the foreign policy assumptions underpinning the decision and the military assessment were misguided and overly optimistic. In our view, 2007 was going to be a challenging year for the region and we needed to prepare for it properly, recognising that history has taught us that what happens in one part of that region invariably has ramifications in others.
The grounds for instability were clear. The leader of the most popular political party in Serbia, the Serbian Radical party, was about to be put on trial at The Hague on charges of genocide and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica was presiding over a fractious coalition that rejected any notion of independence for Kosovo and the UN’s efforts to resolve the province’s status. In Bosnia, separatist forces in the entity of Republika Srpska were obstructing political reforms and calling for secession. Given all those problems, was it not complacent or at least premature of the Government to talk about the normality of the security situation in the region?
Over the past few weeks those simmering tensions have started to surface. Right now we might be on the verge of the biggest crisis in the Balkans since the early 1990s. The negotiations over Kosovo will come to the crunch on 10 December, but the struggle over its future is already spilling out into the region. Serbian secessionists in Bosnia took to the streets last week in the entity of Republika Srpska to oppose the high representative’s proposals to reform Bosnia’s cumbersome decision-making process. The protestors brandished placards of the Russian President, President Putin. Serbia has rushed to support their cause. The senior US official in the office of the high representative told Congress last week that this was a “vital moment” in the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina and that its very survival could be determined in the next few months, if not the next few weeks. The commander of EU forces in Bosnia has sounded a stark warning, announcing that EUFOR was setting aside
“a minimum of forces for a possible intervention, in order to be sure that we can intervene again in the event of another outbreak of war”,
and calling on the international community to
“pay full attention to the problems”
in the region.
If history is anything to go by, there is cause for concern. The crisis in the Balkans in the early 1990s cruelly exposed a capabilities-expectations gap between the EU’s rhetoric and its ability to act effectively. Europe’s hour, as it was called, had come, but the EU, unable to keep a peace that did not exist and unwilling to involve itself in conflict, failed to live up to the challenge.
My hon. Friend has struck on an important point. Will he tease out from the Secretary of State whether the EU’s battle groups, which were heralded as the answer to such a crisis in Bosnia, could be deployed to meet any crisis that arises? Otherwise, the battle groups are of no possible worth whatever.
General Dannatt said that we had no reserves for the unexpected, which is one of the main problems that we could face if a further crisis emerges in the Balkans. When EUFOR took over security responsibilities from NATO in December 2004, roughly 80 per cent. of the military contingent serving in the NATO force were also members of the EU. That made the transition of authority virtually seamless. Essentially, the transfer of power from NATO to the EU simply required the troops on the ground to remove the NATO flag from their sleeves and replace it with that of the EU.
EUFOR’s current strength of 2,500 troops, of which only 580 come from the core multinational manoeuvre battalion, which has real fighting capability if the security situation deteriorates, is operating in an area roughly twice the size of Wales. What is the plan if Kosovo’s declaration of independence creates further instability in the region? Last week, Olli Rehn, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, played down the risk of regional instability in the western Balkans, saying:
“I don’t see any reason why the Kosovo status process should provoke any instability in any other country of the western Balkans and I sincerely hope that nobody uses that as an excuse or pretext to provoke any instability in the region.”
That could be a triumph of hope over experience.
I am afraid that a crisis in the Balkans could be closer than we think. In two weeks’ time, EUFOR’s mandate expires and, because of EU legal requirements, any military mission must have the approval of the United Nations Security Council. Western diplomats have warned that Russia could veto the decision to renew the EU force’s mandate at a time when the Kremlin is unhappy with western policy on Kosovo, on the missile defence system and on other European security issues. What will EUFOR do, when its mandate ends on 21 November, if Russia uses its veto in the UN Security Council to block its renewal? Pack up and go home, or what?
My colleague the shadow Foreign Secretary has already written to the Government to outline our concerns on the matter, and to urge the Government to respond to the seriousness of the situation in the region. We cannot ignore the lessons from the past. The one thing that the region clearly needs as it passes through this difficult stage is united international support and a strong international presence. The international community has invested enormous effort and good will to help the people of the region to recover from the ravages of war, shake off a legacy of nationalism and join Euro-Atlantic structures. Thanks to this, Slovenia has now become a fully fledged member of the European Union and NATO, and Croatia is on track to join both institutions within the coming years. Those are but a few of the achievements of recent times. These hard-won successes are an example for the whole region. The next few months will be testing, but it would be completely irresponsible and unacceptable if we were taken by surprise this time.
