It is a privilege to open this year’s foreign affairs and defence debate on the Gracious Speech, the first of this new Parliament and of this historic coalition Government. It is one of the strengths of this country that a strong thread of bipartisanship runs through large areas of foreign policy.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) has just made it into the Chamber in the last few seconds as, in our exchanges across this Table in our previous roles, he and I often reflected that bipartisanship in many areas. He is now standing for another position that I would not wish on anybody, given my experience as Leader of the Opposition. I will not wish him well with that, in case it damages his chances of election—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, I am resisting that temptation. However, for as long as his role as shadow Foreign Secretary lasts, and where appropriate, the briefings and consultations that he extended to me will, of course, always be extended to him.
The agreement of the coalition Government reflects our sense of common purpose and responsibility and sets out an ambitious programme in foreign affairs, as it does in domestic policy. As a new Government, we have the opportunity for some new beginnings in foreign affairs, learning from where there have been mistakes and setbacks, but of course retaining the strengths.
Today’s debate takes place against a background of serious economic strain across the world, the continued deployment of 9,500 British troops in Afghanistan—to whom the whole House will join me in paying fulsome tribute—and daily reminders that, more than ever, our prosperity and our security are bound up with those of other nations.
It is no secret that we live in a world where economic might is shifting to the emerging economies and that the relative size of the economies of Britain and the rest of Europe are declining in relation to those powers. In this new landscape, where both threats and opportunities are more diffuse, there can be no suggestion that it is in our national interest for our role in the world to wither and shrivel away. This Government reject the idea of strategic shrinkage. We believe that this would be to retreat as a nation at the moment when a more ambitious approach is required.
If we are to make the most of the opportunities of the 21st century and secure our economic prosperity for the future, our foreign policy must become more ingenious and more energetic, and we should aim to build up our engagement in the regions where those opportunities increasingly lie, particularly in the Gulf, north Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the same time, we must retain our global diplomatic network, increase our close understanding of complex parts of the world, expand our development efforts and enhance our ability to detect and contain threats to our national security, often in unstable and inaccessible regions.
Our security and our economic prosperity require an ambitious and coherent approach to world affairs. Constrained national resources is not an argument against this approach; it makes the case for it more compelling. We will pursue a distinctive British foreign policy that is active and highly activist in Europe, that builds up British engagement overseas in the areas I have mentioned, that upholds our belief in human rights, political freedom, free trade and poverty reduction, and that promotes our national interest. What I like to call our enlightened national interest is no narrow affair; it involves being a force for good in the world as well as seeking the best for our own citizens and society. This approach will require a greater degree of co-ordination of our foreign, defence, development and security policy than ever before, so that our efforts are part of a coherent strategy that can command the widest possible support in this House and across the country.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman disagree with the Defence Secretary, who said that it was his priority to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and that he could see no reason for spending taxpayers’ money on defending the education policy in a “broken 13th-century country”?
The hon. Gentleman has a particular view on Afghanistan, which he often expresses and which we must respect. It would be rather starry-eyed of him to believe that the Defence Secretary agreed with him, however. If anyone had seen our visit to Afghanistan at the weekend, they would have witnessed the total agreement between the Defence Secretary, the International Development Secretary and myself. I will come to the matter of Afghanistan in a moment and deal with the hon. Gentleman’s point.
I love listening to the right hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but he is so entertaining that I think we should store up his intervention for a little later in my speech. I will certainly allow him to intervene when we need a bit of refreshment.
The Government have established the National Security Council to bring together strategic decisions about foreign policy, security and defence policy and development, and we have appointed a National Security Adviser. Unlike the National Security Committee of the previous Government, which seemed to have little discernible impact, our National Security Council is at the centre of decision making in Government on these issues. It has already met three times in the two weeks since we took office, including this morning at the Ministry of Defence, and it will be a major means of involving domestic Departments—many of which have an increasingly international aspect to their work—in the pursuit of national foreign and security policy objectives, so that foreign policy will run through the veins of the domestic Departments of Government as well as those of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on becoming Foreign Secretary—something that Conservative Members have been looking forward to for a long time? One of the biggest criticisms levelled at the present Opposition when they were in government is that they failed to update the House regularly on what was happening in Afghanistan, and failed to keep the nation involved. May I ask my right hon. Friend to honour his promise to keep this place updated? Perhaps he could begin by outlining what he found on his recent visit to Afghanistan, what is happening in Nad Ali and Marjah, and in impending operations in southern Kandahar.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The brief answer to his question is “Yes, we will honour that commitment” and I shall set out in a few moments how we are going to do that. When we were in opposition, we called for more regular reports and quarterly reviews about the position in Afghanistan to be presented to this House. We shall certainly honour that and we will make a major statement on how we see things before the Kabul conference takes place. If my hon. Friend will allow me to develop my argument in a logical order, I will come on to Afghanistan in a few moments.
I was about to say that in the opening days of the new Government, we have reached out immediately to our allies. The Prime Minister has visited Paris and Berlin, and I had extensive discussions with my European counterparts at the EU-Latin America and Caribbean meeting in Madrid last week. As I speak, my hon. Friend the—
We have not yet reached the desired point, but we are coming to it.
As I speak, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend—I think I can call him that—the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) is in Madrid for a summit with our ASEAN—Association of Southeast Asian Nations— partners. Within two days of taking office, I met the US Secretary of State in Washington for discussions on Iran and Afghanistan, and over the weekend the International Development Secretary, the Defence Secretary and I made our joint visit to Afghanistan.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. If he takes the view that all Government Departments should have an input into foreign policy, does he agree that all the Departments should therefore pay their share of the subscriptions to international organisations such as the UN?
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary, who is a good Rotherham man. On the issue of the EU-Latin America meeting and political freedom, will he tell us what was in his mind when, in Cuba this winter, he met, with Lord Ashcroft, communist officials from the Cuban Government while Orlando Zapata was dying in prison under communist torture, particularly given that the EU has a rule that there should be no meeting with communist Cuban officials unless there is also a meeting with the democratic opposition? I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman, then shadow Foreign Secretary, met the opposition, so does he understand how upset people are about that meeting?
Order. Before the Foreign Secretary returns to the Dispatch Box, I say that we must have a degree of order in this debate. Interventions are, frankly, already becoming mini-speeches when there is a lot of pressure on time, as many right hon. and hon. Members wish to make a speech. Interventions must be brief; that will be enforced.
In response to the right hon. Gentleman—I accept his praise as being a good Rotherham man and thank him for that—I would say that when one is in opposition, shadowing foreign affairs, it is very important to increase one’s understanding and engagement with the world to the maximum possible extent. He says that there is an EU policy, which indeed there is, but I was preceded in Cuba by two EU Foreign Ministers who also visited the country. It is thus a policy that is not always honoured by all EU nations, which I think the right hon. Gentleman would acknowledge. It is very important to understand and talk to the leaderships of other countries with which we sometimes—and in the case of Cuba, nearly always—disagree. That is, after all, the point of diplomacy—talking to our enemies, adversaries and those who disagree with us, not just talking to our friends. In office, we will want to stand with a united EU policy, but I make no apology for exploring these issues with whoever it is possible to explore them with while in opposition.
Moving on to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the Prime Minister has made it clear that our top foreign policy priority is Afghanistan. The duty of care that we owe to our armed forces will be at the forefront of our minds. Whatever differences may be expressed in the House on other matters, I believe that we are united in gratitude to them. I also pay tribute to the many British civilians—including those in the Foreign Office—who are working to build a stable and secure Afghanistan.
Our objective in Afghanistan can be expressed quite simply. It is to help Afghans to reach the point at which they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world, with the Afghan security forces and the Afghan state capable of withstanding the range of security threats that are currently present in their country. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence pointed out, the sooner that they are able to do that, the sooner our troops—who make such sacrifices—will be able to come home.
It is vital for Parliament and the British public to be given regular and comprehensive updates on the situation, and on the progress being made against Government objectives. Let me answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East by saying that we will begin the quarterly reports to Parliament that we think should have been instituted in the past, delivering on the pledge that the Conservative party made in opposition. The Government will wish to report to the House on where matters stand on Afghanistan before the Kabul conference, and the quarterly report to Parliament will be instituted thereafter.
We all pay tribute to British troops in Afghanistan, and rightly so. There is no division of opinion in the House about that. Is the Foreign Secretary aware, however, of growing anxiety about the fact that, after eight years, there is not the slightest indication that this is a winnable war? How much longer are British troops going to stay in Afghanistan, and when are we going to realise that, first and foremost, some sort of political solution—it will not be a military solution—is necessary in that country?
I think that we also all agree that this is not a problem to which there is just a military solution. That point was often made by the previous Government—it was often made by the right hon. Member for South Shields—and we have always agreed with it.
One of the matters that we discussed with President Karzai in Afghanistan at the weekend was the process of reconciliation for which the peace jirga is about to be called. Sixteen hundred representatives from all over Afghanistan will be asked to come together to give the Afghan Government a mandate to proceed with a process of reconciliation, as well as a reintegration of former Taliban fighters at local level.
Of course there are huge concerns about the situation in Afghanistan, and we must respect those concerns. That is why the Government are spending an enormous amount of time on the issue, and that is why our first foreign policy priority is to show, and to know ourselves, that we have a proper grip on the situation. We must show that we are taking stock of the political situation in Afghanistan and our military role—taking stock not in the sense of deciding whether to support the international strategy there, but in the sense of deciding how best to support it in the months and years ahead.
I welcome the commitment to a long-term political solution and the recognition that there has to be such a solution, but ultimately, if the Afghan people are to embrace a political solution, they must feel confident that the NATO forces are there for the purpose of a long-term commitment to bring sustainability and hand over security in a way that will not cause them to see the political system failing around them. If they are to buy into that future, they must believe that a long-term commitment exists.
That is a very good point. Where progress is being made in Afghanistan, it is being made because the people in those areas have faith in the continuation of the security improvements that have been made, and in the continued presence of the forces that have helped to deliver them.
It is possible to see those improvements. This weekend, for instance, when my right hon. Friends and I were in Nad Ali—a much-contested place—we were able to walk about and meet local people. We could walk around the whole town, visit the bazaar, go to the local clinic, and walk freely in the streets with the district governor. That would not have been possible only eight or nine months ago. Amid all the anxieties about Afghanistan and the casualties that we commemorate and recognise in the House each week, it is important for us also to explain to the British public where things are succeeding in Afghanistan, so that the full context is available to them.
As the hon. Lady knows, those countries are committed to supporting the NATO strategy. We have, of course, often wished that other allies in NATO could do more, and on our visit this weekend we certainly identified that there is a need to increase further the ability to train the Afghan national security forces. That is a particular area in which our close allies in Europe may be able to do more, so we will be having further discussions with them about it, including, I hope, on my visits to Paris and Berlin in the very near future.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that while it is very difficult to articulate what victory in this conflict will look like, it is very easy to articulate what defeat would look like, and how utterly disastrous that would be—a return to brutal internal repression and a safe haven for the export of fanatical jihadism—and that such a defeat must be avoided at all costs?
That is exactly right, and it is the counter argument to the concerns about the situation expressed by his party colleague, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick). As I have said, there are plenty of things to be concerned about and give attention to, but what the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns) has said is why we have embarked on this, and why more than 40 nations are part of the coalition that is embarked on it. That is the spirit in which we are doing this work.
Achieving our objectives in Afghanistan requires close co-operation with the Afghan Government, who must make progress on their commitments in the areas of good governance, corruption, reconciliation and reintegration. We discussed these issues at length with President Karzai and his Ministers over the weekend, and we remain strongly committed to a comprehensive co-ordinated strategy, bringing together the political, security and development aspects of our support to Afghanistan.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that making any consistent progress in Afghanistan will also require some measure of stability in the relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and between India and Pakistan and India and Afghanistan? That is a crucial part of the way forward.
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she beautifully anticipates the next paragraph in my speech. Indeed, I intend to visit Pakistan in the next few weeks because of its close connection with the issues that we have been discussing in Afghanistan.
In Pakistan we will likewise pursue a broad strategy of engagement that focuses not just on security, but on education, development and building up democratic institutions. We will explore with Pakistan ways to strengthen our bilateral relationship, building on so many shared goals and long-standing ties between Britain and Pakistan. Secretary Clinton and I agreed in Washington that it is crucial that the United States and Britain work extremely closely to co-ordinate our efforts in Pakistan given the colossal American resources that are deployed in Pakistan and the enormous British expertise about Pakistan. Those factors need to be brought more closely together.
The single biggest foreign policy priority after Afghanistan and Pakistan is to prevent nuclear proliferation in the middle east. Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could unleash a cascade of nuclear proliferation and significantly destabilise the region. A comprehensive diplomatic offer to Iran remains on the table, but it has refused to discuss its nuclear programme and has forged ahead, announcing its intention to build 10 new enrichment plants and beginning to enrich uranium up to 20%, which is well above the level needed for the production of civil nuclear power.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his appointment to the post. Does he recognise that as Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and—as I understand it—he supports a nuclear-free middle east, membership of the NPT is a vehicle for achieving that goal? Does he not also acknowledge that Israel possesses nuclear weapons and has 200 warheads, so should it not be engaged actively by the western Governments—particularly the big five—in pursuing a degree of nuclear disarmament on its part, in order to bring about the prize of a nuclear-free region?
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know—although he may know this already—that one of the proposals on the table at the NPT review conference that is taking place in New York as we speak is to take forward the 1995 commitment to a nuclear-free zone in the middle east, with a conference of all the relevant nations. Therefore, there are the beginnings of an effort to activate this subject in the international diplomatic arena. Of course there is, however, no chance of achieving that objective if Iran succeeds in obtaining a nuclear weapons capability or in constructing nuclear weapons. So I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who clearly believes in a middle east free of nuclear weapons, will join me in supporting every possible measure to increase the peaceful pressure on Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
We note the efforts of Brazil and Turkey to engage Iran on the deal to supply fuel for the Tehran research reactor, but even if Iranian intentions are genuine on that confidence-building measure, the broader concerns would remain unanswered. We are therefore playing a significant role in negotiations at the UN Security Council on a new sanctions resolution. It is important that European nations are ready to build on UN action by adopting strengthened EU sanctions in order to send a strong signal to Iran. As we approach the anniversary of the presidential election in Iran on 12 June, the whole House will want to recall those in Iran who are striving for a better future for their country. Only Iranians can determine how their country is governed, but this House should make it clear that we deplore human rights abuses, wherever in the world they occur, and that we will always stand on the side of victims of oppression—other countries such as Burma are very much in our minds in this context.
Although much of our immediate concern about nuclear proliferation is concentrated in the middle east, technological advances and the blurring of the line between civil and military applications of nuclear technology pose an urgent and critical threat to global security. Stemming an uncontrolled spread of nuclear know-how and equipment, deterring any country that might be tempted to try to acquire nuclear weapons from doing so and keeping nuclear material out of the hands of terrorists must be a top foreign policy priority of any British Government.
The conference to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which I just mentioned, began during our election campaign and has entered its final week in New York. In opposition, my party promised decisive UK leadership in this effort if elected, and the coalition agreement pledged an immediate and strong UK role at the conference. So I am pleased to announce today that, for the first time, the Government will make public the maximum number of nuclear warheads that the United Kingdom will hold in its stockpile—in future, our overall stockpile will not exceed 225 nuclear warheads. This is a significant step forward on previous policy, which was to publish only the number of warheads classed as “operationally available”, the maximum number of which will remain at 160. We believe that the time is now right to be more open about the nuclear weapons that we hold. We judge that that will further assist in building the climate of trust between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, which has been lacking in recent years, and will contribute to efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons worldwide. I can assure the House that this disclosure poses no threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Together with similar announcements made by the United States and France, it helps to set standards of transparency that all states with nuclear programmes should follow.
I can also announce that the Government will re-examine the UK’s declaratory policy as part of the strategic defence and security review. The purpose of our nuclear weapons is to deter attack, and the UK has long been clear that it would consider using them only in extreme circumstances of self-defence, including the defence of our NATO allies. This country has been deliberately ambiguous over the precise circumstances of use, although we have offered some assurances to non-nuclear weapons states. We have decided that the time is right to look again at our policy—the US has done the same in its recent nuclear posture review—to ensure that it is fully appropriate to the political and security context in 2010 and beyond. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is, as I speak, attending the review. He will repeat these announcements there and will meet other delegations to help promote a positive outcome to the conference. These concrete actions show how seriously we take our obligations to strengthen the non-proliferation treaty and to move towards the long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons while ensuring that we maintain our credible minimum nuclear deterrent.
I, too, offer my congratulations to a fellow south Yorkshireman. In the spirit of what he is describing, and in the light of the domestic defence review, it might be possible for the Foreign Secretary to contemplate sharing the cost of and future planning for any renewal of nuclear capacity for this country in order to reduce massively the cost to the British people and avoid cuts in essential services elsewhere. Such an approach would involve co-operation between the UK and France in an entirely new environment.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his good wishes. As he knows, the Government are committed to maintaining a nuclear deterrent. As with all Government programmes, we will, of course, be reviewing the Trident programme for value for money. He has put forward a radical idea and we will feed that idea, as his representation, into the strategic defence and security review.
North Korea’s nuclear programme is another area of serious concern where robust international diplomacy is needed. In that context, we deplore the unprovoked act of aggression by North Korea that led to the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel. We strongly support President Lee’s announcement of proportionate action in response to that act, as well as a referral of the incident to the UN Security Council.
On the middle east, there will be much agreement across the House on the need to make urgent progress on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the window for such a solution closes. Our goal is a secure and universally recognised Israel living alongside a sovereign and viable Palestinian state, with Jerusalem the future capital of both states, and a fair settlement for refugees. We will seek to buttress the diplomatic initiative—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for South Shields is remarking on the fact that those are the same words that he used—I did stress that there was some bipartisanship in foreign policy, and there ought to be on the middle east.
I used to say that I agree with him, but now he will have to say that he agrees with me; the situation has changed. We seek to buttress the diplomatic initiative of President Obama’s Administration and the proximity talks that are under way, and we will be strong supporters of those building the institutions of a future Palestinian state while actively exploring with our European partners the scope for further EU action.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his elevation. During the general election campaign a full-page advertisement was placed in the Jewish Chronicle on 16 April by the Conservative party. It stated:
“Universal jurisdiction will be amended at the earliest opportunity to enable Israelis to visit the UK”.
I noted that the Queen’s Speech contained no reference to “universal jurisdiction”. Will the Foreign Secretary clarify whether that is because of a disagreement in the coalition or because the Government are not prepared to introduce legislation in the near future to resolve this matter?
I, too, give my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman. As he has said, the words that he has chosen are exactly the same as those used by the former Government, but a number of us feel that the problem is that what he has described is not happening and that progress is not being made. It is important that on this issue, which is vital to world peace, everybody should know exactly where Governments and Prime Ministers stand. On the day following another Israeli attack on Gaza there is some concern about whether or not this Government acknowledge that Operation Cast Lead, which took place last year and caused such carnage in Gaza, was disproportionate. The former Government were clear that it was disproportionate, but do his Government take that view?
Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point. I can assure him that I share his frustration that not enough is happening. One of the things that I discussed with Secretary Clinton in Washington was this subject and how we could support the efforts of the United States to push forward the peace process. It will be one of the subjects that I particularly want to discuss in European capitals over the next couple of weeks in order to see how the European Union and its member states can exercise more leverage in this important process.
I do not want to spend my time redefining any attitude to past conflicts; this is a new Government and we will set out our position on what happens in the future. However, I will say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) that we call on the Government of Israel to freeze all settlement activity and to allow unfettered access for aid to Gaza, where we are seriously concerned about the deterioration in the humanitarian and economic situation and about the effect on a generation of young Palestinians. At the same time, of course, the rocket attacks from Gaza must cease and Hamas must make concrete movement towards the Quartet principles; we will have no truck with those who espouse or practise terrorism. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that this Government will give our energy to that and also try to ensure that there is European leadership in trying to drive the middle east peace process forward.
The conflict matters to British national security. We will take every opportunity to help promote peace and we will now examine—to deal with the question asked by the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes)—how to deal with the totally unsatisfactory situation that has had the effect of barring Israeli politicians, among others, from visiting the UK without weakening our commitment to holding accountable those guilty of war crimes. We will report to the House in due course. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question more explicitly, this is a coalition Government and we have to discuss together the way forward, although we are absolutely clear that the current situation cannot be sustained.
Consideration of this will not be long delayed, I can assure the hon. Gentleman. Given that the previous Government said in December that it was urgent to deal with the matter but had done nothing about it by April, I will not, after two weeks in office, take lectures from the Opposition about the speed with which we are dealing with it.
I, too, congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his elevation. Everyone will look at his words in detail and he just said that this is a coalition, and the inference was that action on Israel was somehow being held back by someone in the coalition. Is he saying that the Liberal Democrats take a softer view on action on Israel or that his own party has a softer view? Coalition difficulties must, presumably, have some source.
I am merely saying that there are a range of issues for the Government to address. I explained earlier how our concentration in our collective discussions on international affairs has been very much on Afghanistan. The three meetings of the National Security Council that we have had so far have concentrated overwhelmingly on Afghanistan. We have not yet determined the exact action that we will take on universal jurisdiction. However, that is after two weeks in office. As I said, the former Government had a good deal longer to try to deal with these things.
Although most of the comment so far has concerned Tzipi Livni and visitors from Israel, the Foreign Secretary knows as well as I do that these powers could be used against any visitor from many other countries around the world, including the United States. If there are any difficulties in reaching an early decision, I hope that those who are cautious about making such a change will bear in mind that this is not simply about Israel but about the United Kingdom being able to welcome visitors from many countries and not being prevented from doing so by some technical aberration.
My right hon. and learned Friend is completely right. That was why I referred a moment ago to the barring of Israeli politicians among others. That is absolutely the correct point. We will set out the way forward quite soon; it is important to get it right and to ensure that we deal with an unsatisfactory situation without weakening our commitment to holding accountable those guilty of war crimes. That bears at least a little examination by an incoming Government before we make our statement about the way forward.
I hope that there will also be wide agreement in the House on the need to support the democratic process in Iraq and I look forward to the early formation of a representative and inclusive Government.
We will renew our efforts to foster stability in Lebanon and maintain constructive dialogue with Damascus on the need for a positive Syrian role in the region, without being starry-eyed about the obstacles and real concerns about some of Syria’s actions. We will continue to support regional efforts to promote reform and long-term stability in Yemen, as well as co-operating closely with the US and other partners on countering the terrorist threat from the region.
The middle east is a region of great opportunity and promise where we have many friends and potential allies. It should not be viewed through the prism of threats and security challenges alone. We have long called for the elevation of British links with many of the countries of the middle east, north Africa and the Gulf, not only diplomatically but in matters of culture, education, commerce and security, for the reasons I set out earlier. We will now take forward the work of developing that long-term initiative, which I hope will have cross-party support, through the Foreign Office and National Security Council and we will keep the House informed of progress.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend. On this day, when direct talks have resumed between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders, will he reaffirm the Conservative manifesto commitment to support a just, balanced and lasting settlement to reunite Cyprus at long last?
It is very important to increase the international efforts to deal with that. There are a number of complex issues to deal with, such as what happens to pirates once they are captured. Of course, we will be looking at how we, with our allies, can carry out that work. My hon. Friend can be assured that we will be discussing that in the House over the coming weeks and months, too.
To complete the point that I was making, the need to renew British engagement with the world does not apply solely to the middle east. The deepening of our alliances beyond Europe and north America is a strategic necessity if we are to engage and influence the emerging powers, gain access to new markets, secure inward investment and maintain an open global economy. We will therefore seek to strengthen the UK’s relations with countries in the fastest-growing regions of the world economy, such as Brazil and Japan, enhance our partnership with India and carry forward the strategic dialogue with China while continuing to urge all our partners to observe high standards of human rights.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State and I add my congratulations to him. He mentioned India, and it would be remiss of me to miss the opportunity to ask whether in the list of engagements and discussions that he will be having will be a discussion about Kashmir between India and Pakistan.
The last thing a new British Foreign Secretary should do is lecture other people about Kashmir. The British position is long standing and well known, and it has not changed with the arrival of a new Government—[Hon. Members: “What is it?”] It is well known by Opposition Members, too.
Human rights are not the only consideration in forming a nation’s foreign policy.
I want to give my right hon. Friend the opportunity to amplify what he just said about India and China. The coalition agreement, published last week, highlighted strengthening and deepening relations with India and China as an important part of coalition foreign policy. My right hon. Friend has mentioned it, but will he amplify how he sees the Government doing that in practical terms?
They are different from each other, of course. I am glad to say that when the right hon. Member for South Shields visited China before the general election, he concluded agreement on a strategic dialogue with China, which is something that we have wanted across the parties. The immediate priority is to take that forward. I shall seek an early opportunity to visit China in order to do exactly that. We have some very important British work in the commercial sense going on, particularly at the Shanghai Expo where there is a tremendous British pavilion. Every opportunity should be taken to pursue our commercial links. With India, there are of course also considerations of expanding commercial links but there is an even greater opportunity to expand our cultural, educational and scientific contact. There is more catching up to do in our relationship with India, which has been uneven at times. We will commit ourselves to doing that.
I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way, and I would not want to disappoint him. As he appears to be reaching the end of his remarks, I should like to ask him a simple question. In the context of our relationship with the European Union, which is familiar territory in debates of this kind, but to which he has not really referred in any detail, will he be good enough to confirm that the proposals that would help us to underpin negotiations with the European Union will necessarily include a gold-standard sovereignty Act, which would enable us to ensure that we negotiate for a position of strength and that we reaffirm the right of the House to determine how we are governed in this country?
My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that I am coming to Europe. I am trying to get to that part of my speech so that I can conclude. We have said in the coalition agreement that we will examine the case for that Act. Let me be explicit. The Conservative party was committed to it in its manifesto, but this is a coalition Government: we have to look at the issue with our partners in the coalition, and the agreement says that we will do so. I will state our European approach in a moment, but I am conscious that other people wish to speak.
We remain acutely concerned about the human rights situation in Zimbabwe, Sudan and the horn of Africa. The Government are fully committed to achieving, from 2013, the UN target of spending 0.7% of our gross national income on overseas aid. We will enshrine that commitment in law, as we believe that locking in our commitment is both morally right and in our national interest. That will place Britain in a position of clear international leadership and will encourage other countries to live up to their commitments. Value for money will be central to everything we do. So, the Department for International Development will be completely transparent about the cost and performance of British aid programmes, using independent evaluation and a focus on results to drive a step change in the effectiveness of Britain’s aid efforts.
The European Union is the last major subject that I want to tackle. The Government will be an active and activist player in the European Union. We will be very vigorous and positive in the promotion of this country’s national interests in the EU while working to make the European Union as a whole a success. All the countries of the EU face profound challenges that will require us to work together using the means and institutions of the European Union. Our efforts will be concentrated on Europe’s global competitiveness, on tacking climate change and on global poverty. The current economic difficulties pose questions for each nation, varying with the state of their public finances, but collectively we need to encourage growth and job creation, so we will press strongly for the expansion of the single market and the removal of obstacles to business. It is also in our interests and in the EU’s general interest for the nations of the EU to make greater use of their collective weight in the world. We share many interests and values, and taking common action to advance them is, where appropriate, greatly to our general benefit—Iran’s nuclear programme is an important instance of that.
The EU’s standing in this country has fallen in recent years.
Or perhaps it was the responsibility of some of those who have been the Minister for Europe. The right hon. Gentleman might reflect on that.
The British public have felt that they have had too little democratic control over developments in the EU. To remedy that and to provide what we regard as necessary protections for our democracy, the Government will bring forward a Bill amending the European Communities Act 1972. The Bill will require that any proposed future EU treaty that transfers areas of power or competence from Britain to the EU will be subject to a referendum. The British people will then have a referendum lock to which only they hold the key. The measure will cover any proposal to join the euro.
We also need greater democratic scrutiny and accountability over provisions in treaties that allow the rules of the EU to be modified or that provide options for existing EU powers to expand without the need for a new treaty. The use of any ratchet clause or passerelle will require an Act of Parliament to be passed, and the use of any major ratchet clause, such as the abolition of national vetoes over foreign policy, will require a referendum for its authorisation.
I cannot take any more interventions, but, on my hon. Friend’s point, in this context, we are considering and discussing the case for a United Kingdom sovereignty Bill. In addition to the Bill, the Government have agreed and determined that there will be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union in this Parliament. We will also examine the current balance of competences between this country and the European Union.
As set out in the coalition agreement, we will push for the EU to demonstrate leadership in tackling international climate change, including by supporting an increase in the EU emission reduction target to 30% and by working towards an ambitious global climate deal that will limit emissions and explore the creation of new international sources of funding for climate change adaptation and mitigation. At the Cancun conference in November we will have the opportunity to establish a strong framework for global climate action.
I know that I have spoken for too long, Mr Speaker, but every time I mention a country, someone asks me a question about it. I want briefly to mention two areas of Europe of particular importance to our foreign policy—Russia and the Balkans. We make no criticism of the previous Government, who faced significant difficulties in relation to Russia and always had our full support, but it is not in the interests of Britain or Russia to be in a state of permanent confrontation. A sustained improvement in our relations will require a major effort on both sides. On Britain’s part, the door is open to an improved relationship and we hope that invitation is taken up. We attach great importance to progress in the western Balkans. A prosperous and stable western Balkans will aid the general prosperity, stability and security of Europe. I intend to attend, next week, the meeting in Sarajevo to consider these issues.
Many of the issues I have touched on are immensely challenging and will require years of international co-operation to be overcome. But despite the sometimes seemingly bleak horizon in foreign affairs, the themes of opportunity, optimism and faith in human nature should run throughout our foreign policy. As the Gracious Speech confirmed, this year holds many opportunities for the United Kingdom to seek the strengthening of international institutions and effective multilateral co-operation. We look forward to the G8 summit in Canada and the G20 summits in Toronto and South Korea. Her Majesty the Queen will pay a royal visit to Canada in June and to the United Nations in July. It is remarkable to reflect that Her Majesty, who last addressed the General Assembly in 1957, will do so again not only as Queen of the United Kingdom and of 15 other UN member states but also as Head of the Commonwealth, which is itself a network of 54 states. We should be alive to the extraordinary diversity and youthfulness of an organisation such as the Commonwealth, which is very important in a networked world.
We look forward to the papal visit in September.
I am sorry, but I must conclude.
The papal visit will be an event of great significance and meaning to British Catholics.
As we survey the world’s changing landscape and consider the UK’s place within it, there is every reason for optimism and hope. As a country, we possess great assets and advantages. The foundations are there for us to build our influence and engagement in the world if we choose to take the opportunity, and this Government have every intention of doing so.
Let me start by warmly congratulating the Foreign Secretary on his new responsibilities. He established himself in the last Parliament as the pre-eminent parliamentary debater of his generation, taking on those of us who were in government with determination, panache and, often, a great sense of humour. I assure him that he will need those skills again in this Parliament to take on all those in the Cabinet and on the Government Benches who hold diametrically opposed views to his on foreign policy issues. He has also performed the invaluable service of showing that a stint as Leader of the Opposition is merely a stepping stone to greater things, so I am grateful to him for that as well.
We wish the Foreign Secretary well. He starts with one great advantage: his trusty sidekick the Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty's Household, the hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), who spent three years training to be Minister for Europe, has been sent to the correctional facility otherwise known as the Government Whips Office. The hon. Gentleman told the Essex Echo that he was pleased to have been sent back to where his career started. I am tempted to say, “Not half as pleased as Ministries all around Europe,” but we wish him well in his mercifully silent post.
There are now six Ministers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, compared with four in the last Parliament. It turns out that we were right all along to say that it takes a Lib Dem and two Tories to do the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). We certainly will not take any lectures from the Government on lean government given the number of Ministers they have now appointed. We will want to know what smoke and mirrors the Foreign Secretary is going to use, given his complaints about swingeing cuts in the Foreign Office, regarding Monday’s announcement of £55 million-worth of cuts in the Foreign Office budget. We look forward to getting further details about how that will be organised.
There are six Ministers in King Charles street, but I am sad to see no room for the hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who worked tirelessly in opposition to lift the historical tone of our debates. He prepared for every Question Time. He honed his one-liners. He was always unfailingly nice about the civil service. He did all the right things in preparation for the call from No. 10, but I am afraid that, although he is a loyal party man, the reasoning behind his demotion must be a source of some concern. In explanation, one of his colleagues told The Times last week:
“I suppose there has to be an Old Etonian in every department”.
The tragedy for the hon. Gentleman is that he went to Thorpe grammar school, and he had to be replaced by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). So much for the classless society in the new Conservative party.
The Opposition will support the Government fully, comprehensively and with absolute good faith where it is appropriate to do so. Nowhere is that more necessary than on Afghanistan. All three parties went into the general election supporting our troops. All supported a political settlement as the way to end the military conflict. All put great premium on the importance of delivering real improvements in the lives of the Afghan people. All also supported regional engagement of Afghanistan’s neighbours—all the neighbours. We will continue to do so. Our troops deserve united support from the House and that is what they will get. The Foreign Secretary did not play politics on Afghanistan when he was in opposition, and we will follow exactly that path. War is more important than politics.
In that spirit, I hope we can convince the new Defence Secretary that any attempt to suggest that there has been a big shift in policy away from a focus on Afghan education in favour of a concern with British security is not well merited. We know that a comprehensive approach requires military effort and civilian effect to create the conditions for a political settlement. The Foreign Secretary made that clear in his remarks. I hope we can agree the following: that security concerns took us into Afghanistan, that security and development need to go together, and that the political surge of which the Prime Minister spoke yesterday was started in the last Parliament, set out in General McChrystal’s successive reports and needs to be continued—not in the absence of military pressure, but as a complement to it.
The Opposition will want to be assured about key aspects of the Afghan mission. The Foreign Secretary did not have time or did not want to give us details of the hold and build phase of the Marjah operation. We will be concerned to see that Afghan capacity arrives to ensure that that takes place. The planning for the Kandahar operation is being done in quite an open way by the international security assistance force, but where is the Afghan capacity and what is being done to avoid a false choice of warlordism or Talibanisation? In respect of Southern command, the reorganisation of which is happening under US leadership, we will be interested to know how the US Marines fit into the ISAF structure.
As for the development of the Afghan police force, the Foreign Secretary will know that we support strongly the plans of Minister Atmar, but we want to see them implemented. We are zealous in our support for and pursuit of an agenda of so-called reintegration and reconciliation—the political engagement of former insurgents. This is core to the development of an inclusive political system. Especially in the light of the difficulties with the so-called peace jirga scheduled for 2 May and now much postponed, we will want to see when that is to be organised. We will also want to know how the crackdown on corruption of which the Foreign Secretary has often spoken—the cancer eating away at the heart of Afghan society—is going. What did President Karzai promise him on Saturday and what will he do if the promises are not delivered?
The shadow Foreign Secretary raises a number of important questions, to which I am sure we will find the answers in due course. A question I pose to him, which comes in the light of the resignation of Colonel Bob Seddon, is about the shortage of explosives officers in Afghanistan. Will he comment on the 40% shortage of explosives ordnance officers, which is causing those who are in theatre to be very tired, resulting in more mistakes?
The hon. Gentleman is a former military officer and knows well the extensive work done over the past two years not just to send specialist officers to Afghanistan to tackle the threat of improvised explosive devices, but to ensure that they had the most up-to-date equipment. If he looks at the figures given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) shortly before the general election, he will see the extent to which the IED threat is being countered. But as he knows, as the presence of British forces grows and as other ISAF expertise grows, the bombs and the bomb making are also becoming more sophisticated. I think he will find that there is more to that 40% figure than he is quoting.
We will also make the case for continued engagement with Pakistan. The Foreign Secretary did not visit Pakistan this weekend, and I am pleased to hear that he is to go soon. I regret that he did not go this weekend, because if there is one thing that we have learned in the past nine years, it is that there will be no peace in Afghanistan without peace in Pakistan. It is good that the right hon. Gentleman will go, but south Asia is a part of the world where actions speak much louder than words, and symbolism and respect are vital. Neglect of Pakistan has in many ways landed us in the current difficulties and it must not be repeated.
On Pakistan, the Government would do well to engage with the European Union. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman did not make mention of the plans for the rearranged EU summit with Pakistan on 4 June, or of the Friends of Democratic Pakistan group, which meets under the auspices of the UN. The EU spends just half a euro per person in Pakistan, compared to five to 10 times as much in other parts of the world that are not only more developed, but less crucial to our security, and I hope he will give greater priority to that issue.
On a range of issues, the new Government have promised to take forward commitments made by the previous Administration, and we welcome that. Let me start with the middle east. The right hon. Gentleman used some of the words that we used, but not all of them. There are a number of areas where we will be looking to see his commitment. He did support the proximity talks, and we welcome that, but we want to see a determination that they should address substantive issues, not simply procedural ones. He did not dwell on the settlements issue, but it worth reminding the House that they are illegal in international law and an obstacle to peace. We want to see direct support for the Fayyad plan to build a Palestinian state within two years. The Quartet took the unprecedented step of supporting the plan on 19 March at its meeting in Moscow, and we want to see that support from the British Government too.
In respect of Gaza, the enforcement of resolution 1860 in all the aspects that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned is vital. A “Gaza last” policy will not, in my view, work. It is vital that the people and significance of Gaza are not forgotten. I hope he will continue to engage the wider region, because unless the Arab states shoulder a share of the responsibility, there will be no solution.
We will want to be updated on developments in the Dubai passports case. The Dubai authorities have announced that more British passports were involved and the House will want to know what the Government are doing on this issue.
The Foreign Secretary spoke of his ambitions for the non-proliferation treaty review conference, and the transparency that his colleague is announcing at the NPT review conference today is welcome. I welcome also his determination to look again at the nuclear posture of this country. He will know that it is remarkably similar to the one that the new American Administration have taken, and it is worth looking at the small areas of difference.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The investigation and any prosecution of Ahmed Wali Karzai, far from being the first step, will be a step rather further down the road in tackling corruption in Afghanistan. However, the questions that I was asking about the Kandahar operation speak directly to the situation in southern Afghanistan and to whatever role Mr Ahmed Wali Karzai is playing in that part of the country.
My right hon. Friend is rattling ahead. Now he is in opposition, he should take more time and give others a chance to intervene. On his point about the reaction to the Dubai theft of passports, Australia has taken courageous and correct action by expelling an Israeli diplomat from Australia for the theft of Australian passports. Is it not appropriate that our Government should take similar action over the theft of UK passports?
We did that earlier this year. We anticipated my hon. Friend’s desire for us to take action and we were able to do so. I have seen the Australian decision. It accords with ours and is the right thing to do.
On the non-proliferation treaty, there are two priorities. One is North Korea, which the Foreign Secretary mentioned in passing. Since the joint civilian-military investigation group on the sinking of the Cheonan concluded that a homing torpedo from North Korea sank the ship, and the North Korean state television companies are completely refuting the findings, what action will the Government take in supporting the international community’s efforts to make North Korea take notice?
On Iran, the previous Government were at the forefront of the case for a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. We support a further UN sanctions resolution, and the right hon. Gentleman will have been pleased to discover that Chinese and Russian support has been added to that of the permanent three—France, the US and the UK—but unity must not be achieved at the price of strength. We will want him to take forward the “sanctions-plus” policy, with a heavy emphasis on the “plus” on human rights and their abuse by the Iranian authorities.
There is no mention in the coalition agreement of promoting human rights and equality around the world, so I was pleased by the right hon. Gentleman’s comments today in the House. However, I was concerned that although he rightly mentioned Burma, Zimbabwe and elsewhere, there was no mention of the situation in Sri Lanka, which is especially important in the light of the recent International Crisis Group report, which said that Sri Lankan security forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam repeatedly violated humanitarian law during the last five months of the conflict last year.
Many of the LTTE fighters are now dead, but many Sri Lankan Government fighters should face justice. However, independent journalists in Sri Lanka are suggesting that that will not happen and that a forthcoming commission by the Sri Lankan Government will not provide any closure. We look to the Government to insist on the independent investigation promised by the Sri Lankan Government to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
I was pleased that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned Cyprus after questioning from one of his colleagues, and I hope that he will recommit himself to the bizonal, bicommunal settlement, which is so important.
On international development, we welcome the bipartisan—tripartisan, now—commitment to the 0.7% target in respect of national income to be dedicated to overseas development by 2013. I hope that it will be confirmed in the winding-up speech that there will be a Bill, as per the pre-legislative scrutiny in the last Parliament. That was a clear commitment, and it needs to be honoured.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. [Hon. Members: “Shadow Foreign Secretary!”] Shadow Foreign Secretary, I should say. Will the shadow Foreign Secretary now apologise for the record of the last Government in respect of getting the Department for International Development to support the Ministry of Defence in the conflict in Afghanistan?
That is an absolutely shocking allegation. It is not true, and I want to tell the hon. Gentleman why. It is a shocking allegation because the idea that the last Government spent their time simply increasing the aid budget rather than increasing its quality is contradicted by every single independent report, national and international, on the issue. [Interruption.] I will come to his point about support for the MOD in a moment. This country has gone from being a laggard on international development to being recognised as the leader—not simply because of the amount of money spent, but because of how it is spent.
Anyone who spent time in southern Afghanistan—with officers from our armed forces, British diplomats and British aid workers—would go away proud of the work being done there. At the moment, a DFID official is the head of the combined military and civilian mission in southern Afghanistan. Frankly, it is nonsense to suggest that DFID officials and DFID money are not supporting our security and other priorities.
I will not give way now, while I am warming to the theme. The Foreign Secretary said blithely that he was interested in increasing the quality of aid. It would behove him well to recognise the massive changes that have happened in the past 13 years on that issue—not just in the bilateral aid that we spend, but in how European money is spent. The truth is that in 1997 the way in which the European Union spent its development budget was a scandal. That has fundamentally changed in the past 13 years.
Let me also say that we were pleased that in the wash-up period leading to the general election the Conservative party accepted our legislation on vulture funds. In Labour’s manifesto, we pledged more action on such funds yet in the coalition agreement we have only a promise of yet another review. I hope that when that review happens, it will be swift and result in some action.
I am grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary. To go back to the point about DFID, I should say that, yes, on both sides of the House we pay tribute to the great work that it does across the world, but it has taken a long time to catch up with its new responsibility, which was never part of its original remit, to support our military in difficult environments. That is our complaint on this side of the House. Yes, things are better in Afghanistan now, but it has taken five years for that to happen. We are testing the nation’s patience on how long we can stay there, because reconstruction and development have taken so long.
How can the hon. Gentleman talk about the work of joining up DFID and the MOD when, after two weeks, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Secretary of State for International Development cannot even agree during their first trip to Afghanistan? It is absolute nonsense to suggest that somehow DFID is pursuing its own agenda, given that we have single-country plans that now unite the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the MOD and DFID, and we have combined missions around the world that are working together and where MOD officers work under the command of DFID officials.
At least the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has been to Afghanistan; others should read and see what has happened there. The suggestion that the Government have inherited a situation in which DFID is pursuing its own agenda is fundamentally wrong. Anyone who looks at the White Paper published last June on DFID’s work in faltering states will see clearly why that is the case.
Is my right hon. Friend interested to know that when the Defence Committee visited Afghanistan last year, everyone—including General Rodriguez, second in command of the American forces—acknowledged that the provincial reconstruction scheme in Helmand, led by DFID, was an exemplar to the rest of Afghanistan on how to work jointly in reconstruction?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, founded on the actual experience of going to Afghanistan and talking to people there. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State for International Development is nodding his head, but the Secretary of State for Defence is not. The joining-up clearly has some way to go and the lessons of Afghanistan have not been learned by the Conservative party. My hon. Friend made an important point, which those on the Government Benches would do well to accept.
We will also hold the Government to account for their contradictory, mutually exclusive and incompatible promises on Europe. The Foreign Secretary made great play of his pledge that there would be no further institutional change in this Parliament, but it was agreed at the December 2007 European Council that there would be no institutional change until 2017. However, as a result of the coalition agreement, the Government go into European negotiations with no policy on European defence, which is not mentioned in that agreement, and no policy on European energy, which is also not mentioned. On justice and home affairs, all they can say is that they will review cases one by one—there are no principles or plans at all. The reason is simple: they cannot agree on anything. The result is that Britain is weakened and so is Europe.
One of the ambitions that we all have is that Turkey should join the European Union if it fulfils the conditions. That will involve a redistribution of powers within the EU. Under the new Government policy, that would require a referendum, which I do not think would be won in Britain. The Government have just announced the death of our pro-Turkey policy.
I strongly support Turkey’s entry to the EU and it was disappointing that the Foreign Secretary did not manage to mention Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU or the Government’s view of Turkish entry. However, the accession of a country—Croatia is likely to be the next—does not of necessity mean that there will be a change in the balance of power.
There is an important point. We have a fundamental principle in this country that when there are fundamental changes in the balance of power between this country and Brussels, there should be a referendum. That is why we are absolutely clear that there would have to be a referendum on the euro. However, the idea that there should be referendums when there are minor changes, such as how members are appointed to the pension committee of the European Parliament, which came up in the last Parliament, is absurd, and everybody knows it.
The Prime Minister has been threatening vetoes abroad, but the truth is that policy is being vetoed at home. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that
“if we remain outside the euro, we will simply continue to subside into a position of relative poverty and inefficiency compared to our more prosperous European neighbours.”
He also says that the Tory party is allied with
“a bunch of nutters, anti-Semites, people who deny climate change exists, homophobes.”
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister says of the Lib Dems that they want to
“take away Britain’s seat on the United Nations Security Council and replace it with a European one.”
The Foreign Secretary himself has called the Lib Dems
“the most fanatically federalist party in Britain.”
So when it comes to—[Interruption.] That is quite enough from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Foreign Secretary. When it comes to policy, no wonder they cannot agree, and that hurts Britain.