The hon. Gentleman has made some quite stark points about the legal position in respect of the very delicate issues in the Balkans. His explanation of the legal situation is not exactly the same as the Government’s, however. If it would be helpful for him and for the Liberal Democrats, perhaps we could arrange a meeting at which we could discuss what we understand to be the ambit of UN Security Council resolution 1244, and how it provides an important basis for these arrangements. He talked about there being a crisis within two weeks, and I would not want that to stand without his having a chance to hear that explanation.
Andrew Mackinlay: What about the rest of us?
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his intervention. However, I think that it is clear from the noises off that the House would like an opportunity to get all that information at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary might extend his invitation and offer to make a statement to the House on this worsening crisis. We have watched events in years gone by—we are not without our own measure of guilt on this issue, it has to be said—and we must ensure that we do not sit by while another crisis in the conflict develops. However, I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for this offer, and we will certainly take up any invitation to have a briefing on the legal elements of the matter.
While there is general agreement on most aspects of strategy, on which the House takes a relatively bipartisan approach, there is profound disquiet about how the Government have handled the armed forces, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) pointed out in his powerful speech this afternoon. The list of indictments against the Government’s stewardship of our defence policy and armed forces grows ever longer. They began well, with a strategic defence review that had widespread support. From this, the defence planning assumptions gave rise to the defence budget. But the Government then went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, exceeding the planning assumptions without increasing the resources appropriately. The result has been continually worsening overstretch of our armed forces, with the burden being carried ever more by service families.
The Government failed to plan properly for the aftermath of the Iraq war, and our casualty rates have consequently risen. They even knowingly sent our troops into battle in Iraq without the necessary body armour, for party political considerations. They cut the helicopter budget by £1.4 billion in 2004, when we were already involved in two conflicts. Now we have to beg our allies to fill the gap created.
The Government reduced the size of the infantry by three battalions at a time when we were fighting two major operations. Since 1997, our active aircraft carrier fleet has been cut from three to two; our frigate and destroyer fleet has been cut from 35 to 25; our attack submarine fleet will have been cut from 12 to nine—all below the numbers that the Government themselves said that we needed to implement the strategic defence review.
It is not necessary to take my word for it. Lord West, the current Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for security and counter-terrorism and a former First Sea Lord, said:
“Maybe I’m just a silly old”
fool—I paraphrase, Madam Deputy Speaker—
“but I’ve got 41 years experience of these things and I can tell you we need 30 destroyers and frigates for what the Government wants us to do.”
To make matters worse, the Government recently abolished the Defence Export Services Organisation. That was to the delight of those who oppose the arms trade, which, as my hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Sussex and for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) said, provides so many British jobs. Who were the happy ones? The Campaign Against Arms Trade. As CAAT news says, “DESO: We won!”. That is a disgrace.
Yet for all that, the first act of the new Prime Minister, while we were still losing troops in two dangerous conflicts, was to appoint a part-time Defence Secretary, who spends his time fighting both the Scottish National party and the Taliban. Again, comment from the Government’s own side is most interesting. Lord Gilbert, a former Labour Minister of State for Defence, stated in the other place only a few days ago:
“The double-hatting of Defence Secretary with Scottish Secretary is one of the most disgraceful appointments that I have ever heard of. I hope that the Prime Minister realises the damage that it is doing to him, to his party, to the Government and to people’s respect for government. There are people who have relatives serving in the Armed Forces, young men and women at risk. We all know that Cabinet offices in this country are part-time jobs, because one has a salary as a Member of Parliament and as a Cabinet Minister. That the Defence Secretary’s job has been divided further, so that he answers Scottish Questions, is—I am trying to find a moderate word—deplorable.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 November 2007; Vol. 696, c. 120.]
That is what a senior Labour figure said.