Here is one example among many. Labour Members support Eurojust and agree with the Crown Prosecution Service analysis, which points out that 80% of non-domestic homicide cases had an element of outside of jurisdiction, resulting in a huge increase in the UK’s use of Eurojust. But the Government have no policy at all—not for it, as the Liberal Democrats want, or against it, as the Tories say. There is nothing at all—no mention, no agreement, not even a review.
In the last Parliament, the Foreign Secretary had fun at my expense when he was able to say that there had been 50 reviews in three years. He even alleged that there was a review of sun beds, although I must say that I never found that one. However, the boot is on the other foot now and there have been 40 reviews in three weeks from this Government. We want to understand how these reviews are ever going to come to a conclusion on European policy. The truth is that on European policy the Government resemble nothing except Hugh Lofting’s pushmi-pullyu in “Doctor Dolittle”. This is what Lofting wrote:
“They had no tail, but a head at each end, and sharp horns on each head. They were very shy”.
They were very shy indeed—so shy that they could never move an inch. Britain needs Europe, but also, as President Sarkozy made clear to the Prime Minister during their recent meeting, Europe needs Britain—a Britain with strong and clear commitments on Europe, not an internal feud that paralyses discussion and action. Unfortunately for the Foreign Secretary, that paralysis means that he goes into European discussions without any policy at all.
After 18 years of Conservative government in 1997, Britain had halved overseas aid spending, fought and lost a beef war in Europe, and stood on the sidelines when tens of thousands of people were slaughtered on the edge of Europe. The previous Government put that right. We tripled overseas aid, made Britain a leader in Europe and stood up for human rights around the world. We are determined to protect that legacy and prevent history from repeating itself.
We also, for 13 years, put up with bucket-loads of moral sanctimony from the Liberal Democrats, as they complained about everything and gave credit for nothing. Conservative MPs repeatedly said in the last Parliament that the one thing we know about the Lib Dems is that if they are promising something in one part of the country, we can be sure, as night follows day, that they are opposing it somewhere else. In the general election, the Liberal Democrats campaigned for votes under the banner “Keep the Tories out”, then promptly proceeded to put the Tories in. They are, as the Prime Minister so rightly said, a joke.
We know that the Foreign Secretary is good at jokes—but now, for the first time in a very long time, he is in a job that needs judgment, not good jokes. Britain is respected around the world, and we will seek to ensure that he and his motley coalition do not put that respect at risk.
I think that we rather enjoyed the leadership speech by the former Foreign Secretary.
The Foreign Secretary has already been weighed down with congratulations, and I should certainly add to those. I share his extension of commiserations to the former Foreign Secretary on his embarking on the process of seeking to be the leader of his party. As the Foreign Secretary and I know, that can be a painful process both in the achieving and, indeed, in the serving.
The Foreign Secretary began with Afghanistan, so let me say a word or two about that. Whatever he said, rather eloquently, there is no doubt that over the weekend there was the perception of an apparent difference in emphasis between Ministers. It seems to me that that has to be eliminated, and that we must speak with one clear, unequivocal voice on Afghanistan. I, too, pay tribute to the troops, and indeed to the civilians and diplomats, who serve our interests there.
I would like to make two points that perhaps jar a little with the Foreign Secretary’s position. First, our success in relation to a political settlement rests on the shoulders of President Karzai, and until now he has not proved adequate in discharging these responsibilities. Secondly, we may talk about our strategy, but the truth is that we are subordinate in strategy to the United States, to the extent that the electoral cycle of the United States will play an important part in the way in which the United States formulates its policy. President Obama is committed to bringing American forces— some, at least—out by the middle of next year. Round about that time, he will begin the campaign for his own re-election. We should be cautious, therefore, in forming strategies that do not take account of the fact that the United States’ position might be subject to very considerable domestic pressure.
I speak from this position with some diffidence, because when I first entered the House Mr Julian Amery spoke from here, and thereafter Sir Edward Heath. Mr Amery’s views were pretty imperialist, which I imagine would have made them more acceptable to many Government Back Benchers than those of Edward Heath. However, it is worth remembering that Edward Heath’s views were formed by his own direct experience during the second world war and immediately thereafter. Often in these discussions about Europe, we forget the fact that Europe was formed out of a determination to prevent another major military conflagration across a continent which had suffered grievously as a result of two such occasions. Along with NATO, the European Union has made an enormous contribution towards keeping the peace on this continent.
In the time now available to me I shall deal with two issues; I will, perforce, do so rather more briefly than I had intended. The first is an issue from the past. It concerns the crash of a Royal Air Force Chinook helicopter on the Mull of Kintyre on 2 June 1994, when all the passengers and all the crew were killed. It was a terrible and tragic event, but with an additional dimension in that the passengers were the civilian and military heads of intelligence in Northern Ireland. The consequence of that event was to prejudice very considerably our efforts at a time in the Province before the Good Friday agreement, when things were by no means easy. The two pilots—Flight Lieutenant Cook and Flight Lieutenant Tapper—were found to have been guilty of negligence. However, it is forcefully argued by many people that the evidence available failed to meet the very high standard necessary before such a finding could be made, under the Royal Air Force’s own regulations.
It is sometimes thought that to seek to reopen this matter is to imply bad faith on the part of the senior officers of the Royal Air Force who were ultimately responsible for the board of inquiry. Let me dissociate myself from that completely and say that I believe that they all acted in good faith. Nevertheless, I believe that an error was made. There have been two external inquiries: a fatal accident inquiry in Scotland under Sheriff Sir Stephen Young—now Sheriff Principal Sir Stephen Young—and a special Select Committee of the House of Lords under the chairmanship of Lord Jauncey, a distinguished former Scottish judge. Both inquiries reached the same conclusion—that the evidence did not justify the verdict. That is why I urge the Defence Secretary to consider, by whatever means appropriate, a review of that decision. Indeed, I have already written to him in those terms, and I sent him a copy of my letter before I came into the Chamber.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my pleasure that the Prime Minister himself, before he became Prime Minister, said:
“the Conservatives believe that the matter cannot rest there. Accordingly, we have committed to undertaking a review”?
Does he agree that such a review has to be independent of the Ministry of Defence for it to carry any weight?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. Over the years he and I, along with many others in both Houses, have sought to persuade the previous Government, and indeed the Government before that, to undertake such a review. On one occasion we met Prime Minister Blair. I very much hope that this Administration will feel compelled to deal with something that many people believe has, inadvertently, caused an injustice that should be put right. If this Chamber is anything, it is surely a place for the redress of grievance.
For the sake of clarification, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) is correct to say that in opposition we said there would be an independent review of the evidence, and I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence is already considering the best way to undertake that. We will certainly live up to the promise that we made in opposition.
I am grateful to the Defence Secretary for that intervention, and for his undertaking.
I also wish to deal with the issue of Trident, to which I come as someone who has always been convinced of the utility of nuclear weapons and accepted the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. We have moved, of course, from mutually assured destruction, through flexible response, to minimum deterrence and weapons of last resort. In fact, the United Kingdom has a good history of nuclear disarmament. When I first took an interest in these matters, as long ago as 1988, we were still talking about nuclear depth charges, nuclear artillery shells and an air-to-surface missile with a nuclear warhead, and we still had free-fall bombs. All those have been dispensed with, so the UK has a solid record on these matters. However, it is illogical not to consider that Trident should be in the full-scale defence and security review. It is a strategic system being excluded from a strategic review, which does not seem to make sense.
The proposal contained in the coalition agreement is that Trident should be examined from the point of view of value for money. I do not believe that we can consider it in that way without considering whether it is required, and whether there are reasonable alternatives. The procurement cost of Trident is approximately £20 billion, and the through-life cost £100 billion, according to a recent estimate. There are those who claim that we can save £100 billion by cancelling Trident. We can, but only by the end of what would otherwise have been the period of the through-life costs. It is not an instant hit, as some have claimed.
The case for Trident’s inclusion in the review is overwhelming. How can we assess its value for money if we do not assess the possible alternatives? The questions that should be asked in that review, anchored in the notion of value for money, are whether it is possible to engage in such a way that there could be a further life extension of the existing system; whether it is possible that we can dispense with continuous at-sea deterrence, which essentially means patrols 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year; and whether it is possible that we could modify Astute submarines to carry Trident. There is already strong anecdotal evidence that work to that effect is being carried out in the Ministry of Defence.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Would a reasonable alternative be the Astute class submarines carrying cruise missiles with a nuclear warhead, rather than a full-blown Trident system? Is there not room for far greater collaboration between the French, the United States and ourselves, all three of whom operate a nuclear deterrent based on submarines? Surely co-ordination of patrols could have a considerable impact on the extension of life, to which I have referred, and on the whole question of continuous at-sea deterrence.
Having already described myself as someone who has always been convinced of the utility of nuclear deterrence, I ask myself whether it is necessary, for the protection of this country in 2010—or perhaps more correctly by 2025—to have a system that was conceived in the cold war and designed against what is called the Moscow criterion, which is to say a system with the ability to penetrate missile defence systems around Moscow. Is that what we need in 2010, and what we believe we will need in 2025?
I am not alone in expressing scepticism about these matters. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Guthrie, and the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor as Shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Michael Ancram, have expressed reservations about the need to proceed with a Trident system. One person whose name may not be well known to the House, but is certainly well known to those who follow these matters, is Sir Michael Quinlan, who was the architect of the existing Trident system and probably one of the most knowledgeable commentators in the country, and who is, sadly, no longer with us. He observed that Trident was not a good deal, regardless of cost. That is why I say respectfully that if the review is to deal with questions of value for money, it seems to me that it must inevitably deal with the other questions to which I have referred.
I have one final quotation to give:
“Only a strategic defence review will tell us whether we need to renew Trident… there are other, potentially greater, threats to the security of the nation than the distant prospect of an invasion by an unidentified superpower, or an attack by a rogue nuclear state.”
If that seems familiar to some Members, it should be. It is from an editorial in The Daily Telegraph of 30 June 2009. I could not have put it better myself.
I congratulate the new Foreign Secretary. I agreed with much of what he said in opposition, and I have found myself in agreement with him more on this subject than I did when he was Secretary of State for Wales.
I am particularly anxious to talk about human rights, because the Foreign Secretary said that he deplored human rights abuses wherever they occurred. I hope that that criticism will be carried through into practice. I am pleased that the international development commitment has been ring-fenced. I first stood on this side of the House 25 years ago, and it was a long, hard battle to get the then Government to agree to put money into overseas development. Later, I became the shadow International Development Secretary, and we had to continue the battle to get the Government to agree to move towards a target, which we put in place when we came into government.
Fundamental human rights are important in and of themselves. People everywhere want to enjoy basic rights to liberty, freedom of speech, a fair trial and privacy. People all over the world have suffered in the efforts to secure what they believe is rightfully theirs. Governments throughout the world at least pay lip service to their commitment to rights by signing and ratifying treaties, but it makes sense for us to help those who are still working in their countries, often at great personal risk, to realise those rights.
Countries in which rights are a reality are more likely to be stable, less likely to experience internal and external conflict, less prone to crippling corruption and skewed growth, and more likely to be reliable trading partners. For those reasons, the UK Government should continue to support initiatives that promote wider political participation, the rule of law, the idea that no one in a country is above the law, and the availability to all citizens of redress for serious violations and crimes. The legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and non-governmental organisations is important, and the previous Government did a lot of work to uphold that legitimacy and respect for minorities. Those of us on the Opposition Benches with a particular interest in human rights will continue to scrutinise Government policy in that light, and I encourage Back Benchers of all parties to do so. I will continue to lobby the Foreign Office with my parliamentary colleagues of all parties through the all-party human rights group, of which I am pleased to be a member. I encourage those who are not already members to join.
I should like to take this opportunity to raise issues in relation to countries such as Iraq, Turkey, Burma and Colombia. Continued engagement with the relevant authorities in those countries is vital if there are to be positive developments. Changing the mentality and the environment so that that results in the realisation of rights takes time. Sometimes we are unrealistic about our timelines.
For the past seven years—under two Prime Ministers—I have been the special envoy on human rights in Iraq, and been involved in a wide range of human rights issues in that country. I am sorry that Iraq is being used as a political football for those running for the leadership of the Labour party. I continue to stand by my view, which I have articulated in the House on many occasions, that the action we took in Iraq was correct. I argued for such action for 25 years, and I have not moved from that point of view. Of course, like everybody else, I regret the loss of British and Iraqi life, and of the lives of many others who took part in that action.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Kurds, who in other parts of that region have suffered terribly throughout almost all of our political and adult lives, now—at last—have in Iraq a degree of freedom, autonomy and control over their lives? That is very precious. Whatever else one says about that conflict, the Kurdish people of Iraq have emerged as the winners.
I quite agree with my right hon. Friend. Obviously, I have been involved with the Kurds for longer than I have been involved with the rest of Iraq, because it was possible to travel to Kurdistan in 2001, and as far back as 1998, when it was not possible to go to the rest of the Iraq. The Kurds are now semi-autonomous within Iraq, and have elections and an active Kurdish regional government. Everybody who compares Kurdistan now with how it was will realise that the Kurds have made enormous economic, political and democratic progress.
Some of them believe that they are still open to persecution. Obviously, there is an ongoing dialogue between Departments and some of those who represent the Kurds in this country. Representatives of the Kurdish regional government and two of the Kurdish political parties recently had talks with the Foreign Office on that, but there is an ongoing dialogue. If the hon. Gentleman would like to meet some of the Kurds, I would be happy to arrange it. I think they will answer his question.
Not everything is perfect in Iraq; I should not like to pretend that for one moment. During my last visit to Baghdad, which was at the end of 2009, I continued to press the Iraqi Government on their human rights commitments and to provide support to the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights. I hope that the Foreign Office will continue to press those points, because after 35 years of persecution it takes a long time for people to realise aspects of human rights that we take for granted. Again, that is ongoing, and I hope that the new Government will continue to press on such matters.
I am concerned about the rights of those who are detained in Iraq, their treatment while in detention and the speed at which prisoners are either released or face trial. I raised that with the Minister for Human Rights, the Prime Minister of the Kurdish region and the chief judge of the Iraqi central criminal court. Those discussions took place when I was last there. I also discussed trade union rights, because those are important in pushing forward secular ideas in Iraq, and scrutinised the new trade union legislation. Of course, I have also spoken on several occasions with religious and political leaders about the rights of women.
A close eye needs to be kept on freedom of expression and the media, because unfortunately, some journalists are persecuted and find it difficult to do the kind of work that they want to do, both in Iraq as a whole and within the Kurdish region.
I will continue to work through parliamentary institutions such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I commend the IPU to new Members. It is important in promoting constructive inter-parliamentary relations, particularly through bilateral discussions with our parliamentary counterparts from all over the world. In such discussions, we can raise and explore a number of sensitive issues. An important part of the IPU’s work is done in Geneva by its committee on the human rights of parliamentarians. On many occasions, the committee has been able to get fair trials for people through its pressure. In some cases, we have been able to get political leaders released.
As UK parliamentarians, we sometimes take things for granted. We can express our views on the Floor of the House, in the media and with our colleagues without the fear of persecution, harassment, torture or death. Tragically, that is not so for many of our colleagues. As parliamentarians, we therefore have a duty to stand up for those who do not enjoy the privileges that we enjoy.
Finally, we need to use every opportunity to raise the cases of those parliamentarians whose rights have been abused and whose mandates are not respected. Burmese parliamentarians, for example, who have never been able to take their seats in Parliament following their success in elections, have instead been killed, disappeared, imprisoned or hounded out of the country. The IPU committee on the human rights of parliamentarians has been lobbying on their behalf and meeting exiles to discuss their plight and that of their fellow countrymen.
Parliamentarians are often just the tip of the iceberg. If they are subject to abuse, it is more likely that the people whom they are supposed to represent suffer even more. By lobbying for those parliamentarians we are often able to address the plight of the wider community, such as opposition activists and journalists, human rights and anti-corruption campaigners, and poor, marginalised and oppressed ethnic communities.
I welcome the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) to the club of former Foreign Secretaries. May I pay tribute to the work he did as Foreign Secretary? He served his country well during his period in office. It is clear that he now has his mind on other matters—indeed, he indirectly referred to it in his speech. The country will face the unusual situation of two brothers vying for the highest position in their party. I must tell him that the precedents are not encouraging. I am thinking not so much of Cain and Abel, because so far as we know, the two brothers in this contest are very amiable towards each other, but of Moses and Aaron. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that sadly, Moses never reached the promised land. That was left to Aaron, who turned out to be his younger brother. We must wait and see what the future holds.
I also congratulate my right hon. Friends the new Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Defence. I have been privileged to have been involved with both Departments and—as my right hon. Friends will already know—they are two marvellous Departments to look after, each unique in its own way. The special role of the diplomatic service is different from that found in any other Department, and the armed forces clearly have their own role.
I was sad that the right hon. Member for South Shields made a rather snide remark about the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary, is well known in the Foreign Office and was an entirely suitable appointment. He will serve it extremely well.
I was especially pleased that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said—and the Prime Minister has agreed—that the new Government do not wish to preside over strategic shrinkage, because they wish to maintain Britain’s role in the world at its previous level. That is important at a time when both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence will face the serious prospect of heavy cuts. I make one particular point to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Although he will have to absorb his share of the cuts, I hope that he will not be tempted or persuaded to allow any embassies or high commissions to be closed. That has been the temptation in the past, but the damage that it does is disproportionate to the relatively minor savings achieved. Closing the high commission or embassy in Vanuatu, Costa Rica or Niger may sound as if it would only upset those countries, but in fact the whole region—be it Africa, Asia or the Pacific—would interpret it as a sign of growing disinterest on the part of the United Kingdom.
The closure of such embassies or high commissions by a Conservative Government might have another ironic consequence, because it would create a vacuum, that I predict would be filled by the new External Action Service of the European Union. British interests would have to be represented somehow, and it would be ironic if our withdrawal led to the European Union having to fill the gap. I hope that the Government will not succumb to that temptation.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman share my concern at the large number of embassies and missions that have been closed in Latin America and the growing centralisation of diplomatic representation in Mexico and one or two other places, which is seen as offensive in many of the smaller countries in that region?
Yes. I recognise, of course, that at this moment we can keep only a modest high commission or embassy in some places, but a micro-embassy is better than none at all, because it can be built on when the financial situation eases.
I turn now to the wider question of the foreign policy that has been pursued over the last 13 years. It has been an extraordinary period. It is often forgotten that we have been virtually continuously at war for most of that time—in Kosovo, in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. There has never been such a period of uninterrupted military action. Some of these wars have been wars of choice, and some have been wars of necessity. Kosovo and Iraq were wars of choice. We had not been attacked, nor had any of our allies, but in both cases the Government of the day—led at the time by Tony Blair—concluded that there was some reason to initiate those wars in the name of liberal interventionism. Afghanistan is different. Although there may be equal concern and nervousness about the outcome, Afghanistan has been, and continues to be, a war of necessity, because it originated with the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, and it is important to recognise what flows from that.
A war of choice is different to a war of necessity. With the Falklands war and the first Gulf war—provoked by the invasion of Kuwait—winning the war was relatively straightforward. Conventional forces were used to expel the Argentines from the Falklands and the Iraqis from Kuwait, the wars were over and the mission accomplished. However, when a decision must be made to initiate a conflict that is not simply the expulsion of an enemy from a given bit of territory, but rather to eliminate a future threat, the situation—as in Afghanistan—is much more complex and cannot be addressed in traditional terms.
The problem has been increased by the tendency in the early years of the Afghan situation for the Government to try to win public support for what they were doing by talking of the need to eliminate poverty and corruption, to build democracy and to achieve equality for women in Afghanistan. Those are all worthy objectives, but they have very little to do with the reason we were there in the first place. We all know that the elimination of corruption, the improvement of women’s rights and the growth of democracy will take a generation, but by putting them on an equal footing with the need to eliminate the threat from terrorism, we were bound to give the impression that because those objectives had not been achieved within four or five years we had failed in our strategic endeavour.
The reality is that the primary aim of our presence in Afghanistan has already been achieved. We have eliminated al-Qaeda as a credible force within Afghanistan. They are now in their caves on the border, struggling to survive, although I do not claim that they do not represent a threat in other parts of the world. However, their ability to use the sovereign state of Afghanistan to plan and launch attacks around the world has been eliminated and the objective now is to ensure that that is irreversible. However, that requires a political as well as a military solution, as others have said. It requires the ability to create a Government in Afghanistan who, more than Mr Karzai does at present, represent the overall spectrum of Afghan opinion. The UK has had to contemplate a coalition to deal with our national problems, so it is not too much to expect Afghanistan also to see the need for movement in that direction.
I shall suggest the ingredients required over the next few months—even the next two or three years—to make the progress we wish to achieve in Afghanistan. First, we need to support the surge that is taking place at the moment. The decision by President Obama to increase troop numbers was correct, and the way in which the NATO forces are operating sends a message to the Taliban that we do not simply intend to try to end our presence in Afghanistan as quickly as possible regardless of the consequences. Secondly, we need a major effort to develop links and contacts with those in the Taliban who are not committed to al-Qaeda and who have more interest in Afghanistan than in international terrorism. Many of them come from the Pashtun section of the population, which is 40% of the total, so they need to be part of the new Afghanistan whenever possible.
Thirdly, we need to insist on Afghanistan and Pakistan improving their relationship with each other. It is not often realised that the hostile relationship between those two countries goes back to 1949. The Durand line—the border between the two countries—has never been recognised by Afghanistan, and the assistance that elements in the Pakistani Government have given to the Taliban has been significantly influenced by their fear of Pashtun nationalism and the belief that elements in Afghanistan have not reconciled themselves to the existing border. If Afghanistan, under President Karzai or whomever, wishes to have our full and unqualified support, the least that we should expect from it is a greater effort to ensure a cordial relationship with Pakistan. Unless those two countries work together, not just in name but in substance, the prospects of achieving peace look difficult indeed.
Fourthly, by all means let us have economic and social development in Afghanistan, but let us emphasise that as a long-term strategic objective. It will take a generation and although Afghanistan rightly deserves to be one of our priorities for such expenditure, it should not be linked—for the reasons that I mentioned earlier—to the military effort, which is based on different principles.
Fifthly, we need to build more regional support. Unique to Afghanistan—and therefore very different from Iraq—is that when these matters were discussed in the Security Council of the UN, there was unanimous support for the operation that NATO is undertaking. Both Russia and China have powerful reasons for wishing us to succeed in Afghanistan, but we are not using the potential co-operation from those countries, especially China, to build the necessary support.
Finally, when we look to a future in which NATO forces can be gradually run down—when that can be done safely and wisely—we should seek to achieve a treaty relationship with the Afghan Government so that even after NATO ground forces have gone, we continue to provide air support, the services of special forces and other measures to ensure that in those parts of Afghanistan that its Government may not yet control we will be able to prevent any reappearance of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in a way that would damage our interests.
We can look forward to a more satisfactory outcome to this dilemma. I salute the Government’s intentions, and I was delighted by the early visit made to Afghanistan, which demonstrates their determination to implement a successful strategy in all our interests.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and I agree strongly with what he said about the importance of sustaining and maintaining the commitment to Afghanistan. I am also pleased to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who has been a steadfast campaigner for democracy and the rights of the Iraqi people, and I agree with her that the Iraqi people are much better off not living under the vile, fascist, Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. It is important that all people who aspire to high office in my party and in this country recognise that.
I shall concentrate my remarks on the role of Select Committees in scrutinising the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and other Departments. We are in a strange period. The House of Commons was dissolved on 12 April, and yet we will not have effective Select Committee scrutiny of the Departments concerned for some months. We have today set in train a process for electing the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—it will not be me—and I want to draw to the attention of the successor Select Committee and the Government a number of points raised in reports published at the end of the last Parliament by the FAC.
We highlighted a problem of which I am sure that the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers are well aware: there is a fundamental difficulty with the FCO budget. The Government have compounded that difficulty by taking £55 million out of that budget. I would like the new Government to address the overseas price mechanism and the problem, raised in an earlier intervention, about the cost of international subscriptions, which is borne by the FCO on behalf of the UK as a whole. The declining value of the pound against the dollar has led to a serious erosion, which we highlighted in the last Parliament, although, to his credit, the now shadow Foreign Secretary fought hard with the Treasury to put in place measures to deal with that problem in the current financial year.
The FCO, however, cannot sustain its current level of commitments on its existing budget, so we face very hard choices. It is all very well for people to talk about increasing our footprint in parts of the world such as Latin America, but we are faced with the fact that in Commonwealth countries—in southern Africa, the Pacific and elsewhere—high commissions and embassies have closed. That process will be accelerated if we do not recognise in this country that funding for diplomacy and soft power is as important as funding for hard power and hardware. We need to think about that for the future.
That is absolutely right. In a number of countries in Europe, earlier in the year—until the then Foreign Secretary got additional support from the Treasury—budgets were being overspent. Last year, when the FAC visited the United States, we highlighted the fact that the locally engaged staff there were working four-day weeks and taking unpaid leave to ensure that the budget for those posts did not exceed the annual allocations. That is the context in which the new Government and Foreign Secretary have agreed to an additional £55 million in cuts. That situation will get worse, and I implore Members of all parties to recognise that we need to defend the fundamentals of having a global diplomatic footprint and effective diplomacy in many parts of the world.
I am conscious of the time limit, but I want to highlight an additional aspect published in one of our reports. We produced a brief report on the situation in the Turks and Caicos islands. I hope that the new Government will continue to fund adequately the special prosecutor in Turks and Caicos, so that there can be proper investigations of the corruption and scandals that took place in that overseas territory. I have something else to say to future FAC members: it is fundamentally important that we keep an eye on the overseas territories. They do not represent many people, but they are important, and they are the responsibility of the House. It is crucial that we maintain the interest and scrutiny, because the citizens of our overseas territories do not yet have democratic representation in this country—they do not have the right to speak in this Parliament—so we have to speak for them and maintain the relationship with them.
This is not for this debate, but we need to consider mechanisms under which the overseas territories can be involved in the process, whether in this House or the other place. We need to find ways to do that.
In the time left to me, I shall move on to some of the issues that featured in the new Foreign Secretary’s speech. Clearly, we have this week a very important conclusion—or, perhaps, not a conclusion—to the non-proliferation treaty review conference. It has become clear already that the processes to get an agreement are proving difficult. The conference on disarmament, which is chaired by the Zimbabwean UN ambassador, could not reach agreement, and its proposals have now been pushed into the general discussions about the sections dealing with non-proliferation in the plenary. The main reason is that the developing world, in particular, wishes to have a timetable under which the declared nuclear weapons states who are signatories to the treaty will begin the process of taking real measures towards nuclear disarmament. There was no agreement on that timetable proposal, because the United States and France, in particular, did not wish to go down that route, and nor did Russia.
I urge the new Government, in the days that remain, to consider sympathetically how we can assist getting an agreement. It will be a disaster if the 2010 NPT review conference goes the same way as the 2005 review conference. I hope that we can find a solution through Britain, France and the other nuclear weapons states making concrete offers on how they can contribute to the achievement of article VI, under which the nuclear weapons states are to agree to act in good faith to secure real measures of nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government did a lot in that way. They did more than any other of the nuclear weapons states, and now we have this new Russia-United States agreement on deep cuts in strategic nuclear warheads. That is very important.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement about the maximum number—225, he said—of warheads for this country. However, I had understood, having read various of these documents over recent years, that it was thought that the UK had nowhere near 225 deployed warheads. We therefore need some clarification. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) said that there might be a case for co-operation between the United Kingdom and France on future nuclear weapons activities. That might be a way forward, leading to an overall reduction in the nuclear arsenals of European signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, which might help in reaching an agreement at either the current conference or a future review conference.
Proliferation generally poses big threats to the world. We have seen what has been happening in Korea this week, and I am not as relaxed as some seem to be that we might not get into a hot conflict between North and South Korea. This is potentially an extremely dangerous situation. Through the efforts of China in particular, I hope that we can find ways to get the six-party talks or some other mechanism to defuse the conflict and show to the North Koreans that this is not the way to behave. Ultimately, however, the South Korean Government are absolutely right to take the matter to the United Nations. They need solidarity and support from the whole of the rest of the world. China is clearly playing a big role in the Korean peninsula. It also plays a big role in the debate on Iran—I do not have time to go into that now—as well as having played a pretty bad role with regard to what has happened in Sri Lanka in the past few years.
This century, and the next decade in particular, will pose big challenges for those of us in Europe, as we adjust to the shift of economic, political and military power from our part of the world towards Asia. We need to handle that shift carefully. In that context, I note that the Foreign Secretary did not choose to repeat the words of the Prime Minister, as Leader of the Opposition, when he sought to justify the retention of British nuclear weapons on the basis of a potential nuclear threat from China. I hope that that is not Government policy. I hope that it was just a slip of the tongue and that we will work in a measured way to have good relations, but also express our view with regard to human rights abuses in China—
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has shown great consistency over the years, both in participating in these debates and in successfully fulfilling his responsibilities as Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I am sure that he will be leaving that post with a pang.
I must say that it was slightly unexpected to find myself speaking on defence from the Back Benches, after so many years speaking from the Front Bench on the subject. Nevertheless, all conflicts have casualties, and some of us must accept the fact that those in my position are what the military historians would describe as “collateral damage”. Collateral damage should always be minimised, but sometimes it cannot be avoided entirely.
When I used to sit on the Opposition Front Bench, people used to ask me how I managed to retain my air of imperturbability and cheerfulness, after so many years as a shadow Armed Forces Minister. I shall now share with the House a slight confession. The confession is that I discovered something that Opposition Members are only just about to discover, which is that if they sit on the Opposition Front Bench just by the Dispatch Box and look to their left, every time the door into the Chamber opens they will see pointing at them, perfectly framed in an aperture, the great statue of Margaret Thatcher. I found that desperately inspiring. Whether they will have the same reaction, as they sit thinking about what they are going to do against this great new coalition Government, may be open to doubt.
I wish to say a few words about nuclear weapons, but not many; I wish to say rather more words about Afghanistan. The few words that I wish to say about nuclear weapons relate to something that the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) mentioned, when he raised the possibility of perhaps having a nuclear deterrent based on cruise missiles carried on Astute class submarines. I have to tell him—or I would tell him, were he still in his place—that that really is a non-runner. Cruise missiles have a single warhead and a limited range. Cruise missiles have not even been designed yet with a warhead that could be fired from Astute class submarines.
What would happen if we had cruise missiles on Astute class submarines as our nuclear deterrent? First, the submarine would have to become a much closer inshore weapon, because cruise missiles do not have the range, so the submarine would be more vulnerable. Secondly, we would have to have many more cruise missiles, because there is only a single warhead on a cruise missile. That would be much more expensive, not only because we would need more cruise missiles, but because we would need more submarines, in order to deploy enough cruise missile warheads. Thirdly, there is a slight problem when a cruise missile is fired, in that whoever it is being fired at cannot tell whether it has a nuclear warhead or a conventional warhead. So, to put an end to this facile nonsense, let me just say—
I am on the Back Benches; I am not bound by this stuff. Cruise missiles are more expensive and less effective, put the submarines at risk and could start world war three by accident—but apart from that, it is a really great idea.
I am about to break a rule that I have never broken before and which I hope never to have to break again. I am going to quote from one of my own speeches—not much; just a little bit—but there is a special reason why I have to do so. I am going to quote from the last speech that I made as a shadow Defence Minister from the Front Bench, in the debate on defence policy on 15 October last year. I was responding to an hon. Friend who had pointed out that the anti-opium campaign was failing in Afghanistan, that the promotion of women’s rights was failing, that democracy was failing and that corruption was rife. I said that that was to suggest that the objectives of our presence in Afghanistan were to get rid of the opium trade, assert the rights of women, create a democracy and root out corruption. I pointed out that those were worthy and desirable aims, but that they were not the reason why we were there. The reason why we were there was, of course, that an attack had been launched by al-Qaeda militants against American cities. Our response was to ensure, once and for all, that that could never happen again from Afghanistan.
I also pointed out something else. I said that we needed to wage a campaign in Afghanistan
“in which we do not take levels of casualties that the public are not prepared to bear,”
and that that, above all,
“is the single reason that people in this country are dissatisfied with the campaign in Afghanistan. It is not a question of a lack of patience, or of not spending enough money,”
“The country will not put up with a disproportionate cost in lives for a campaign that shows no sign of ending.”
I also ventured to suggest—I was a little worried when I made this remark—that
“if our enemies in Afghanistan focused on a strategic objective of ensuring that they killed two or three British service personnel every week, keeping that up for a sufficient length of time would be enough to harden opposition to the continuance of the campaign.”—[Official Report, 15 October 2009; Vol. 497, c. 534-35.]
Why have I broken my rule and quoted from my own speech? The reason is very simple: because I am going to develop that theme in the short time available, and I do not want anyone to say that I am saying what I am about to say only because I am speaking from the Back Benches and that I never said it when I spoke from the Front Bench. We have got a dilemma in Afghanistan, and nobody knows which of two courses to take. My argument is that there is a third course.
The first of the two courses being put forward says that we need to get out of there as soon as we reasonably can. The other one says that winning a counter-insurgency campaign means that we have to go on for the long haul. Those words were used on the Front Bench by the Minister for the Armed Forces, the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), in his capacity as Liberal Democrat shadow defence spokesman. We also have to reform the society so that it will be self-sustaining.
We are not going to turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining society that will be able to reach a deal with the reconcilable elements of the Taliban if we simultaneously say, as President Obama has, that we will start withdrawing our troops from the middle of next year. We cannot have it both ways.
The trouble is that that is to assume that the only way to be present in Afghanistan is to micromanage the country as though it were our job to rebuild that society and hold it in place. That is why we are engaged in the folly of sending our troops out from forward-operating bases. I have friends in those bases: they go out day after day and week after week, over highly predictable routes and wearing uniforms that say, “Here we are. We’re a target. Snipe us, blow us up.” That is insane. We are fighting on the one ground where our enemies are able to defeat us by inflicting on us a level of casualties that our society will no longer be willing to bear. The answer is not to follow the policy of micromanagement in Afghanistan, which has been followed up until now.
The former shadow Minister is speaking in a fascinating way about Afghanistan. However, now that he has the freedom of the Back Benches—and I congratulate him on being prepared to lay down his official position for his allies—may I ask whether he still has the same view of aircraft carriers as he had before?
I much admire the hon. Gentleman, but I am wearing today the crest of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the Royal Navy’s next aircraft carrier, just as I did when I was a shadow Minister, because I retain precisely the view that aircraft carriers are essential for the Royal Navy in the future. However, that will have to be for another debate.
I have a minute and a half left, unless someone else chooses to intervene, and I wish to explain what we are doing wrong and what we can do right. That is a bit of a tall order, but I may have a fuller opportunity to explain in the future. What we are doing wrong is that we are following a policy of micromanagement: what we should do is follow a policy of minimal intervention. We are putting pressure on Karzai by saying that we will pull out in a certain period of time. We are not putting any pressure on the Taliban to reach a deal with him.
What we should be saying is, “We will withdraw from being involved in Afghan society in a certain amount of time, but we will retain a strategic presence. You won’t see it. It will be a sovereign base area somewhere near the Afghan-Pakistan border. We will let the water find its own level, as it were, in Afghan society, but we will not withdraw completely because if we did that the country would revert to what it was before. On the other hand, we will not allow it to revert to what it was before if there is any sign of hostile terrorism or of organisational arrangements being made to revive what there was before.”
I have 10 seconds left. The House should remember that it heard it here first: strategic base bridgehead area. That is the solution, but we are not in sight of it at the moment.
I am very pleased that we are having this debate so early in the discussion of the Queen’s Speech. For the past years, this House has been dominated by the issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and international law. I opposed both the Iraq and the Afghanistan wars from the very beginning, and I ask the House to consider the damage that they have done to this country’s standing around the world.
The wars have undermined international law and the UN. Vast numbers of people, both military and civilian, have laid down their lives in both countries. The overwhelming public opinion in this country is that the Iraq war was simply wrong. It has done enormous damage to my party and to this country’s standing around the world. I had hoped that the Foreign Secretary would give us a clearer answer on the possible dates for a timetable of withdrawal from Afghanistan.
What would constitute a victory in Afghanistan? When that question is raised, it is very difficult to get an answer. It is clear that there is still terrible poverty in that country, that drug dealing is rampant and rife, and that corruption is even more so. It is also clear that the war has spilled over the border into Pakistan.
I hope that we can set a very rapid timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan and recognise that this is a war that cannot be won. Our continued presence there does not make this country or any western capital safer: to the contrary, I think that the war makes us more vulnerable and puts us in greater danger. We have to understand that, if we wish to be a player in the world, we have to play by international law, in accordance with the UN.
As the Foreign Secretary and others have noted, the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference is going on this week in New York. I want to make two points about that.
First, the 1970 non-proliferation treaty places an absolute requirement on the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the holders of nuclear weapons, of which Great Britain is one—to take steps towards nuclear disarmament. Many of the countries represented at the NPT review talks have not developed nuclear weapons and have no intention of doing so. They feel very aggrieved that the five permanent members of the Security Council continually lecture them about not developing nuclear weapons and about pursuing nuclear disarmament, while at the same time talking about nuclear rearmament. In our case, that means developing a new Trident nuclear submarine system.
I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) that the defence review absolutely must include the whole issue of nuclear weapons and the Trident replacement. The system is very expensive and, in my view, immoral. It will not increase this country’s safety and security, and its cost is so astronomical that there can be no justification for it whatsoever.
However, nuclear weapons cannot be abolished by the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. There was an excellent piece of investigative journalism in The Guardian on Monday that demonstrated how Israel had involved itself in trying to arm apartheid South Africa with nuclear weapons. The fact that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads at the present time means that, unless there is to be an acceptance of nuclear weapons in the middle east, it is very hard to say that no other countries in that region should ever consider acquiring them if they feel threatened.
I do not want any country, in the middle east or anywhere else, to develop nuclear weapons. I absolutely do not want Iran to do so: for that matter, I do not think that it should develop nuclear power, but my personal opposition to nuclear power means that I would say that about any country.
However, a nuclear-free middle east means that a nuclear weapons convention must be developed. Israel and all the other countries in that region would have to involved. When the NPT review talks in New York conclude this week, I hope that the need for a nuclear weapons convention will be accepted. If we do not develop such a convention, the likelihood becomes ever greater that countries beyond North Korea, India, Pakistan and Israel will develop nuclear weapons before the next quinquennial review in 2015.
At the heart of that, of course, is the issue of Palestine and the middle east. Both Front-Bench speakers referred to the situation facing the people of Palestine, and in particular to the isolation of the people of Gaza at the present time. Along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) and a number of parliamentarians from countries all across Europe, I took part in a delegation that went to Gaza earlier this year. Two things hit us, and the first was the isolation and poverty of the people of Gaza. We were also struck by the shortages of food, medicine and everything else that they are suffering, and by the sheer hopelessness of the situation facing many young people. The blockade must be lifted, and the EU has an important role to play in that by imposing trade sanctions on Israel, if necessary, to encourage that.
Egypt does indeed maintain a blockade of Gaza, but it is not the country that is threatening or trying to occupy Gaza. The crossings between Gaza and Israel, where there are endless restrictions on UN trucks, food, medicines, building supplies and everything else, make life intolerable for people in Gaza. At the moment, a peaceful flotilla of vessels is going from Turkey to take aid, support, succour and comfort to the people of Gaza. I hope that the British Government will put all the pressure that they can on the Israeli Government not to interfere with that flotilla and to allow it to land, so that the people of Gaza can receive the support that is being offered by peaceable people from all over the world.
We are not going to solve the problems of the middle east region by further rearmament. I am concerned that the United States’ policy, announced last week, of giving a further £150 million for a new missile defence system for Israel is a provocative act that will only encourage further armament within the region. The same applies to the deployment of Patriot missiles all along the Gulf. There must be dialogue, negotiation and debate on all the issues, including human rights, with Iran and every other country to bring about peace in the region. We will not achieve it by rearmament, by nuclear weapons or by turning a blind eye to what happened in Operation Cast Lead or to the abuse of Palestinian rights by Israel in its process of occupation.
The Foreign Secretary made a strong point about human rights being the core of foreign policy. Indeed, the previous Foreign Secretary made much the same point. There are many issues that could be raised on human rights, but I just want briefly to say that, if we go down the road of lifting the universal jurisdiction that applies in British courts to people against whom there is prima facie evidence of war crimes or the abuse of human rights, we diminish ourselves in the eyes of the rest of the world and undermine the whole principle of international law and international jurisdiction. If there are people in any country against whom there is such prima facie evidence, they should be brought before a court and tried for war crimes or the abuse of human rights, as appropriate. If we start being selective about this because we like or dislike a particular person or country, it diminishes our standing in the world. I also ask the new Government to pay attention to the deportation of people from this country to countries that have not signed the various protocols on torture and the abuse of human rights. I ask them to stop the process of such deportations.
I want briefly to mention three other issues, which I hope the Minister will be able to respond to later. There is massive abuse of human rights and massive loss of life going on in the Congo. This was not mentioned in the speeches of those on the Front Benches. It is the largest loss of life in any conflict anywhere in the world at the present time. Millions have died, and tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of women and families have been abused in the eastern part of the Congo. The Government have a decision to make on the future deployment of the MONUC force, and I hope that they will do that with sensitivity. I also hope that they will recognise that human rights abuses have not gone away just because we have good relations with the Government in that country, or indeed because the Congolese army is in the east of the Congo—I have to say that the reverse is the case.
I also want to mention the right of return of the Chagos islanders to the islands in the Indian ocean, which has been fought for through our courts. The case is now going to the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will intervene, withdraw the case from the European Court and accept the inalienable right of return of those people to the islands from which they were so brutally dragged away in the 1970s and 1980s.
Finally, there is a group of people living in refugee camps in Algeria who were driven out of Morocco in the 1970s as part of the war waged by the Moroccan forces against Western Sahara. Western Sahara remains a territory occupied by Morocco. Unfortunately, Britain acceded to the European fishery agreement, which means that fishing takes place off the coast of Western Sahara, mainly to the benefit of Spanish vessels. The people of Western Sahara remain in those camps. Let us make some effort to ensure that a referendum takes place that allows peace to return, and allows those people to return. They must be allowed to exercise their right under decolonisation statutes to decide on their own future. Whether they become independent or not, they should at least have that free choice. It is simply not right to have left them living in refugee camps for more than 30 years. We can do better than that, and it is up to us to make sure that we do.
This is the first time I have had the privilege of speaking to the House. I am a bit nervous, because I have not had much time to learn how it all happens, but mindful of the fact that I have been wearing military uniform for most of my adult life, I thought that it would be pretty fair for me to speak in the defence debate. I will be brief and—if my nerves do not get the better of me—to the point.
My predecessor was Jacqui Lait. She has been mentoring me for some months now, and she has been a fantastic teacher. She was an outstanding Member of Parliament who cared very much about her constituents and about the House. She first joined the House in 1992, and became the Member of Parliament for Beckenham in 1997. She concentrated very much on planning, but she was also a shadow Minister for Scotland, for London, for planning and for home affairs. Having been with her for several months, I know how much she cared and how much she did for the little people, which the press did not know about. She used to leave me and go off to look after people. I was seriously impressed by that, and if I can be as good as her, I shall not be half bad. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Thank you, Mrs Lait, for all you have done. God bless you, and I hope you have a great future.
Beckenham, my new constituency, is a fabulous place, because it is 19 minutes from Victoria, if you are quick. I can go home each night, unlike so many people here. It is in between the town and the country. Many of its inhabitants come to work in London, and some people retire there, so one can see what sort of place it is. Politically, it is a fabulous place. It has been a Tory hotbed for ever. Mr Pitt the elder and Mr Pitt the younger had houses there, in Keston and in Hayes. Indeed, in Mr Pitt’s garden, under the tree —the stump of which remains—William Wilberforce declared that he would bring before the House measures to abolish slavery. That is a pretty good political heritage, is it not? I am also pleased that Enid Blyton, the children’s author, lived there. As a Member who has had far too many children, I am a big fan of Noddy and Big Ears, and I am absolutely thrilled that my two younger children will be going to the school of which Enid Blyton was head girl in 1913.
There is a rumour that the greatest Englishman of them all, Sir Winston Churchill, used to stop off in my constituency for a tipple on the way to Chartwell. I have investigated all the public houses in Keston, Bromley Common, West Wickham and Hayes in my attempt to check whether that is correct. So far, I have failed, but I promise that I will keep up the endeavour.
I am obviously new here. It was less than a year ago that I answered the call from the now Prime Minister for people who were not deeply political to stand up and join the Conservative party. I did that. Obviously, I am a product of my environment, and I have already mentioned that I was in the military for most of my adult life, so in my maiden speech I want to end up talking about casualties.
Just after 11 o’clock on 6 December 1982 in a place called Ballykelly, a bomb exploded. I heard it. I was the commanding officer of A Company 1st Battalion, the Cheshire Regiment. I got there in two or three minutes and found 17 people killed—11 soldiers, six civilians—and many more casualties. What was most horrific for me was that six of the dead were from my company, including my clerk and my storeman. I was the incident commander. In one night, of 115 soldiers, I had seen six men killed and more than 30 wounded. That is a 30% casualty rate, and it marks me.
Since this day last year, we have lost 125 soldiers in Afghanistan. If we use the ratio of one person killed to about three to five wounded, which the military often does, we have had casualty losses of something like 625 people since this time last year. That is horrific. It is not all the 9,000-plus military people in Afghanistan whom I am talking about, but more particularly what the Army calls the Bayonets—some 2,000 to 3,000 people who do the business of closing with the enemy, going out of their camps each day to do what they have been trained to do. They know what the casualty rate is, and so do their families, but they nevertheless continue to go out for us each day. Their courage is tremendous, and we all know that courage is not the absence of fear but its mastery. Our soldiers do that for us every day.
Looking into things further, we also need to consider how many more of these people are going to suffer mentally—something we do not yet see. Let us think back to last week, when Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry VC, perhaps the bravest of the brave, admitted that his own demons drove him to consider suicide, which he actually tried. How many more men and some women are going to get the same feeling?