It looks like the Government are increasingly dysfunctional and incoherent. The Prime Minister went to Iraq to announce troop reductions, which the Secretary of State knew nothing about until the last minute. Lord Drayson was so angry about being kept in the dark about DESO and the lack of support he gained in his conflict with the Treasury that he decided to quit and take up motor racing. Now it appears that the Secretary of State has lost his fight to stop the Treasury raiding the MOD core budget to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps it is therefore inevitable that people now believe that the Government have broken the military covenant. The think-tank Demos is hardly the sort of hysterical critic that was talked about earlier yet it said:
“The Military Covenant—the contract between the nation and service personnel and their families who make personal sacrifices in return for fair treatment and commensurate terms and conditions of service—has been damaged almost beyond repair.”
The Gracious Speech will do nothing to dispel the widespread belief that defence is a second-order issue for this Prime Minister. There was reference in that speech to the UN, the G8 and the EU as part of our security architecture, but it did not even mention either the United States or NATO. The Prime Minister can tell all the newspapers he likes how much he loves America, but we will judge him on what he does. He has never had much interest in the military. As Lord Guthrie said:
“I certainly viewed Brown as unsympathetic to defence. He didn’t make much effort to educate himself about defence”.
Asked if he thought vital defence spending was approved by Tony Blair but blocked by his Chancellor, he replied that “that is exactly right”. Perhaps that is the clearest indictment possible. Our forces deserve so much better.
As many right hon. and hon. Members have reminded us—and we bear being reminded of it—yesterday was Remembrance Sunday. It is a day when the whole nation commemorates the sacrifices made by the armed forces across the generations. Until recently, the focus of our thoughts was very much on the veterans of the first and second world wars, but today, while we continue to remember them, we must also commemorate those who have died more recently—particularly in Iraq and in Afghanistan. In that regard, I would like to take the opportunity to mention Lance Corporal Jake Alderton, who sadly died in Afghanistan last Friday. The thoughts and prayers of all hon. Members will be with his family, friends and colleagues, who will greatly miss him. He was a brave man who died in the service of our country in the pursuit of stability and peace for the people of Afghanistan. That bears to be remembered every day, not just on Remembrance day.
The debate has covered some of the important issues that this nation and the international community face. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government in the context of the Queen’s Speech. I shall endeavour to address many of the points raised. Given that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made an extensive speech, taking many interventions and covering the widest possible range of foreign affairs issues, I am sure that the House will understand if my inclination is to concentrate on defence issues, although not exclusively, because I cannot resist the temptation of reminding the House of the statement made by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who I am sad to see is not in his place on the Front Bench.
In response to an intervention by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. Gentleman said that the Conservative party policy on the EU treaty would not be veering in any direction, but I detected a significant veer today, and I am not the only one. Last week, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked the Leader of the Opposition a similar question on how his party would respond if the treaty were in force, he wisely refused to answer. Today, however, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks gave part of the answer when he said that the matter would not rest there.
In a helpful intervention by the right hon. Member for Rushcliffe—right hon. and learned Member, I should say; I have been corrected, which shows that it is not just on the Labour Benches that people are obsessed by status, something that we have already covered in the debate. The right hon. and learned Gentleman helpfully set out the alternatives if matters are not allowed to rest where they are. He rightly advised that there were only certain possibilities or choices. A Tory Government—God forbid that we should have one—would have to repudiate the treaty, hold a referendum or renegotiate. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks refused to respond to that selection of choices and left us with the phrase that “matters would not rest there”. That is not a policy; it is a stance. We will have to wait for the policy, but we may well find that from now on a significant part of the debate concentrates on asking which of those alternatives to the position hitherto adopted by the Conservatives will be chosen.
Surely the Secretary of State must realise that all his complaints and protestations are caused by him and his Government’s inability to offer the referendum that we deserve to have on the current treaty. If he fulfilled his manifesto pledge, none of these questions would arise.
We know the hon. Gentleman’s position because he helpfully signed an early-day motion that explains it. He is not for a referendum either; he is just for rejecting the treaty. He does not want to wait for a decision by anybody, never mind Parliament. However, he will not divert our attention from today’s significant announcement by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks, in which he indicated exactly where the Conservative party is going. We will pursue it down that line and will not rest until it explains not just its stance, but its policy. The speeches by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman bear reading in sequence because that will remind any reader of the substantial degree of agreement on foreign policy and defence that there is across the House.