We currently have a fabulous casualty evacuation system in place between the point of wounding and all the way through to the time people leave the armed forces. I am very happy with that and I am particularly pleased that we sometimes have a consultant flown in by a helicopter for casualty evacuation. I am nevertheless concerned about veterans once they leave the Colours, as I have been involved with them. I am reminded of Ballykelly and two people badly hurt under my watch who continue to suffer from their wounds; they have not had much of a life. I am delighted that the coalition programme refers to better mental health facilities for veterans. We must get this as good as we can; we owe our veterans through-life care until the end of their time.
I end by returning to the subject of Beckenham, which has been wonderful in welcoming me with open arms. I feel terribly at home there. The Beckenham constituency also includes Keston, Hayes, West Wickham, the whole area of Shortlands and Kelsey and Eden Park. I am delighted and humbled to be a Member of this House; it is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
It is an honour to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and it is also appropriate for me, representing as I do a constituency in Northern Ireland, to pay tribute to him and to the thousands of service personnel who served so valiantly in Northern Ireland throughout the troubles. I want to say to him that his colleagues and comrades who died that night in the Droppin’ Well public house in Ballykelly did not die in vain. There are many people walking the streets of Northern Ireland today who are alive because of the men and women who served so well and protected the community, holding the ring until politics worked and delivered a relative degree of peace in this part of the United Kingdom, which I have the privilege of representing. I wish him well in his time in the House of Commons. I am sure that his constituents will be well represented in this place.
I also want to pay tribute to one of the casualties that the hon. Gentleman referred to—Corporal Stephen Walker of A company, 40 Commando Royal Marines, who died at the weekend in Sangin in Afghanistan. Corporal Walker was born and brought up in Lisburn in my constituency, where his family still reside to this day. We think of his wife Leona, his daughter Greer and his son Samuel, who mourn the loss of a husband and father. We think of the family, his mother and siblings at Lisburn. We remember the sacrifice of those brave men and women who are in Afghanistan continuing on active service to try to bring peace and political stability to that country. Let me quote the words of Major Sean Brady, Corporal Walker’s commanding officer:
“The Royal Marines have lost a great leader; however, if he were here now to give us some advice, the consummate professional… would tell us to ‘crack on’ and get the job done.”
I congratulate the Secretary of State for Defence on his appointment. In the context of the strategic defence review, which I welcome as it is very necessary to examine the security and defence of our country, it is important that we put the men and women who are our service personnel first and above all else. Of course there will be discussions about the kind of equipment and the resources we need for our current deployment, which is a light-end capability, right through to potentially more conventional warfare in the future, which is a more heavy-end capability. We have to discuss all those issues, but the men and women who serve this country so well must be at the heart of the review.
I welcome the new Government’s commitment in its programme to “rebuild the Military Covenant”. Before the election, I had the privilege of accompanying Brenda Hale, whose husband Captain Mark Hale resided at Dromara in my constituency, to meet the former Secretary of State for Defence. Brenda shared with him her concerns about how widows are treated after they lose their husbands on active service. One area she touched on was the future education of her children, so I welcome the references in the programme for government to examining the subject of the education of children whose parents died in action and seeing how greater priority can be given to it.
I look forward to the Secretary of State’s response to the issues of concern raised by Brenda Hale in her meeting with his predecessor. The sacrifice of our servicemen and women is huge, and we must ensure that they are properly looked after, as well as their families. In the context of the strategic defence review, I recognise that there will be much discussion about how to improve the welfare support for our service personnel and their families.
There is talk about an exit strategy from Afghanistan, and I have noted the comments made thus far in the debate. Yes, of course we need to consider an exit strategy, but we must also learn the lessons from our drawdown in Iraq, for example, particularly our withdrawal from Basra, where just as we were withdrawing, our American allies were simultaneously engaging in a joint operation with Iraqi forces known as Charge of the Knights. We need to adopt a more co-ordinated approach to our exit strategy there. We need to get it right this time, and the timing of any withdrawal must be right.
We have experienced a change at the political level following the election, and in the context of the strategic defence review and the planning of an exit strategy for our involvement in Afghanistan, it is timely for us to consider whether we need a change in the military leadership as well. This is not a criticism of the Chief of the Defence Staff or indeed anyone else in the military leadership, but perhaps, as we review our strategic requirements and consider a possible exit strategy from Afghanistan, we need a fresh set of eyes, and in particular the ability to draw on recent combat experience.
Given the current financial constraints, it is important that, in seeking to resource our current campaign, we do not discard much of our heavy-end capability, because we shall need it in the event of more conventional warfare in the future. Action that may be expedient at present must not take place at the cost of our future capability and future deployments. Whatever they may be, they must not be sacrificed.
I began by referring to our service personnel. Let me now reiterate that the men and women who serve our country so well must be at the heart of the review. Support for them must never be compromised—whether it involves pay or allowances, accommodation or welfare—and the same applies to their families. If we are to maintain effective armed forces, it is essential for us to look after those men and women.
I want to raise a couple of issues relating to foreign affairs. I believe that the Government would do well to draw on our experience in Northern Ireland in considering how we might make a positive contribution to what is happening in the middle east. Senator Mitchell, former Prime Minister Blair and Secretary of State Clinton are all involved in the middle east, and all of them had a key role to play in the Northern Ireland peace process. While I do not suggest that there are exact parallels between Northern Ireland and the middle east, I think that the Government have an opportunity to draw lessons from our Northern Ireland experience, to apply them, and to share them with the various factions and parties involved in the middle east conflict.
My views on Gaza differ from those of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). Having visited the Israeli town of Sderot on the border with Gaza, I think that the hon. Gentleman should take time to meet the people there, who every day face rocket attacks from Hamas in Gaza. He should also bear in mind that Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza. The notion that it wants to occupy Gaza should be dismissed immediately. The security of the people of Israel is important to their Government, and we need to recognise that.
Of course there is a debate about that. It saddens me that innocent people on both sides die in the conflict as a consequence of the failure to reach agreement, and I think we must now concentrate on the need to build such agreement. I simply say this: it is not good enough for the House to point the finger in one direction without recognising that there is wrongdoing in the other direction as well.
Finally, let me briefly raise an issue that other hon. Members have mentioned today, namely the ongoing denial of human rights and persecution of religious minorities in various countries across the world. I am thinking particularly of the Christian minority in Assyria and Iraq, and of Christians in Pakistan who face a continuous campaign of persecution. I am also thinking of members of the Christian Church in parts of Nigeria who face persecution and murder, the burning of churches, and attacks on their villages.
I hope that the new Government will give priority to raising the plight of Christians who face persecution throughout the world, and, indeed, that of other religious minorities in various countries. It is important for us to stand up for the human and faith-based rights of those minorities, wherever they may be, because we believe in religious freedom and ought to ensure that it is provided for everyone, especially Christian minorities who face a high level of persecution. We are good at standing up for religious minorities in this country, but we need to be more vocal and more active in standing up for Christians in countries where they are a minority and face persecution and violence.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on making such an excellent opening speech. We have waited for a long time to see him do that as Foreign Secretary, and he lived up to our expectations. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, who made an excellent opening intervention—if I may put it like that—on the Chinook issue. We look forward to hearing his closing speech, but I believe that if he can continue as he has begun, he will be quite outstanding.
It is extremely difficult to speak shortly after such an outstanding maiden speech as that made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). We already know of his service to the country, but he has continued that service by coming to the House and reconnecting the people of the country with the issue of defence in a way that is truly valuable, given the experience of which he talked and of which we know. He spoke with no notes, he spoke movingly, and he spoke with great authority. The points that he made about mental health issues are points with which we shall have to deal for many years to come, and we are very lucky to have him in the House.
We are just about to begin a crucial nine months in the history of this country. We are about to embark on a strategic defence and security review that will shape this country’s status in the world for decades. The decisions that we take now will affect how other countries view us. There are urgent decisions on equipment that cannot wait until the end of the review, because under the previous Government they were postponed until immediately after the election—without any money to pay for them, as we know.
The decisions that the House will have to take will be taken against the background of an already over-ambitious defence equipment programme. Having been a defence procurement Minister, I am aware that the Ministry of Defence has a history of having eyes bigger than its stomach with regard to its desire for equipment. Moreover, the fact that huge proportions of the defence budget are being devoted to programmes such as the renewal of nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers will make it even more difficult to deal with the amount of money that is left.
Will this be a foreign affairs-led defence review? I very much hope so, but I fear that the Treasury will get its fingers into the review by trying to influence the questions that are asked in it. I fear that it will say, “We must not conduct a complete examination of the threats against us, because we might not be able to afford to know the truth.” That would be utterly wrong. I think that the Treasury should be involved only at the end of the process as we try to work out what we should do about the threats that we face.
We are trying to match our commitments to our resources, which is very difficult to do given how low our resources are and how difficult it is to reduce commitments without triggering a withdrawal from Afghanistan by other, perhaps less committed, nations among our European allies. Matching commitments to resources will also be very difficult because of the importance of this struggle. We need a strategy for Afghanistan in our country, and it must be a strategy that the people of our country actually believe in. At present we do not have such a strategy. We must somehow manage to do what my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham was doing: reconnect the people of this country with the defence of this country. It is not enough for the people of this country to feel sympathy with their armed forces, as they do; they must also believe in what we are doing there.
We are not just working in our own country, however; we are also working with our allies in Europe. We cannot carry the whole of this burden on our own. We recognise that we are working on a much lesser scale than the United States, but we are working on a greater scale than our European allies; that has been a theme throughout this Queen’s Speech debate. We are all in this together, and it would be helpful to be able to believe that a greater proportion of our European allies shared that view and were able to commit more to the struggle in Afghanistan, which is so essential to our future.
I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary say there was going to be no strategic shrinkage. It is difficult to achieve that, given the size of our fleet. The fleet is one of the things that maintains our presence around the world, but it is getting smaller and smaller. Perhaps that is because our ships are so incredibly highly specified that they are very expensive to produce—and that also makes them impossible to export to any other country.
We need to look again at the whole of our equipment programme. Fortunately, during the past year we have had the Bernard Gray review, which gave some excellent pointers as to where problems are arising. This is going to be a very difficult issue for the new Ministry of Defence team to deal with, and it gives me great pleasure to welcome to his place on the Front Bench my friend and next-door neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), who will be busy coping with this issue.
In connection with these very difficult issues, there is a role for the departmental Select Committee—the Defence Committee—which I had the enormous honour, and huge pleasure, to chair in the last Parliament. The great thing about Select Committees is that they force Ministers to do their best. The Committee has them in front of it, and they really have to learn about their brief before they appear. I remember that when I answered questions in the House of Commons it was possible to flip away any difficult questions with a joke, but when Ministers appear before a Select Committee, its members come back and back again until they either get an answer or establish that the Minister does not have an answer. That is what makes Select Committee scrutiny so successful and so important.
The Select Committee also has a role in informing the House about important issues. In the last Parliament, my Committee did three reports on the replacement of the Trident submarines, and although a wide range of views were represented among the membership of the Committee, from former—possibly current—members of CND to quite right-wing members of the Conservative party, all three reports on the nuclear deterrent were unanimous. I would like Select Committees to have informal meetings to which Members could come and learn about what they are doing and comment on what they should be doing. That would enable the Defence Committee, for instance, to inform itself on defence issues generally. I hope that that might be introduced.
The Ministry of Defence needs to play its part, however. During the last Parliament, I and other Select Committee members had the feeling that the MOD did not give us full and informed evidence. Sometimes it treated the Select Committee as the enemy, and that is not a good thing to do, as better scrutiny helps the MOD. We as a Parliament therefore need to see that Select Committees are given completely open evidence, which allows the Committee to do its job properly.
I can tell my right hon. Friend that I have already asked the civil service at the MOD to draw up plans that will allow greater scrutiny in real time by the Select Committee of MOD projects, rather than having to wait for post-mortems by the National Audit Office. I think we should try to replicate what occurs in other legislatures if we are to have a genuine change in how we carry out government in this country.
That is excellent; I am liking the Secretary of State’s interventions more and more.
The Defence Committee must be independent, and must be well informed both about defence and about how the MOD operates internally. It must work together as a Committee and have a relationship with government that is constructive but never cosy; it must be polite, but also determined, searching and rigorous. Parliament needs the Select Committees to work, because that is Parliament working at its very best.
I am grateful for this opportunity to make my maiden speech.
Dr Brian Iddon came to Parliament in 1997 after long and distinguished service in local government politics. A chemist by profession, he has the distinction of being the first Member of Parliament after the gunpowder plot to be allowed to bring gunpowder into the House, and to explode it in Westminster Hall. The House need not fear, however, as I will not be doing the same, because, in the immortal words of my mother, I don’t have nimble fingers, and I am more likely to set myself alight than to set the world alight.
Brian was a hard-working and diligent constituency Member, who was able to get tremendous amounts of resources for our constituency, such as ensuring that Bolton college became Bolton university, and securing the additional colleges and the science and technology institute, and the £30 million for the neonatal unit at Royal Bolton hospital. In Parliament, he managed to have a number of private Member’s Bills passed, including the most recent piece of legislation which provides protection for tenants in properties that are being repossessed.
One of the things that unites all new Members is our enthusiasm for talking about our constituency. Bolton South East is one of the three constituencies created to represent the Bolton area, with a population of more than 100,000. It is the largest town in Great Britain, and was recently voted the friendliest town. I can vouch for the veracity of that accolade: there has been a lot of talk about immigration both inside and outside this House, but I have to say that the natives of Bolton accepted me, as a southern immigrant, into the bosoms of their hearts. I do wish to make a serious point: Bolton has always welcomed people from across the world. The important thing is that communities should integrate, but they should not be pushed into assimilating.
Historically, Bolton has been a mill town, and the urbanisation that developed in Bolton largely coincided with the industrial revolution. Bolton has always been a town that has made things. In the famous and pioneering mass observation study carried out between 1937 and 1940 it was known as “Worktown”. In its heyday as an industrial manufacturing town, its skyline was indeed a forest of chimneys, most of which served the textile industry, of which Bolton was a world-famous centre. Heavy engineering, foundries, bleaching, tanning and coal mining were also major employers. The beauty of the moorland countryside within my constituency may come as a pleasant surprise to visitors still expecting factory chimneys and clogs. Even now, Bolton retains some traditional industries, employing people in aerospace, paper manufacturing, packaging, textiles, transportation, steel foundries and building materials. I mention that list because there is such a wealth of talent and knowledge in Bolton South East that I urge entrepreneurs and business people to come to Bolton and set up businesses there. It is a good place to do business.
Bolton has a proud past, but it also has a glorious future. Our team is in the premier league, and so are the people of Bolton South East. Bolton also has a magnificent town hall, a vibrant retail town centre, new developments as result of the past 13 years of record investment by previous Labour Governments, pedestrian-friendly shopping streets, an acclaimed theatre and a new university. I will also be pressing hard and campaigning to ensure that Bolton council’s bid to obtain city status by 2012 will be approved by the Queen; Bolton certainly deserves it.
I first came to the House of Commons to visit when I was about 15, with the then Member of Parliament for Watford, Tristan—now Lord—Garel-Jones. When I saw him in the House last week, I told him that I had come to the House at his invitation, and that I was now a Labour Member. He said, “What did I do, to make you regress and join the Labour party?” Well, he did nothing wrong; he was a wonderful Member of Parliament—but my politics, of course, lie with the Labour party.
There can be no better privilege for anyone than to represent their fellow citizens in this Parliament and in this land of the mother of Parliaments, and I am deeply grateful to the people of Bolton South East for allowing me the opportunity to represent them. They are wonderful people and it is a lovely constituency. Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to speak today. I also thank the other right hon. and hon. Members for extending the usual courtesies to one who is making a maiden speech. I may not again be listened to in silence in this House, but I promise the constituents of Bolton South East that I will not be silent.
It is a great pleasure to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi). She may be interested to learn that my first parliamentary campaign took place close to her constituency, in Newton. I am sure that the whole House will have noted the important point—this runs contrary to misplaced and prejudiced stereotypes—that she has been most warmly welcomed in her constituency, as has been confirmed and vindicated by her electoral success. She clearly has great knowledge of her constituency and we very much look forward to hearing more from her on future occasions.
May I also say to my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) what a great pleasure it was for me to be in the House to hear his speech? When we met in the House shortly after he had been elected, he reminded me that we had met before and that he had come to my office in the Ministry of Defence to be interviewed as my military assistant. With the utmost courtesy and civility, he reminded me that I had failed to select him. He referred to Winston Churchill, who, as we all know, wrote in the front pages of each of the volumes of his great history on the second world war “magnanimity in victory”. My hon. Friend undoubtedly has magnanimity in abundance and I know that he will make a most valued contribution, both in his constituency and in this House.
Like other right hon. and hon. Members, I am delighted that my right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) and for North Somerset (Dr Fox) are in their respective posts. Their appointments were widely anticipated, but they are, none the less, very encouraging and reassuring for those on this side of the House; we wish them well in their roles.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was entirely right to go to the United States on his first overseas visit within a couple of days of taking up his appointment. I do not know whether Secretary Clinton found him as personally captivating as she clearly did the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), but whether she did or not, my right hon. Friend was entirely correct to make his first port of call overseas our most important and reliable ally.
In this House, I am sure that we do not forget that others talk the talk about being allies but that when it comes to the heavy lifting, the tough operational situations and the risk of casualties, it is again and again our American allies who walk the walk with us. I hope that that will remain the foundation of our foreign policy and defence policy through this Parliament.
That brings me to Afghanistan. I am very glad that the Gracious Speech coupled the references to Afghanistan with those to Pakistan. The two are inseparable. The success of the Pakistan authorities and military in the badlands of Pakistan—in North and South Waziristan, in the federally administered tribal areas or FATAs and in North West Frontier Province—is inextricably related to the degree of success that we can achieve in the remaining badlands controlled by the Taliban in Afghanistan. We, above all, learned in Northern Ireland that one cannot have any real prospect of success in dealing with cross-border counter-terrorism if one deals with only one side of the border.
The previous Government made an important step in the right direction approximately a year ago. The Select Committee on Foreign Affairs was in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the then Prime Minister was in those two countries at the same time. He announced a programme of bilateral assistance to Pakistan to help it to deal with its terrorist problem. In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to building on our bilateral relationships with Pakistan and I urge most strongly that our bilateral co-operation with Pakistan should be built on and that additional resources should be provided for it. It is fundamental to the degree of success that we can achieve in Afghanistan.
The further point that I want to make about Afghanistan is that there is one somewhat sobering lesson to be learned from the past 10 years or so, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again and again, we have undertaken operational responsibilities and commitments and have been unable to deploy the necessary resources to discharge those commitments fully. In doing so, I believe that we have seriously let down our brave servicemen and women. If anybody was in any doubt about that, I hope that they saw the “Panorama” programme last Tuesday, which showed what enormous and intolerable pressure our counter-IED teams in Afghanistan have been put under as a result of an insufficiency of trained personnel to deal with that threat.
There is much speculation in the press that we might be asked to take on Kandahar, and I want to make the point to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence that if we are going to take on that responsibility, I trust that we will do so only if we are absolutely satisfied that we have the resources and equipment that our forces need to take on that area, which is the historic heartland of the Taliban.
Let me turn quickly to the middle east. Governments may change but the policy has not. The wording in the Queen’s Speech on the middle east:
“In the Middle East, my Government will continue to work for a two-state solution that sees a viable Palestinian state existing in peace and security alongside Israel”
is, I am sure, virtually identical to that in Queen’s Speech after Queen’s Speech.
Although a viable Palestinian state remains the goal, and although that policy remains unchanging, what is changing is the situation on the ground. The prospect of a viable Palestinian state is steadily receding because the Palestinian state is now divided into three. There is Gaza, which is effectively a prison, there is East Jerusalem—a semi-prison where there is relentless Israeli pressure to increase the Israeli population and decrease the Palestinian population—and there is the rest of the west bank, where the viability of farms and businesses owned by Palestinians is being jeopardised all the time by Israeli security requirements. I urge my right hon. Friends to do everything they can to try to bring home to the Israeli Government the fact that the policy that they have been pursuing for years of effective de facto annexation of East Jerusalem and the west bank will produce not long-term security for Israel, but long-term insecurity.
On the non-proliferation treaty, I want to cover one aspect that has not been covered so far. In a previous Conservative Government, we achieved what I believe to have been the most significant nuclear arms reduction since nuclear weapons came on the scene—the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty of 1987, in which the entire class of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 5,500 km down to 500 km was scrapped. That agreement between the United States and Russia meant there were zero such weapons on either side. We now have the possibility of completing that process with shorter-range nuclear weapons, and I ask my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench to put that on their agenda. Those weapons are an anachronism, but they exist by the thousand: there are approximately 5,000 in Russian hands and some 1,100 in United States hands. If we were able to get those numbers down to zero and zero for intermediate-range weapons, we ought to be able to do the same for short-range weapons.
I wish my right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond (Yorks) and for North Somerset and the whole Front Bench well in resolving the very major foreign policy and security issues that we face. Above all, I wish them well in keeping the people of this country safe.
I congratulate most warmly the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) on a very good maiden speech, and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who also made a very fine speech.
We in Plaid Cymru have always said that we were against the incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are disappointed that the Labour-Tory consensus on military action in the past Parliament, coupled with Liberal Democrat dithering, contrasted rather sharply with our belief that our young men and women should be sent into harm’s way only under the auspices of the United Nations. Together with my Plaid Cymru colleagues, I voted against the war in Iraq, and I am proud of that fact. I remember seeing the Iraq dossier on the day it was published, when I described it as the least persuasive document in recent political history. It gives me no pleasure at all to say that history has, unfortunately, proved us right, because of the untold carnage in Iraq and the awful state that that country has been left in after the conflict phase.
We in Plaid Cymru also voted against the incursion into Afghanistan, partly because of the history of various conflicts there in the 20th century, particularly the failed attempt by 150,000 Soviet troops to pacify the Afghan tribes. The huge Soviet army eventually retreated, with its tail between its legs, leaving a massive toll of death and destruction in its wake. To us, there did not, at that stage, appear to be an immediate threat from Afghanistan, so we thought it prudent to vote against the incursion.
In November 2001, some of us forced a symbolic vote against this. About 15 or 18 of us voted. The Sun then printed our telephone numbers and invited readers to “call a wobbler”, a term it coined for opponents to military action, depicting us with heads like jellies on a plate. We in Plaid Cymru make no apology for sticking to our principles on that matter. We tabled a similar amendment to the last Queen’s Speech, asking the Government to set out a full timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. I have made it clear that I have always thought that we should not be there.
The hon. Gentleman’s party has an honourable record in calling for an inquiry into Iraq. Does he think that as the Iraq war caused the death of 179 soldiers, and the incursion into Helmand province increased the number of British deaths from seven to 286, it is time that we had an inquiry into that incursion, where it was hoped that not a single shot would be fired?
I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. He and I believe strongly that the incursion is wrong and that it will end in tears. Some of us said at the beginning that it was another Vietnam. At the time, we were laughed at, but I am afraid we are rapidly getting there.
As long as the troops are there, they deserve every possible support. They deserve the best kit, they deserve our support, and they deserve every comfort and care when they return to the UK. Let us face facts. It is not the people out there who are the authors of foreign policy. We in this place, apparently, are the authors of this unfortunate foreign policy, but it is they who daily have to stand in harm’s way. We should respect them for that and give them every possible credit. That is a vital component of the military covenant.
More than 600 servicemen were wounded in Afghanistan last year, and 125 were killed. We are facing the longest continuous military campaign since the Napoleonic wars. The new Government should acknowledge in due course that this is unfortunately a no-win situation. I was pleased to hear the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley), in seconding the Gracious Speech, calling for an early and orderly timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. I agree.
Matters have been made far worse by large numbers of service personnel making the ultimate sacrifice to prop up the corrupt Karzai Government. Afghanistan has never been a democracy. It is a collection of 50, 60 or more tribes. We will not impose democracy upon anyone. No country will accept democracy imposed upon it. It must want it first. Meantime, we reiterate our call for a properly timetabled exit and commit our full support to the troops in theatre while they are there. That withdrawal must be of immediate importance.
I move on to a quotation:
“It is a crying scandal, I think, that at the present moment there are so many soldiers and sailors who have placed their lives at the disposal of the country, and are quite ready to sacrifice them . . . hundreds and thousands do actually leave the Army and the Navy broken through ill health . . . These men leave the Army without any provision from either public or private charity, and they are broken men for the rest of their lives.”—[Official Report, 4 May 1911; Vol. XXV, c. 613.]
Who said these words? When were they uttered? They were spoken in May 1911 in this place by David Lloyd George introducing the National Insurance Bill in Parliament. It is striking that those words are apposite today, nearly a century later, and that is a scandal.
Those words are prescient and have a contemporary ring to them, when concern is expressed today about the non-observance of the military covenant. Furthermore, as I have discovered, thousands of ex-service people from theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan unfortunately end up in prison. This is an issue that I have raised on numerous occasions on the Floor of the House. We need to ensure that returning service people have all the help they need in the form of medical and psychiatric support, education and skills, assistance with employment, housing, and general reintegration into society from a closed and highly regimented lifestyle.
There are beacons of good practice here and there, but we must ensure that every returning service person, regardless of where they come from, is given an equal opportunity to avail themselves of those vital services. Many of the cases before the courts involving servicemen and women could be avoided if we adopted a structured proactive approach to all returnees.
In my response to the last Gracious Speech, I suggested a veterans’ mental well-being Bill and I hope that the wider spectrum of issues that affect veterans will be considered in the forthcoming Armed Forces Bill. I welcome the commitment in the coalition document to rebuild the military covenant, including the provision of extra support for veterans’ mental health needs. My party has recommended a multi-agency support centre for veterans that would provide medical and other support centralised in one place. We also support the project in Carmarthenshire to make Gelli Aur into a convalescent home for veterans.
We recently published a paper on that very issue and I am on an inquiry panel commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform to look into the issue of veterans in the criminal justice system. It is a five-person panel under the able chairmanship of Sir John Nutting QC. We hope to report and give our recommendations to the Government in the next six to nine months. Together, I hope that we can take steps forward to respond to the problems and ensure that veterans get the care and support that they deserve. I hope that the Bill that has been announced will be comprehensive and that it will become a vehicle to introduce these important changes.
We are also concerned about other foreign affairs and defence issues, such as Trident, of course. Its renewal is supported by the Conservative party and some within the Labour party. Who knows what the Liberal Democrats think? They fudged their position in the run-up to the election and have let down a great many people who believed that the party was standing on an anti-nuclear platform. Students were conned by them in that regard, and that is inexcusable.
My party opposes Trident’s renewal. There is the cost and the fact that it is a weapon of mass destruction, for which there is no room in a civilised society. I do not believe that holding nuclear weapons puts us in a strong position when it comes to arguing that other countries should not possess them or that they strengthen our stance in disarmament talks. When Presidents Obama and Medvedev announce nuclear cuts, we should not move in the opposite direction.
I welcome the Government’s support for a peaceful two-state solution in Israel and I hope that they will take steps to ensure that the Palestinians are not further discriminated against as they have been in the past, not least during the awful bombing of Gaza in Christmas 2008.
I am also concerned about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, where the war ended this time last year. Many people, mostly Tamils, were let down by the international community last year, and we owe it to them to ensure that the peace brings a better standard of living than the conflict did and that fair and independent investigations take place. Perhaps there should be an independent international investigation into the violations of the laws of war, as suggested by Human Rights Watch last week.
Finally, I must welcome what I believe is the cross-party commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on development aid from 2013. It is now 43 years since the UN General Assembly first committed to that level of spending. It is high time that it was implemented, and I am pleased that it was in the Gracious Speech.
May I say what a pleasure it is to see you, Hugh Bayley, sitting in the Chair as Deputy Speaker? My only regret is that you will not be one of the candidates who will occupy it on a long-term basis; that is the House’s loss.
I point out to the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who has just spoken, that there is one Liberal Democrat who knows exactly where he stands. I am totally opposed to the replacement of Trident and the continued holding of nuclear weapons by this country. There is no ambiguity there.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his speech and the Secretary of State for Defence on the interventions that he made; they were helpful. It is regrettable that there is not a single former Defence Minister on the Labour Benches at the moment. I congratulate the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who has left the Chamber, on his contribution as the current Chair of the Defence Committee. He has shown honesty in chairing the Committee and owning up to every mistake made by the Governments in whom he served when it came to defence. The first thing he did at the Defence Committee was to apologise for all the mistakes for which he was responsible—and even for some for which he was not responsible. However, we have heard no similar apologies or comments from the current batch of former Defence Ministers from the Labour party.
I congratulate the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on two excellent maiden speeches; the House will look forward to further contributions of equal class and style from them both. The hon. Member for Beckenham raised a very important point that other Members have talked about—the critical role of how we treat our veterans and their families when those veterans return from conflict suffering sometimes grievous injuries. Many have suffered, and continue to suffer, long-term effects, particularly relating to mental health. It is interesting to note the serious concerns that are now being expressed about the long-term psychological wounds that many of our servicemen and women have suffered over the past few years and will, sadly, suffer well into the next phase of their lives.
Coming from Portsmouth—I am sure that I can also speak on behalf of the recently elected hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)—it would be wrong of me not to say that we are very concerned about the future role of the Royal Navy, particularly the naval base in Portsmouth. It is not helpful when leaks from the Ministry of Defence suggest that, once again, the future of the naval base and its 17,000 jobs are very much on the front-line agenda. I was delighted to hear that in fact no such proposition has been on Ministers’ desks, and I hope that it will not be. Such leaks and comments are not helpful when people’s livelihoods are put at risk time and again. They sap not only the loyalty of the staff and service personnel who work on the naval base but the long-term potential to protect those critical jobs. Long may the carriers be part of the defence of this country, long may they be based in Portsmouth, and long may there be no big question mark hanging over the future of the naval base.
One ship that currently resides in Portsmouth dockyard is HMS Endurance, which has not been to sea since it was returned on the back of another ship after its unfortunate flooding in South America last year. A decision on the future role of HMS Endurance is long overdue, and I hope that one of the first things that the Defence Secretary does is to come clean and make a proper statement to this House about that. Is it going to be refitted, scrapped, or replaced by a bought-in trawler, as has happened in the past, or is there no longer any need for us to have a ship of that nature going regularly to the Antarctic? One thing is for sure: we need answers to those questions.
On Afghanistan and Pakistan, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) talked about the possibility of our taking responsibility for Kandahar. I sat on the Defence Committee when we were told by the then Secretary of State for Defence, John Reid, that all the intelligence that he had received just prior to going into Helmand led him to believe that hardly a shot would be fired, and he certainly did not envisage any casualties. How wrong those words were, but how wrong it was that the intelligence services had got it so wrong about Helmand province. The former Minister who spoke earlier rightly stressed that we should not take on another commitment in Afghanistan unless we are absolutely sure that the intelligence we are getting about Kandahar will materialise and that we will get the support of others in the fight against insurgency and the remnants of the Taliban there. If Helmand was difficult, Kandahar would be twice as difficult because of its historical links and the strong power base that the Taliban and al-Qaeda had there in the past. I urge a lot of caution on that proposal.
On the role of the Royal Navy and other navies off the coast of Africa, the big problem is the rules of engagement that naval captains in the Royal Navy, the American navy and others have as regards what they can and cannot do about stopping ships, boarding ships or even sinking ships that might be engaged in piracy. One of the big drawbacks that allows the problem to continue is the failure to get common agreement on rules of engagement that would allow naval captains in the area to act on their own initiative in difficult circumstances and be sure that they would be supported after the event. I urge the Secretary of State to consider carefully the rules of engagement that are given to our naval personnel engaged in that work.
I wish to raise the issue of the scrutiny of defence and security as a European concept. Under the Lisbon treaty, many matters will cease to be the responsibility of the old Western European Union, which will cease to exist. There will be no national Parliament monitoring of European defence and security, and I suspect that many in the Chamber would not welcome the European Parliament taking on that role.
It is, and the European Parliament would grasp the opportunity willingly, but we have to have a proper way of ensuring that there is national parliamentary scrutiny of what is happening in Europe when it comes to defence and security. If we do not, we will be badly letting down the people of this country and our armed forces. I do not want more powers to go to Europe, and I certainly do not want defence and security powers to be scrutinised by the European Parliament with this Parliament having little or no say on them.
I wish also to make a point about EU integration and further countries entering the EU. I was disappointed that there was not a clearer approach in the past, particularly about Turkey, and I hope that in the coming weeks and months we will have a clear indication from the coalition Administration of what their policy is towards Turkey and greater expansion of the EU. I would very much welcome Turkey being in the EU, as well as Croatia and possibly one or two other countries, but the Government must sign up to a plan for how that can be done.
I echo the sentiments of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) about the Chinook crash. One of the biggest disgraces during my second spell in Parliament was that in 1997, the Defence Committee refused to carry out an inquiry because of the lead that it was given by one of its advisers, a retired air chief marshal who took the Air Force line that the pilots had to be to blame. We refused to carry out an investigation, but our colleagues in another place grasped the initiative and carried out an inquiry. The results were different from what the RAF came up with. The two young men who flew the helicopter that day deserve to have their reputations returned to them, and that can be done only if there is a proper independent inquiry and all the facts and information relating to the crash are put on the table. Without that, it is a disgrace to the RAF, the Ministry of Defence and this Parliament that those two young men’s lives and careers were besmirched by the findings of the RAF board of inquiry, which in my opinion did not give the whole truth of what happened on that day.
May I add my congratulations to the two colleagues who have given their maiden speeches today? Both paid fitting tributes to their predecessors and gave an enthusiastic response to their election to the House. I agreed with the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) when he spoke about mental health issues relating to our troops, because there is a Combat Stress base in my constituency and I am well aware of the issues involved. I hope that the new Government will take the matter seriously and provide resources to such organisations.
I pay tribute to the former Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), for his advocacy of the role of Select Committees in the House. They are effective in bringing the Government to account on a cross-party basis, which is very important. It is in my capacity as a former member of the Foreign Affairs Committee that I wish to raise foreign policy matters today. However, I begin by saying that I am privileged to have been elected for the fourth time for my constituency, and I am mindful of my mandate and responsibility as a member of the Opposition. No matter how sad that may be, I intend to fulfil that role to the best of my ability.
I pay tribute to former members of the FAC who are no longer MPs but who made a fantastic contribution to the Committee and the House—Andrew Mackinlay, Greg Pope, Ken Purchase, Paul Keetch, David Heathcoat-Amory, John Horam and Malcolm Moss will all be greatly missed—and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), who has completed his term as Chair. I believe that for the most part, we succeeded in maintaining a cross-party consensus based on the evidence presented to us, and therefore maintained independence as a Committee, which is important for the accountability of the Government to Parliament. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), a distinguished member of the FAC, who spoke earlier. I optimistically anticipate that he will be the Chair of the new FAC, should he wish.
In the short time available, I should like to cover some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford South, and I make no apologies for reiterating those. In the past few years, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has suffered because of the problems caused by the decline of sterling, which were highlighted by the former Committee. The withdrawal of the overseas price mechanism—a decision that was made in the 2007 comprehensive spending review settlement—was uniquely risky for the FCO compared with other Departments. Especially in the light of exchange rate developments since that CSR, it is simply not credible to regard the course of currency fluctuations as predictable, or to say that the FCO might reasonably be expected to absorb them.
The FAC agreed with the FCO’s permanent under-secretary, Sir Peter Ricketts, that exchange rates should not drive UK foreign policy. Sadly, that was beginning to happen. The FCO lost around 13% of the purchasing power of its core 2009-10 budget as a consequence of the fall of sterling. In addition, the National Audit Office stated that the withdrawal of the overseas price mechanism and the subsequent fall of sterling have had
“a major impact on the FCO’s business worldwide”.
That the scale of the FCO’s financial difficulties was recognised in an agreement with the Treasury for additional resources for 2010-11 was welcome. It also appears to have been recognised that the management of the exchange rate pressures that face the FCO requires support from the Treasury reserve. However, it must be said that that was a long time coming, and I seek assurance on that from the new FCO team.
As I have stated, we all know that times are hard, but while the protection of the FCO’s work may not be at the top of the political agenda, there is a strong case to be made for the value of its work in the national interest, which has been affected by the severe cuts it has already made. The budgetary position in which the FCO now finds itself is no fault of its own—it is largely beyond its control—so I was astonished to hear today that there will be a further £55 million of cuts. I am at a complete loss when I try to imagine how those cuts are going to be made. We have already discussed the effects on staff terms and conditions and on subscriptions to international organisations, and the implications for locally engaged staff. I know that it is early days for the new FCO team, but these issues are of the utmost importance, and I hope that they will be high on its agenda, as they will be on the agenda of the new Foreign Affairs Committee.
No one in their right mind would want anything other than the withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible. It is not a question of the UK being the world’s policeman. We have undertaken action as members of the UN and NATO—memberships that carry obligations. Government and Opposition both agreed to join the war and, as I recall, often made much of the development of democracy and women’s rights, especially education for girls. Indeed, the Conservative Green Paper on international development states:
“In Afghanistan and Pakistan the confluence of our moral commitment to development and our national interest is particularly clear. Building the capacity of the state in both countries to guarantee security and stability, deliver development and reduce poverty is absolutely central to defeating violent extremism and protecting Britain’s streets.”
The document also notes that real progress has been made since the fall of the Taliban, with millions more children in school and girls getting an education for the first time.
Colleagues and I had the great privilege of visiting one of those girls’ schools. Many of those girls now aspire to higher education. It is not a question of the UK formulating education policy for Afghanistan, but of securing the human right to an education. Human rights are universal, and we have an obligation to ensure them, given that, alongside others, we went to war with Afghanistan knowing its history and the oppressive regime that the Taliban had inflicted on its own people, especially women. Achieving security is the only way that any social advantages that have been won can be maintained, and it would be a tragedy if, their expectations having been raised, the women of Afghanistan were once again left to the mercy of the Taliban.
I welcome the comments about the non-proliferation treaty review, although I am not optimistic about its outcome. I am pleased to see that the new team is taking the issue seriously. I also commend the Foreign Secretary on making his first visit to the US. I am sure that he is aware of the Committee’s report on US-UK relations and I hope that it will help to inform the new Government’s policy.
I declare an interest, as a supporter of the Justice for Colombia group, in the issue of human rights in that country and the proposed free trade agreement with Europe. Given the human rights travesties and abuses in Colombia, such an agreement would be disgraceful, and I hope that the UK will not support it.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) and other right hon. and hon. Members who have contributed to this debate with much more expertise than I possess. As others have said, we are living in a time of great upheaval, not only in this country, but across the world. Those changes are having a direct impact on the people of the constituency for which I was recently elected—Halesowen and Rowley Regis in the west midlands—which lies at the heart of our country and has a proud history of manufacturing, steel working and business enterprise.
Indeed, my grandfather was a steel worker in Halesowen in the 1930s and 1940s. He had an industrial accident when working as a forger in 1947 that meant that he was unable to work in the same way again. My uncle was a print worker in Rowley Regis, another area of the constituency, for a firm in Cradley Heath, so I know the hard-working men and women who have striven, often against the odds, to look after their families and make a better life for themselves.
Talking of hard work, I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, Sylvia Heal, who was not only a very diligent public servant to the people of Halesowen and Rowley Regis for 13 years—she did a lot of work and was very popular among constituents—but was, as hon. Members will know, well respected by Members across the House in her post as Deputy Speaker. In particular, she did a lot of fine work in promoting democracy in developing countries, in her capacity as Deputy Speaker. I am proud, therefore, to take over from her, and I will work tirelessly to provide the same service and responsiveness to my constituents.
One of the most famous political radicals, who was born in my constituency, was Thomas Attwood. As a Conservative, I quote a Liberal now merely as a gesture towards our new-found friends in the coalition Government. Thomas Attwood was one of the early campaigners for the reform of the political system in the United Kingdom and was one of the prime movers around the Great Reform Act of 1832. I am not necessarily advocating the need for major constitutional reforms, but in the country today there is an urgency similar to the political and economic situation at that time, which demands that, with this new Parliament sitting and beginning to take decisions, we take responsibility for reviving the House and reconnecting it with the people who sent us here. We have major challenges internationally and domestically, and vital considerations that are relevant to my constituents in Halesowen and Rowley Regis.
The subjects that we are debating today might be taking place in other parts of the world, but they are having a direct impact on our country. In Halesowen and Rowley Regis, where we have had rising unemployment since 1997, there is an urgent need to create new jobs and provide skills for our young people. I have a further education college in my constituency—Halesowen college—that provides courses and training for up to 4,000 students. In Halesowen and Rowley Regis, we need to revive our town centres, including in Old Hill and Blackheath, and we need to concentrate on reviving the manufacturing base, which still exists in my constituency, by promoting exports and new technology.
Another famous gentleman born in my constituency, in the 18th century, was William Shenstone, who was a poet and landscape gardener, and who developed an area in Halesowen called the Leasowes, which has recently been restored to its former glory. William Shenstone was a big believer in the imagination as a source of potential change and good in society. At this moment in history, political leaders and those of us, like me, who are humbled to have been elected to this place need to use our imaginations to revive this place and how it operates, and how people perceive politics; forge new alliances at home and abroad; create innovation in our politics and economy; and forge new partnerships in the House for the good of the nation. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to achieve things for this country, decentralise power from central Government to local government and communities, strengthen democratic institutions and restore trust, and, by doing that, to build a stronger nation that is able to continue to play a positive role in world affairs.
I would like to start, as many other Members have, by paying tribute to those who have made their maiden speeches today. I join those who paid tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), particularly in relation to what he said about mental health issues in the armed forces. I have had occasion to get involved in those issues over the past five years on behalf of constituents. Although we have come a long way—certainly since the early ’80s—there is still a long way to go. I acknowledge the support of the new Government on those issues.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) paid a generous tribute to her predecessor, just as the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) did to his. Indeed, he was particularly generous, given that his predecessor came from a party of another colour. He mentioned the background of his constituency and that of his family, in manufacturing, steel working and enterprise. In many ways that reflects the background of my constituency and that of south Yorkshire in general. However, everyone in my mother’s family—a steel working family—lost their job in the early 1980s. Indeed, south Yorkshire is only now recovering from the damage done to its economy in that period.
As we speak, the promised investment in advanced manufacturing for Sheffield Forgemasters, which is one of the big building blocks that we need to ensure the future of manufacturing in south Yorkshire, is under threat. I want to put on record today the fact that we need that investment—a long-term investment that will secure the future of manufacturing in south Yorkshire, which is something I hope the Government will see.
I want to pay tribute to someone who has retired from the House as an MP. I am not a new Member, but I represent a new constituency, 40% of the territory of which comes from the old constituency of Barnsley, West and Penistone, which was represented by Michael Clapham. Everybody in this place who was a Member of the previous Parliament will know what Mick did on behalf of workers whose health had been damaged in the workplace. Everybody knows Mick’s record as chair of the all-party occupational safety and health group. They will also know that Mick played an important role in keeping questions of health and safety at the forefront of debate in Parliament.
Mick was instrumental in the establishment of the miners compensation scheme, which was introduced by the Labour Government in 1999 to compensate miners who have suffered chronic lung disease and vibration white finger as a result of working down the pits. He successfully campaigned to get miner’s knee added, in 2009, to the list of prescribed diseases, meaning that ex-miners affected could apply for compensation through the industrial injuries disablement benefit. This is not so widely known, but Mick also campaigned for improvements to safety in the construction industry, working closely with UCATT––the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians—as well as working for action to regain compensation rights for those workers who suffered pleural plaques as a result of their exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) announced earlier this year that those diagnosed before the Law Lords’ ruling and whose compensation had been stopped would be entitled to a £5,000 package. However, it is my understanding that the Ministry of Justice is now refusing to give a view on that commitment. Yet again, we on the Labour Benches will be pressing for justice to be given to those workers who have suffered from pleural plaques—and will potentially suffer from asbestosis or cancer in future—as a result of negligence by employers.
Mick was honoured in 2007 by the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health for his lifetime contribution to health and safety. He had a proud record in the House, but I would add that he was also much loved in his old constituency. For my part, I enjoyed the greatest comradeship with and support from Mick as we went through the transition from our old constituencies to the new one of Penistone and Stocksbridge. I want to place on record the warmth and regard that I feel for Mick Clapham as a result of how he worked with me in the new constituency. He is now a constituent of mine, and I am absolutely sure that he will continue to support me in my work in Parliament.
The new constituency of Penistone and Stocksbridge is an old steel working and coal mining constituency. As I said earlier, it is very much in need of further investment. Before I move on to talk about foreign affairs, I want to put it on the record in this Queen’s Speech debate that I will be watching very carefully to see how the new Con-Dem coalition Government respond on the key issues of rebuilding schools and the private finance investment arrangements for roads in Sheffield.
I was the only mainstream candidate in the general election in my constituency who did not have their picture taken while pointing to a pothole in the middle of the road. Now that the election is over and done with, however, my party is the only one that remains committed to continuing the funding for refurbishing every road in Sheffield.
On foreign affairs, I want to echo the position on Afghanistan put forward from those on my Front Bench. I, too, will support the Government as long they support the long-term aim of bringing political and social stability to that country. We must ensure that Afghanistan is able, in the long term, to negotiate effectively and play a full part in the affairs of the international community, and to defend itself. We need to be engaged in Afghanistan for as long as that takes, but we must ensure that our troops are properly equipped to do that job. As far as the conflict in the middle east is concerned, I think that the Opposition Front-Bench team must support any attempt to secure successful negotiations and a peaceful outcome.
I heard what the Foreign Secretary said about Russia, and he seemed to hint that further work needed to be done to mend relations with that country. I wish him all the best on that. I think that our Labour former Foreign Secretary worked as hard as he could to ensure that engagement with Russia was as productive and fruitful as possible.