We were privileged to hear a short but valuable contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who shared with us his experience of involvement in conflict resolution in Sri Lanka at the request of the president of that country. Having served under my right hon. Friend when he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I can say that the President of Sri Lanka made a wise choice. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has a valuable contribution to make to Sri Lanka as well.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will understand when I say that he is part of a great tradition in which Members have contributed to conflict resolution across the world, often in difficult and demanding circumstances. It does the House credit that its Members are prepared to take the risks associated with such work. It would be invidious of me to single out others, some of whom are present, because I would doubtless offend those whom I had not identified.
Several Members mentioned the first-class contribution of our armed forces and the need for it to be given appropriate recognition. They included the hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore), my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby), not to mention the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Willie Rennie).
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex raised an issue that was taken up later by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey): the increasing need for proper reporting of the contribution made by our troops in the theatres of operation in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and dissemination of that information to a wider public. I think that the hon. Gentleman used his comments as a vehicle for a criticism of the Ministry of Defence, which was somewhat inconsistent with earlier remarks in which he commended and congratulated civil service members of the MOD; but I share his frustration at the media’s lack of preparedness to tell the true story of the contribution that our forces have made, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. To a degree I understand it, but I say advisedly that there are Members who have sought opportunities to criticise such contributions in a way designed to attract party political advantage, which has undermined our collective ambition to be able to tell the story more straightforwardly and honestly.
I have noticed recently that the position has improved. The hon. Gentleman suggested that we should extend more opportunities to the media to spend time with our armed forces, but not a day goes by without members of the media being embedded with them in one or both operational theatres. Invariably, they come back and—privately—speak glowingly of what they have seen. It is a pity that other information that they have gleaned, and other stories that they are clearly able to tell, are not given the same prominence as some of what they choose to report. They should not think that the forces with whom they are embedded, and who welcome and protect them, do not notice the selectiveness of their accounts.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for approaching a serious matter in a serious way, but will he acknowledge that one of the Government’s mistakes was removing the single-service PR machine which built up its own strong relationships with the press and was extremely good at dealing with them? The press paid more attention to a single-service PR in uniform than to a civilian on operations. Will he consider again whether it is possible to reinstate those people? When he worries about leaks in the Ministry of Defence, he should bear in mind the fact that it is fine if there is a single-service PR machine because then people know perfectly well where the leaks are coming from and can deal with them.
I am prepared to look at any suggestion that may be made as to how to improve the way the message is put across to the public. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and perhaps others put too much strain on one part of the quite extensive machinery that exists in all the services individually in relation to handling the media. The decision was to remove the individual supports for the individual chiefs. I am not sure that it has had the effect that he says it has, but I am prepared to look at that again.
The reason that I spend so much time on that matter is that it seems there is a serious point to be made about the nature and balance of the reporting of what our troops do when they are abroad. It is hard to resist the temptation to say that certain organs of the media have an agenda and that that agenda does not allow them to tell the whole story of what is being achieved, lest it reflects to the credit of others who are involved in policy decisions. That is as may be, although I have noticed recently, in particular over the past few days, that increasingly there is a balance in the reporting and that some of the stories that the hon. Gentleman and I wish were told more accurately are now starting to get out.
I agree entirely with what the Secretary of State has said about that matter, but I draw to his attention something else that has arisen. I was talking to a brigade commander yesterday. He tells me that he is doing what I know the Secretary of State wants and what the Army commanders want, which is to go out to try to build a connection with local communities. He arranged a press conference to publicise with others the fantastic initiative by Oxfordshire county council, but apparently the suits told them it could not be done. Things are being decided, I suspect in the Secretary of State’s name; there is a fear that a local initiative will not be taken without ministerial approval. Can he delegate some of his authority to the people on the ground, because otherwise damage is being done to the things that he and I believe should be done?
I will look at that individual incident, if the hon. Gentleman can provide me with the detail after this debate. I do not think that we should take up much more time on the issue, but there are quite a lot of things that people say are my responsibility in terms of decisions. They generally tend to be the things that do not work properly. People use the excuse of Ministers. However, we may, as we go through some of the other issues that have been raised, have an opportunity to share with the public through the official record some of the positive things that have been achieved and some of the improvements that have taken place.
Is it on the issue of publicity because I want to move on?