I want to mention the western Balkans very briefly. I visited that region only two years ago, and it was a life-changing experience. I would like the Government to get fully engaged in ensuring that the Balkans, and Bosnia in particular, is supported. Our long-term aim there has to be to secure the human and civil rights not just of the Bosniacs, but of the Croatians and the Serbians.
The new Government must understand that the only way for Bosnia to enjoy a secure and stable future is by ensuring that its economic basis is enabled to develop. We must understand that, above anything else, the people of Bosnia want to build their lives and their economic prosperity and security. That has to be the long-term aim in Bosnia, and I am confident that it is the only way to settle the conflict that has visited that country for so long.
Finally, I want to say that I agree entirely with the comments made from my Front Bench on what the new Con-Dem coalition appears to be missing with regard to Europe. The coalition has no policy on European defence or energy issues, and neither does it appear to have any policy on EU trade with emerging countries.
It would also be good to hear the Government tell us how they propose to introduce a referendum lock, which would trigger a referendum on any transfer of power to the EU. The Liberal Democrat manifesto contained a commitment that any referendum should be a yes-no referendum on the issue of British membership of the EU.
There is a real difference between what the Liberal Democrats have said on the record about holding a referendum in this country on anything relating to the EU, and what the Conservative party has had to say on the matter. It would be really interesting, therefore, to hear the Government say how they will resolve that dilemma. One can only hope that the issue never arises, because if it does the so-called and much-vaunted national interest of which we have heard so much—
I am grateful for this opportunity, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also honoured to follow the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), and the earlier maiden speeches by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris).
Later, I should like to touch on the importance of the Commonwealth, in which I am a great believer. First, however, I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, David Kidney. Mr Kidney represented Stafford for 13 years with a great degree of diligence. He is much loved in the constituency for his work there, but he is also widely respected for the work that he did in the House and nationally on sustainable energy, on improvements in care and on the teaching of citizenship, among many other things. I hope that I will, in some small way, be able to build on his achievements.
The constituency of Stafford is centred on the county town. It was granted its charter in 1206 by King John, who I believe to be a slightly underestimated monarch. It also includes Penkridge, which received its charter even earlier, from King Edgar of Mercia in 958. The constituency stretches from Wolseley Bridge in the east and Hixon in the north to Bishops Wood in the south and Weston-under-Lizard on the border with Shropshire. Weston Park is of course home to the well-known V festival, a constituency event that I have not yet had the pleasure to attend. I am probably unlikely to do so, but I receive reports on it from my teenage daughter.
My constituency also includes a church, at Ingestre, that is reputed to be the only parish church outside London to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren. I had the pleasure of visiting it on 6 May, as it was also a polling station. Ingestre was also home to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when he fought a valiant campaign for the seat in 1997. He is well remembered in the constituency. Indeed, I have had the pleasure of visiting one constituent who pointed out a rock in front of her house that she called the Cameron rock, because he had transported it to that place himself. That shows that manual work is not unknown to those on the Front Bench.
Stafford is well connected with the rest of the country. Many Members might, on occasion, have been able to appreciate its beauty while stationary on the M6. The constituency encompasses three of the motorway’s junctions, which provide excellent access. That is welcome, although sometimes that access is too good, and much of the traffic is diverted through the town when the junctions become blocked. The people of Stafford are extremely welcoming, but their patience is sometimes sorely tested. My predecessor—and indeed his predecessor, now my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who I am glad to see in his place—fought a campaign for an eastern distributor road. I understand that the campaign has gone on for more than 40 years. I am a great believer in long-term planning, but no issue should go on for that long.
I rarely drive to London. Instead, I use the excellent train service. I pay tribute to the Labour Government, under whom the journey time improved; it now takes a mere 80 minutes in standard class. I believe that it takes the same time in first class, although the Chancellor and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be relieved to hear that I have no recent experience of that. My constituency also contains fine canals, and I most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) for frequently singing their praises in this place.
Stafford also has strong literary connections, first with Richard Sheridan, who was a Member of this House for many years. He spent much of that time in a place nearby impeaching Warren Hastings—unsuccessfully, I am glad to say. In fact, he spent seven years doing that, and I wonder whether people might have wished for fixed-term Parliaments in those days. I am more attracted to another literary giant: Izaak Walton, the author of “The Compleat Angler”, which has remained in print constantly since the 17th century. That is not because I fish, but more because of sympathy towards, and quiet support of, those who are oppressed for their beliefs, as Izaak Walton was. It is a cause that many people in this House champion, as was expressed earlier by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), and I would be honoured to join them.
Stafford also has a strong tradition of engineering. It was once dominated by English Electric, later General Electric, but manufacturing for the energy industry is now carried out by Alstom, AREVA, Perkins Diesel and Talbott’s Biomass, among others. Our expertise in power engineering is valued worldwide and it contributes to exports, which are so sorely needed to restore this country’s economic health. I started my own working life in manufacturing, so I am proud to represent a constituency in which manufacturing is so significant.
Our international reputation is also enhanced by the university, which we share with the fine city of Stoke-on-Trent. We have strong connections with universities on the Pacific rim, and this House should never underestimate the role that universities play both in enhancing Britain’s international reputation and for the development of high technology.
Many hon. Members will have an iPhone. I confess I do not, but this, the iPod and many other devices were designed under the leadership of Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, CBE, a former student of Walton high school in my constituency. Our schools will continue to provide a high-quality education, but they need fair funding.
We are also proud to host the Ministry of Defence, home to 22nd Signal Regiment and the Tactical Support Wing of the RAF. We await with eager anticipation the arrival of 1st Signal Brigade in a few years’ time. It will indeed receive a warm welcome from the people of Stafford and the county of Staffordshire. The county town is home to many county-wide organisations in the public, voluntary and community sectors. I have had the pleasure of visiting some of them and of seeing the tremendous commitment that their people show.
Last year, however, was very troubling for my constituency. We received various reports on Stafford hospital, which did not make comfortable reading. I pay tribute to the campaigners, to Julie Bailey who highlighted the hospital’s problems, and to hospital staff who are working so hard to restore public confidence. It is a task to which I am committed, and I will contribute in whatever way I can. I also wish to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone for raising the matter so eloquently in this House from time to time.
I am fortunate to represent a constituency in which farming and rural businesses are strong. Food security is so important for this world and for this country, and we can be sure that Stafford will play its part.
The Gracious Speech referred to pursuing
“an enhanced partnership in India”,
which I welcome. India is, of course, the largest country in the Commonwealth. My experience of living and working in Tanzania, which is a stalwart member, for 11 years, shows that the bonds are strong—indeed, far stronger than many in this country believe. There are great opportunities for us to trade with the Commonwealth. At the moment, it accounts only for 8% of our exports and imports, so there is the potential for far more. If we do not do that, other nations such as China will—and they already are. Economic growth depends on exports, and I am sure that the Government will be looking at every possible avenue to improve this country’s export growth. Political, educational and cultural ties are also important. As a previous speaker mentioned, soft power and strong relationships with Commonwealth countries need to be nurtured.
I have spoken of the importance of higher education for the Stafford constituency. There is a thirst for higher education among the people of the Commonwealth, which presents great opportunities for UK universities to take their expertise across the globe. At a time when the temptation is to turn in on ourselves and our problems, the Gracious Speech reminds us that it is more in tune with the nature of this country to reach out.
I had the privilege of serving my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) in his globalisation and global poverty group, and I am delighted that the Government have supported its conclusion, especially the commitment to spending 0.7% of gross domestic product on international aid.
I have always admired our constituency-based parliamentary system, and it is a great honour to stand here. I believe that Parliament, for all its shortcomings, should represent the conscience of the nation, as it has done today, as has been shown in so many speeches. I leave my last words to the great man, Izaak Walton of Stafford, who said:
“The person that loses their conscience has nothing left worth keeping.”
Let me begin by paying tribute to the fine speech of the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). While we may be on different sides of the House, his passion and commitment to his constituency really came across, and I wish him a long and successful parliamentary career.
It is with considerable pleasure, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I stand before you as the newly elected Member of Parliament for Stalybridge and Hyde, a place that I am proud to call my home as well as my constituency. May I express my gratitude to you for allowing me to make this maiden speech, and to my friends, neighbours and colleagues for electing me as their Member of Parliament?
I wish, in the customary fashion, to say something about my predecessor, the right hon. James Purnell. Many in the House will know James from his work as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and before that as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. James will be a hard act to follow. Not only did he enjoy an impressive ministerial career in the nine years that he spent here, but before he had even arrived he was credited with having drawn up the blueprint for Britain’s system of media regulation when still in his mid-twenties.
But James is also fondly remembered in Stalybridge and Hyde as a conscientious constituency Member of Parliament. We are particularly grateful for his tireless lobbying for our new schools—of which there are now several, with more on the way—for his commitment to the regeneration of our parks and public spaces such as Stamford park, and for his unstinting support for local community groups such as RASH in the Ridge Hill area of Stalybridge, where his support helped them to establish a communal garden, launch projects to cut antisocial behaviour, and open a drop-in centre for local residents.
Most of all, James has my admiration for always being a politician prepared to deal in the business of ideas. At times British politics can appear to run on orthodoxies, and people like James who can see beyond those should be cherished. I believe that the House will miss him.
It is with great sadness that I must report that one of my first duties as a Member of Parliament will be to attend tomorrow the funeral of Corporal Harvey Holmes, a soldier from my constituency from 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment who was serving in Afghanistan, fighting to bring some of the freedoms that we enjoy in this country to a troubled part of the world. I know that all Members will join me in sending best wishes to Corporal Holmes’s family.
I wish to use this opportunity to record my admiration for, and gratitude to, men and women like Corporal Holmes for their outstanding devotion and service to their country. It seems to me that in a world where a person can be described as a hero for a performance on a sports pitch or an appearance on a television talent show, we so often forget the true meaning of words like “heroism” and “courage”. In my time in this House I will never forget their true meaning, and I hope I will always be known as a friend of this country's armed forces.
I am immensely proud of my constituency and the localities that make it up: the towns of Stalybridge, Hyde and Mossley, and the villages of Broadbottom, Hollingworth, Mottram and Hattersley—to which I owe a particular debt, as they allowed me to begin my political career by electing me to Tameside metropolitan borough council. I should also not forget to mention the town of Dukinfield, for which, owing to its division between two constituencies, I share the honour of parliamentary representation with my hon. Friend—and good friend—the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne). Together, those towns and villages form part of the borough known as Tameside, on the eastern side of the great city of Manchester.
I would recommend a visit to my constituency to any Member of the House. Whether it is the beautiful countryside of Werneth Low or the Longdendale Valley, the atmosphere of the buffet bar at Stalybridge station or the distinct character of the town of Mossley, there is much to enjoy and appreciate. Most of all, however, it is the people of my constituency who make it what it is.
We are proud and hard-working people, providing an example of the enduring ability of the British people to adapt to changing times. In 1844, no less a man than one Friedrich Engels visited my constituency when writing his book on the condition of the working class in England, and described Stalybridge in the following terms:
“On first entering the town the visitor sees congested rows of old, grimy and dilapidated cottages....most of the streets run in wild confusion up, down and across the hill sides. Since so many of the houses are built on slopes it is inevitable that many of the rooms on the ground floor are semi basements. It may well be imagined what a vast number of courts, back passages and blind alleys have been created as a result of this wholly unplanned method of building....of this disgustingly filthy town.”
I am pleased to say that today Stalybridge is a pleasant and prosperous place, unrecognisable as the town that Engels visited. However the themes that motivated Engels’ writings—the force of industrial change and the resulting social problems—are an illustration of the enduring nature of the political challenges that this House is called to address. For today the people of my constituency are faced with forces of change no less powerful than those that Engels observed, but whereas he observed how working people’s lives were being changed by the powerful force of industrialisation, today we can just as easily observe the effects of the force of globalisation. It is a force that has left many feeling vulnerable, insecure and concerned for their future, yet it is a force that cannot be stopped or turned back, any more than the luddites could turn back the process of industrialisation. The question for us is: how can we harness this force, shape it and turn it to the advantage of constituencies such as mine?
I believe that it is the role of Government to help people in my constituency to do this. In making that point I wish to make it clear that I do not advocate a return to the days of the state running every aspect of our lives, or a return to the paternalism of the past. Government must steer, not row. They must give people the skills with which to compete in this new world, give them opportunities to retrain in the face of global adjustments, and set the rules by which we all stand a chance to fulfil our potential. In addition, Government must be prepared to tackle the inequalities that stand in the way of that fulfilment. I believe the previous Government made a significant contribution to doing that. My constituency now has better schools, better housing and better health care than in 1997, but we should also recognise that tackling inequality is about more than just providing new buildings; it is about what goes on inside them.
We need to inspire our young people to have higher aspirations. We need a society based on values, not just material value. We also need to be prepared to take on vested interests when they attempt to block our progress. We must be tough on poverty, and tough on the causes of poverty, not just because that is fair, but because, in today’s global world, we need to unleash the capacity of every one of our citizens, or be prepared to see ourselves overtaken by the nations that do.
I shall end by saying something about the political times we find ourselves in. I first came to this House as a student on a trip from my college, and it created in me a sense of wonder that has stayed with me ever since. It is my sincere regret that its reputation, and that of politics generally, has been so diminished by the events of the last few years. We as Members of this new Parliament have a great deal of work to do to repair some of the damage. That will involve not only how we conduct ourselves as individuals, but how we go about reforming our entire political system, and I believe that this House needs to make sure that in a world dominated by coverage of the Executive branch of Government, we do not forget the supremacy of Parliament and how it can be used to enable a national dialogue on matters of national contention.
I believe that this House needs to remember that on many issues, cross-party co-operation will yield results much faster than exaggerated dividing lines. I also believe that this House needs to make real progress towards reforming the House of Lords, and to take seriously the opportunity to amend the voting system that sends us all here to the House of Commons. Most of all, however, I believe that what this great House needs is great parliamentarians. In my time in Parliament, it will be my humble aspiration to attempt to be one.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), who made a deeply sincere and moving speech that reminded us all what heroism is all about. This debate started with an outstanding speech by my right hon. Friend the new Foreign Secretary and there have been a number of maiden speeches, including excellent ones by my hon. Friends the Members for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), and the best maiden speech I think I have ever heard, from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I look forward to the winding-up speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who I am delighted to see is our new Secretary of State for Defence.
I am particularly pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Mr Luff) is sitting on the Front Bench in his role as a Defence Minister. He is part of the strong Ministry of Defence team, which will be grappling with what, frankly, is a nightmare in the strategic defence and security review. I cannot think of a better team to do it, but it will face a huge mismatch: the resources available have dropped from 5.5% of national GDP in the 1980s to 2.2% today—a fall of 60%—at a time when in Afghanistan we are involved in the bloodiest war since Korea. Moreover, the grim news coming out of Korea reminds us that, at the other end of the military spectrum, nuclear proliferation among some deeply unattractive countries is a real threat.
There is a temptation to focus on Afghanistan. As the representative of a garrison city proud to be home to the Argylls, to whom we gave the freedom of the city recently, and the 3rd Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment—a Territorial Army battalion—nobody needs to remind me how important it is to support our troops in Afghanistan in every way that we can. However, it is important to remember that very few of the wars in which we have participated over the past 100 years have been expected: 48 hours before the invasion of the Falklands nobody expected that war to take place; less than six months before the first Gulf war, the Ministry of Defence had categorically ruled out any possibility of deploying armoured troops outside the NATO area; and hours before 9/11 anyone who had said that we would be involved in a long-term conflict in Afghanistan would, to put it mildly, have been thought mad.
That is why we must maintain a full range of capabilities and not allow the new strategic defence review to reshape our armed forces simply around the immediate pressing needs of Afghanistan. How then are we to square the impossible mismatch between keeping a full range of military capabilities and the fact that, although the Treasury team has done well in protecting the defence budget so far, nobody believes that extra money will be available? I put it to the House that that cannot be done without tackling the spiralling cost of manpower. As the son of a Regular Army officer, I have, over the years, campaigned for better treatment for the wounded, for better housing for the armed forces, for the protection of their pensions and for a range of allowances, and although I welcome every word of what we have said on the military covenant—I am sure that we will deliver it—we must recognise that the current model is close to being broken.
Most major countries regard defence as an activity of the nation and, although their professional armed forces form an important component, it is not the only one. We have many reasons to be proud of our armed forces, but we must consider how others do things. There are two main models: most European countries, apart from France, use a conscription-based model, so most people pass through the armed forces. Russia and China use the same model. Alternatively, other English-speaking countries, which are fighting alongside us in Afghanistan, use a balanced mixture of regular and volunteer reserve forces, as we always used to do, including in both world wars. Almost alone, we are heading towards having almost all-professional armed forces, and that is extremely expensive. Of course we must look after them in every way that we can, but the costs of pay, allowances, pensions, housing and so on make such an approach very expensive.
Such an approach also means having a huge divide between the armed forces and a civilian world that rightly looks with great favour on the armed forces but understands little about them, and ensures that there is no framework for expansion. Almost half of America’s pilots, including a third of their fast jet fighter squadrons, are in the Air Guard or US Air Force Reserve, and America’s naval reserve has an aircraft carrier, whereas our Royal Auxiliary Air Force has no fighter pilots, let alone squadrons, and the Royal Naval Reserve has no vessels. Even the shrinking and hard-worked Territorial Army represents a much smaller proportion of ground forces than do its English-speaking counterparts: the figure is a quarter compared with nearly half for Australia and Canada and much more than half for America.
This review offers the opportunity to reconnect our splendid professional forces with outside thinking from the civilian world, to retain unutilised capabilities that would otherwise become unaffordable in the volunteer reserves and to keep a capacity to expand in order to face that unexpected conflict that may come around the corner.
That does not have to mean a compromise in standards. The highest scoring tank regiment in the first Gulf war was the 4th US Marine Division Reserve Tank Battalion from Seattle, all volunteer reservists. British units can do it too. My former regiment, 21 Special Air Service, had a squadron in Afghanistan last year. I am not giving away any secrets by saying that they got two military crosses—again, they are volunteer reservists.
On land, important capabilities, such as much of our heavy armour and artillery, could be transferred to the Territorial Army. In the air, a fast jet fighter pilot costs £4 million to train. In America, he would be likely to go into the Air Guard; in Britain, all that money is burnt when he ceases his service. At sea, we are reliant for the protection of our ports on an anti-mining capability tied up in 16 vessels and 16 regular crews. Why do we not have volunteer reserve crews so that we can work them round the clock if there is a serious mining threat to our ports?
All these things can be done, but they require imagination and good quality volunteers and leadership. Sadly, the word is that neither the Royal Air Force nor the Royal Navy are considering any radical options at all. Perhaps worst of all, the Army, the one service that has a volunteer reserve of some size, was, at least until the election, considering an absurd model of replacing the current structure with, instead of Territorial Army units, a pool of manpower bolted on to regular units with no identity, no premises of their own and no opportunities for command at regimental level. Such a structure is most unlikely to attract high-quality men and women willing, at the end of a full week spent on a demanding job, to train and give up their time to serve their country. Let us remember that they serve, too: 16 Territorials and one air reservist have been killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past seven years.
We need to address this issue. Over the time that I have been in Parliament, I have always spoken up for the regular forces, but I have also come to believe that we cannot continue with the current model. We are out of line with all our English-speaking counterparts and it is not affordable. There is no prospect whatsoever of the combined staff in the MOD considering these solutions. They will do so only if Ministers, and I have the greatest confidence in the new team, make them do so and bring people into the teams—one possible name is Richard Holmes, a former director of reserves and cadets and a very distinguished military academic—who are willing to do so. We will be reconstituting the all-party reserve forces group next month and we will be playing a small role on the outside.
The whole House is rightly proud of our professional armed forces, but we should be proud of our volunteer reserves, too. We must recognise that the current virtually all-professional model is close to bust and that unless we shift towards a better balanced structure, our ability to respond to the unexpected threat will disappear altogether.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), who over many years has illuminated the House with forceful thoughts on these questions. I hope that he and some of the other defence experts who have spoken are listened to, because, as I shall seek to argue, we need some serious new strategic thinking.
First, let me pay tribute to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), the hon. Members for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) for their remarkable, warm, witty, passionate and lovely speeches. They reminded me of my first time 16 years ago. Frankly, I am as excited and nervous now as I was then. We have heard from hon. Members who will make a big contribution to the House of Commons.
Before I focus on Afghanistan and NATO, I want to invite the House to consider that the Prime Minister, unfortunately, misled the House yesterday—inadvertently, I am sure. He said, in response to a question of mine, that
“Labour’s allies in the European Parliament”
“the Self Defence of the Republic of Poland party, whose leader, Andrzej Lepper, said that
‘Hitler had a really good programme’.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 48.]
While we have been sitting today, I have received an e-mail from Dr Rafal Pankowski, the expert on these matters in Warsaw, saying:
“Did he really say that? I find it incredible the British PM could have shot himself in the foot in this way. Self-Defence as such is no longer in the”
“but its surviving leading ex-member, (Ryszard Czarnecki) is in the ECR Group!”
For the benefit of Members, the ECR group is, of course, the Conservative-created European parliamentary group, the European Conservatives and Reformists. So, there we have the Prime Minister, inadvertently I am sure, misleading the House because he is relying on party propaganda. He has not yet adjusted to the fact that he is the Prime Minister of our nation and must be absolutely accurate in what he says.
Let me quote another sentence from yesterday’s Loyal Address debate. When talking about Afghanistan, the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) said:
“I…can barely stop myself crying out, ‘Enough. No more. Bring them home.’ I know that we cannot overnight abandon commitments to allies and the Afghans themselves, but I urge my right hon. Friends to scale back our aims realistically and bring our young soldiers home with all due speed.”—[Official Report, 25 May 2010; Vol. 510, c. 36.]
I have for several years sat and listened to the tributes to the dead and fallen, weeping internally, as many Members have. I think again and again of a poem of Siegfried Sassoon, which I have altered slightly:
“‘Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Helmand with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.”
I see that the hon. Gentleman knows the words as well as I do.
It is time to assert the principle that war is too important a matter to be left to generals. We need to assert the authority of this House and the authority of a politically elected Government over the lack of strategy in Afghanistan. The Canadian Parliament has done that. Canada’s Conservative Foreign Minister, Mr Lawrence Cannon, has confirmed that, “In 2011, we’re out.” So, Canada, our closest English-speaking ally, is saying that enough is enough.
We began yesterday, as we have begun every Prime Minister’s questions since June 2003, with the Prime Minister reading out the names of the dead. We cannot continue, Wednesday after Wednesday in this Parliament, reporting the blood sacrifice of our young soldiers and officers. I want to help the new Prime Minister so that he can come to the Dispatch Box without that grim piece of paper to read out. That is why we need to say clearly to the generals, “Your strategy is wrong.” We need to move from a policy of confrontation to one of containment. Our strategy must absolutely be based on finding a political solution. We need more jaw-jaw, and less war-war.
Before the election, there was, frankly, a general briefing by too many generals against the then Prime Minister about what was happening in Afghanistan and the support for the Army there. Sadly, the Secretary of State for Defence was part of that shameful and shameless procedure. He is now known around the region as 13th-century Fox. His breathtaking insult of the Afghan people has caused huge damage in the region. He shows the colonial mentality of a Lord Salisbury. President Karzai is an obsessive reader of the UK and American press. The 13th-century insult of the Secretary of State has set back good relations not just with Afghanistan but with other countries in the world. Instead of apologising for his insult—I hope that he will have the grace to do that when he winds up tonight—the Secretary of State has tried to defend and downplay his remarks. That is a disastrous start and it would be no bad thing if he were transferred to another post where he could do no harm.
I also appeal to the Conservative press to stop always simply supporting the generals and to start supporting the soldiers. I have, or had, here a front page of The Sun from February, but I cannot lay my hands on it. “Blitzed Taliban on run” screams the front page of The Sun on 15 February 2010 about the Marjah offensive, and it quotes a Major General Messenger saying:
“Nothing has stopped the mission from progressing”,
yet only last week another general, General Stanley McChrystal said of the Marjah offensive that it is “a bleeding ulcer”.
We need some British generals who will tell the truth, like General McChrystal. We need an Alanbrooke, a latter-day “master of strategy”, to quote the inscription on Lord Alanbrooke’s statue outside the Ministry of Defence. I wonder whether General McChrystal knew that he was echoing the very words of Mikhail Gorbachev 25 years ago, who described Afghanistan not as a bleeding ulcer, but as a “bleeding wound”. It is time to admit that we are not going to win this war. Our object must now be to change and to support our boys, not the generals as they send them to be IED fodder.
What should that strategy consist of? In a word, statecraft must replace warcraft. We need a political solution that will involve compromise. Of course we must ensure that al-Qaeda does not return, and we must work in close collaboration with the United States and with our NATO partners, but NATO is doing itself no good talking up a war it cannot win. We need long-term thinking. It is absurd to have army chiefs rotating every six months. Instead of one six-year war, we have 12 six-month wars.
The Taliban are not stupid. Why fight face to face when planting an IED is just as effective? Yes, our soldiers will always chase them out and behave heroically as they do so, but it is like squeezing a balloon. The can-do, will-do powerpoint style of the generals must be replaced by a real feel for the tribal and political reality and relations of the region. The MOD must allow a fuller discussion by all officers, including junior officers, of their real views and thoughts. We have to accept that Pashtuns will not be told how to run their lives by outsiders in uniforms, and that applies as much to Tajiks as to NATO soldiers.
We must widen out our reach regionally. China has invested $3.5 billion in copper mines in Afghanistan. Iran wants a stable Afghanistan, because Iranians are suffering from huge drug epidemics. Above all, we need to get India and Pakistan talking and working together successfully to find a solution to Kashmir. We heard talk about Afghanistan and Pakistan from the Foreign Secretary, but he did not mention the Pakistan-India link. Until India and Pakistan are at the conference table finding a solution to Kashmir, where 70,000 Muslims have been killed since the state was put under Indian army control 20 years ago, we will have no solution in Pakistan.
That requires regionalising the conflict. We need to get the UN more involved. Can Britain promote a south-west Asian version of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe so that China, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan can work out some problems together? We need to show more respect for India, Pakistan and Afghanistan publicly––unlike the “13th century” remark––but use tougher language privately. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, our European Union partners and our other main partners must come together to draw up a common strategy. The start of a new Government is a chance. The hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) put forward his innovative idea of a sovereign strategic base in the country to prevent al-Qaeda coming back, but no longer trying to fight and die.
There are other issues to do with NATO, the Baltic states and Poland that I would like to have addressed, had time permitted. However, this is the most important turning point in our military history this century. We must get it right. I hope the Government will do so.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech so early in the new Parliament. I pay tribute to those who made their maiden speeches before me—the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds). I know Stalybridge quite well because I am always delivering precision machine parts to a company based there.
It was a great privilege in the early hours of 7 May to be elected as Member of Parliament for Burnley. Burnley now has a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament—the first time that Labour has not held the seat since 1935, a period of 75 years. Burnley is a special place at the heart of Pennine Lancashire, with lovely countryside and friendly people. We have an abundance of waterways, canals, rivers and reservoirs, all of which played their part in our industrial heritage, which has sadly declined over the years. The old industries of cotton, textiles, coal and heavy engineering have now all but disappeared. The industries may have declined, but the industrious spirit of the north remains as strong as ever.
One of my main interests in this Parliament is to promote sustained growth in the high-tech, high-value manufacturing sector, both locally and nationally, that will deliver pride and prosperity for this nation. The sector is already well established in Burnley, whose businesses include Aircelle, manufacturer of thrust reversing systems for the Rolls-Royce Trent engines used by airlines around the world; MB Aerospace, which manufactures launch canisters for the American Harpoon missile; Futaba Tenneco, which manufactures major body parts for the current range of Toyota vehicles, which are sold around the world; and many other small high-tech manufacturing companies that serve the aerospace, nuclear and automotive sectors.
We need to ensure that students are provided with the relevant education to prepare them to undertake these high-tech roles. By providing people with the skills that employers require, we will also be providing them with the ability to earn a good living wage. Burnley’s new sixth-form college and university campus, which is dedicated to advanced manufacturing, goes some way to delivering these opportunities in Burnley and must be replicated elsewhere across the country.
I give my heartfelt thanks to the constituents of Burnley for having faith in me and the courage to vote for change—change that I believe can be delivered by this new type of coalition Administration, harnessing the best policies of two fresh parties both committed to raising our country out of the current difficulties, which should not be underestimated.
At this point, it is customary to make reference to the contributions of predecessors. Kitty Ussher represented Burnley for five years, and in that time she gave birth to her two children, Lizzie and George. Kitty realised first hand the problems of combining being a mother and a Member of Parliament, and she began a campaign for family-friendly working hours. Kitty worked hard to help deliver the Building Schools for the Future programme in Burnley and she will be pleased to hear that the final two schools will be opened in time for the commencement of the new school year. Together with all the people of Burnley and Padiham, I wish Kitty success in her future career outside Westminster.
The people of Burnley and Padiham are good, decent and hard working. They are outspoken and direct, and unafraid of speaking their minds. Serving them as a local councillor and council leader for the past 28 years has given me a thorough, in-depth apprenticeship in how best to serve their needs in Parliament. I will always put the needs of the people of Burnley and Padiham first in my parliamentary activities, as I will never forget that their faith in me has brought me here today.
The most pressing current issue for the residents of Burnley and Padiham is the transfer of our accident and emergency unit, which was taken from us in 2008 and relocated 15 congested miles away at the Royal Blackburn hospital. Now, the threat of the transfer of our children’s ward to the same hospital, which for many people is accessible only with a great deal of difficulty, is considered to be a step too far. I am heartened to have received a statement from my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary outlining the new coalition Government’s vision for locally led NHS service changes. That vision gives me hope that the transfer of the children’s ward will not now take place. I will continue to press for the full return of the accident and emergency facilities that are so vital to the 250,000 residents of Burnley, Pendle and Rossendale.
Once again, I thank the people of Burnley for their courage and faith in me. I assure them all that I will always represent them to the best of my ability. Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank the House for listening to my speech this evening.
I very much welcome the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate about the future of our armed forces. It is somewhat daunting to follow such excellent contributions, particularly from my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and the hon. Members for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). Given that they have set the bar so high for others to follow, I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not quite reach their standard at this, my first attempt.
My predecessor as Member for Dunfermline and West Fife was Mr Willie Rennie, who enjoyed a relatively short parliamentary career, having been elected in a by-election in February 2006. However, during his brief tenure he certainly made a very large contribution to the fortunes of the Lib Dems in Fife. Mr Rennie almost single-handedly ran their successful Scottish Parliament and council election campaigns in 2007, and I know that his zeal for campaigning will be missed by Liberal Democrats both locally and nationally. We should also congratulate him on his appointment as a special adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I wish him all the best in his new role.
Mr Rennie’s predecessor was, of course, Rachel Squire, who enjoyed a much longer period in the House, having been first elected in 1992 as the Member for Dunfermline, West. Throughout her 14 years, she worked tirelessly to represent her constituents. She established a reputation as a fierce defender of local industries, particularly the dockyard. I have been advised by hon. Friends who served as Defence Ministers that they developed an almost Pavlovian reaction of trepidation when they saw her approaching them in the Lobby and in the corridors, such was her dogged commitment to safeguarding the dockyard’s future. I hope that perhaps in time I might come to cause the same Pavlovian reaction in some of the Members sitting opposite.
Dunfermline is Scotland’s ancient capital city, having served this role for some 500 years. It is the final resting place of Robert the Bruce and the birthplace of Charles I, who was perhaps not the most successful of Scottish expatriates. I hope that the Defence Secretary, who is just the latest Scottish expat, fares better in his dealings with this Parliament.
My constituency contains Longannet power station, which has been providing power to homes and businesses in east and central Scotland for some 40 years, and is now a centre of research for carbon capture and storage. The previous Government demonstrated their commitment to the future of Longannet by funding design and development studies as part of the competition to build one of the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture facilities. The final decision on this competition lies, of course, with the new Government, and I will be pressing the case for Longannet in the months ahead.
My constituency is home to one of Scotland’s oldest professional football teams, Dunfermline Athletic. I should perhaps declare an interest here, as I am a tenant of the club from the start of next month. The club celebrates its 125th anniversary next week and was one of the very first British teams to play in Europe, participating in the Cup Winners cup in 1961-62. West Fife has also produced some fine individual international footballers over the years, particularly Hill of Beath’s Jim Baxter, who led Scotland to the crown of real world champions in 1967, and Townhill’s Billy Liddell, who played almost 500 times for Liverpool, scoring 215 goals. Only last week, I was present at the unveiling of a memorial to Billy in his home village, which I would commend to any Liverpool fans who happen to visit the kingdom of Fife.
West Fifers are very well read, and we are ably served by two newspapers. The Courier was established in 1801 and serves the Fife and Tayside region, with some 80,000 readers a day. It is a fine example of what a quality regional newspaper should offer, balancing national, international and defence coverage with a keen interest in stories that affect readers closer to home. Our constituency newspaper is the Dunfermline Press, which was founded in 1859 and has more than 20,000 readers. It has a passion for our community and has been at the forefront of many local campaigns in recent years, such as the future of the hospital and the dockyard.
The dockyard is the largest single private sector employer in my constituency and not only provides vital refit and refurbishment services to the Royal Navy surface fleet but sustains hundreds of local manufacturing and engineering jobs. It has a long and proud tradition of sending warships back to the Navy in prime condition for service, and I invite the Minister to visit it with me to see at first hand the excellent work carried out there and to meet the trade unions and management to discuss the future order book.
Of course, people in West Fife are very concerned about the defence review that the Ministry will undertake shortly. As the House will recall, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) gave a clear commitment in the last Parliament that the construction of the two new supercarriers would not be reviewed as part of the strategic defence review. We on the Opposition side of the House recognise the crucial role that the new carriers will play in our nation’s defence. Without the two carriers, the Queen Elizabeth and the Prince of Wales, our nation’s armed forces would rely wholly on the good will of foreign nations to carry out air operations in any future conflict.
If the Prince of Wales were to be cancelled, delayed or downgraded, as many Liberal Democrats, including the new Business Secretary, have suggested, we would have to rethink the very fundamentals of our defence policy. There would also be a wider economic impact. Not only would it threaten hundreds of new jobs and apprenticeships at our dockyard, it would have a devastating impact on many companies across Fife, Scotland and the rest of the UK. Companies such as Brand-Rex, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy), and MacTaggart Scott, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr Hamilton), have multi-million-pound contracts lined up for the new carriers. The Ministry of Defence itself estimates that some 10,000 British jobs will be sustained by the project. Those are highly skilled, highly prized jobs in science, technology and engineering, and I hope that the Secretary of State for Defence, who has now joined us in the Chamber, will recognise that if those jobs were lost, they could not be replaced quickly or easily. I therefore urge him to give a clear undertaking that the construction of the two new supercarriers will not be subject to review.
As the Secretary of State has joined us, I congratulate him on his new role. He probably does not remember this, but when he was a Minister in the previous Conservative Government and I was a fresh-faced young researcher for my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), he was kind enough to take some small interest in my progress. I hope that with his new, greater role, he will take some interest in a not so fresh-faced, but certainly very keen, new Member.
It would be remiss of me not to mention one other organisation in my constituency, the Round Table, of which I am an active member. I am sure that many in the House are familiar with the work of the Round Table in their own constituencies. My local Round Table organises the annual beer festival, which last year raised more than £25,000 for good causes and charities. The Round Table’s motto is “To adopt, to adapt, to improve”, and I commend that motto to the Secretary of State and ask him to make it the perfect mission statement for the SDR.
It is an enormous pleasure to speak in this debate, which has had so many notable contributions by new Members, including the hon. Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who made a very good speech indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), whose constituency I had the honour of representing for about 14 years some years ago. I was fascinated by his reference to Izaak Walton, who I think I am right in saying left his estate to the citizens of Eccleshall, in my constituency. However, under the terms of the charitable trusts, if they did not behave themselves the estate was to be left to the citizens of Stafford. There is an interesting interaction there. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the campaign that he maintained during the Stafford hospital crisis. We worked closely together and he showed his mettle, as I know he will as he proceeds in the House over the next few years.
To revert to the subject before us, I begin by invoking the words of Disraeli, that great one-nation Tory. His book, “Sybil, or The Two Nations” was one of the spurs that brought me into politics. In his great book, “Coningsby”—this was in about 1849, after the repeal of the corn laws, with which my family was somewhat associated—he said that there was a great deal of shouting about Conservative principles, but “the awkward question” of what we are supposed to conserve “naturally arose”. He also said that
“England does not love coalitions”.
We will have to a make a good fist of this one, but Disraeli said something else that I urge hon. Members to bear in mind in the context of this important debate. He said that
“the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing”.
He did not say “nationalistic”, which is extremely important. In other words, we put the national interest first.
As I suggested in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, we really must look at the question of the negotiations that will be necessary because we are now in government, not opposition. We have to receive legislation from Brussels and decide what we are going to do about it—not only from Brussels, but all the European institutions, which operate by majority vote, so that we do not have an option. It is not like legislation that comes from Downing street, the Cabinet Office or the legislation committee or wherever—it comes from the European Commission, which makes the proposals.
We must react to those proposals, but what are we going to do? We must decide yes or no when there is a majority vote. I shall give the House but a few examples. Recently, on the question of the bail-out, £15 billion of British guarantees were subject to a majority vote. The previous Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested that there were legal guarantees. As a long-time member of the European Scrutiny Committee—26 years now—I shall be looking into that very closely in the next few weeks. Is it a guarantee and is it legal? Is it binding upon us despite assertions to the contrary? Is the Barnier report, which came out only yesterday, binding upon us by majority voting?
Above all else—many other things—there is the question of European economic management and whether our own Budgets will be imposed upon us by a surveillance system before they come to Parliament. Those are crucial matters that go to the very heart of how we are governed.
I wish that hon. Members and others outside would get rid of the idea that somehow those of us who raise such questions are wrong. If I may say so—not in any vainglorious manner—we have been proved right in our rebellion on the Maastricht treaty, which I conducted from this very spot some 20 years ago. When we look back, we should recognise that we were right over the exchange rate mechanism, and monetary and political union.
Under the headline “Markets in turmoil”, City AM, which is edited by Allister Heath, who became director of research of the European Foundation, a think-tank that I happen to have the honour of chairing, states:
“SHARES worldwide plunged yesterday as fears that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis would lead to a fresh collapse in the banking sector… Investors are concerned that Greece’s debt crisis is spreading across the Eurozone, in particular to Spain”.
We cannot exempt ourselves from the consequences of the mistakes that have been made in the European Union, the Lisbon agenda, high unemployment rates and our massive trade deficit, which results from the fact that we are trading with a Europe that is in turmoil.
We have to revise our views about the European Union and I urge the Government to take that seriously. After all, my party was badly afflicted by the European issue in the general election. The United Kingdom Independence party deprived us of as many as 23 seats. We would not be sitting in this configuration if those 23 seats had come to us, as they would have done had we had a more robust policy on Europe. I do not doubt that many people would agree.
How do we restore this nation’s economy, its respect in the world and the respect of our people for their Parliament? This is not Europhobic nonsense: these are realities that we have to tackle if we are to govern ourselves. That is what the general election was about—whether the views of the people who voted for us are reflected in the laws that affect them during their daily lives. This is not about some theoretical abstraction; it is about the realities of life. Unemployment levels in other parts of Europe are astronomic. Europe is in turmoil. We need an association of nation states and, with respect to our own economy, small businesses can thrive only if we repatriate social and employment legislation—something that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister described as his imperative requirement in a speech he made in 2005. We must restore our ability to reduce our debt, which can come only from a vibrant and enterprising economy. That requires the repeal of that very legislation.
The British Chambers of Commerce has suggested that small business legislation from Europe and elsewhere costs the enormous sum of £88 billion. That is completely and totally impossible and has to be reformed. Our competitiveness internationally will depend on our ability to ensure that we get the balance right.
I am serious about this issue. We are now in government. We know that we have a responsibility to discharge. As I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, we need a sovereignty Act to underpin negotiations on this issue. My Bill has been published and some have been good enough to refer to it as a gold standard. We have to require that, notwithstanding the European Communities Act 1972, we will legislate where it is in our vital national interest to do so, and require the judiciary to take account of the legislation passed in this House and override European legislation when necessary to restore this country to prosperity and well-being.
I am grateful for the opportunity to make my maiden speech in this debate on defence, an issue of such importance to my constituents. It is a great privilege to make my maiden speech after a speech on Europe by the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash). As a teenager, I used to watch him speak in Parliament, and it is a privilege to be here today to hear pretty much the same speech from him. [Laughter.]
I congratulate those who have also made their maiden speeches today. We heard excellent speeches from the hon. Members for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) and for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty). I believe this is the last maiden speech of the evening, so hon. Members need give their indulgence for just a little longer, and I thank them for it.
I pay tribute, of course, to the former Defence Secretary, the former Member for Barrow and Furness, the right hon. John Hutton, who served the constituency with supreme dedication from 1992 and was a Minister for more than a decade. For many of those years, I was privileged to serve as his adviser. In the House, John Hutton always had a sharpness and eloquence, and yet a down-to-earth turn of phrase and, most of all, determination to stand up, in the House and outside, for what he knew was right. He gave outstanding service to the country and his constituents, and has been a great friend to me over the years. I can only strive to emulate the dedication that he has shown in public life.
If you will permit me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will also pay tribute to Albert Booth, another former Member for Barrow, who sadly died earlier this year. He served in the House from 1966 to 1983, and was, of course, Secretary of State for Employment between 1976 and 1979, in the last Labour Government but one. He is remembered with great affection in my constituency, which I am sure is the case in the House as well. He will be greatly missed.
I am delighted that the boundaries of the Barrow and Furness constituency have expanded, making the area ever more diverse and taking in the areas of Broughton, Grizebeck, Kirkby, Greenodd and Penny Bridge, and I look forward to being their champion every bit as much as for the established areas of the constituency. Furness is tucked away but it is a fantastic place, and I urge every hon. Member to come and visit the area, including the beautiful market towns of Ulverston and Dalton, Askam and the natural beauty of the Duddon valley. It will not take hon. Members as long as they think to get there, and they will not forget the area once they have been, so they should try to make the effort.
Britain remains a great manufacturing nation, and we should be so proud of that. My constituents are intensely proud of the part they play in the great, high-skilled manufacturing sector in the area. They look to the future and see so much potential. Furness has so much to offer the world: from the low-carbon lighting industry, based around the Ulverston area, which can play a central role in tackling climate change in the years ahead and provide more jobs, to the creative industries and the young entrepreneurs coming to Furness because the technological advances that we have made mean that they no longer feel that they have to gather in the cities. Of course, however, the success of those industries and opportunities requires partnership with the Government, which is why it is essential that we guard against cuts to regional business support and restrictions on university opportunities and opportunities for young people, which could do so much damage to the future prosperity of my area and the whole country.
The modern Furness region and our future prosperity are founded upon continued support for our prized defence industrial base and the incredible prowess in Barrow shipyard. The multinational nuclear non-proliferation talks are vital, and we have to pursue the long-term goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. The only thing we can do, as a country and as human beings, is strive for a world completely free from nuclear weapons. However, while the threat remains from nuclear, as it will for the foreseeable future, it would be grave folly and damaging to our long-term goal of peace and security to risk effectively disarming unilaterally by stalling the Trident successor programme in these vital months ahead.
The form of our deterrent was extensively considered in the last Parliament. However, if the new Government are determined to reopen this question, and there is still a lack of clarity—
The Secretary of State shakes his head, but I hope that he will clear the issue up in his closing remarks. If the Government want to reopen the question, I will play a full part in putting the case for renewing Trident and why it is the only cost-effective and secure system. However, it is vital that any reconsideration, on cost or form, should not affect our capacity, either in Furness or across the UK, to build the new submarines without putting jobs at risk. That is vital to my constituency and to the extensive supply chain, which extends right across the United Kingdom.
I hope that the new Defence Secretary, whom I congratulate on his elevation, will give a reassurance on that issue in his closing remarks. I also hope that he will give an assurance that the contracts that the last Government let in March for the fifth and sixth Astute-class boats to be built in Barrow shipyard will not be reviewed by the incoming Government. I hope he agrees that it is vital that those contracts should continue apace, as they were doing.
I am determined to play my part in restoring the public’s faith in Parliament and the power of the democratic process to transform people’s lives. Most of all, I am determined to stand up for the area that I love and for the people, who are so brilliant and so inspiring, and who have made me and my family so welcome. I will not let them down.
Thank you for giving me this chance to speak so early in this Parliament, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is great to see you in the Chair. There has been a long succession of maiden speeches from across the House, from the excellent speech by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on mental health issues, through to the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) and the most recent speech, by the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock).
Let me say first what an honour it is to be elected to this House to follow David Howarth, who served as an excellent MP for Cambridge for five years. Everywhere I went during the election campaign, people were full of praise for David and his achievements, from specific items of casework to saving Brookfields hospital and his campaign against the closure of the young people’s psychiatric service. His national work has also been acclaimed, such as his fight against the “Abolition of Parliament Bill”. Now that I am here, I am delighted to find that he is remembered clearly by many in all parts of the House, and also by many of the Clerks, who appreciated his interest and expertise in procedure. David is a true scholar, a fine lawyer and a great representative, and he will be missed on these Benches.
Cambridge has a long and distinguished electoral history. Since 1295, our representatives have included such notable political reformers as Oliver Cromwell—although I do not endorse his aims or his methods. If one includes the parallel Cambridge University constituency, which operated from 1603 to 1950, the list also includes many great scientists, including Sir George Gabriel Stokes and Sir Isaac Newton, who was arguably the first scientist to make money, although in his case it was as Master of the Mint. In the light of recent discussions, I should also say that the representatives of the university constituencies were elected using the single transferable vote, so there is plenty of historic precedent for using it for elections to this House.
Cambridge is a distinguished city and a special city. It became significant under the Romans, as an important causeway past the swampland of the fens—now all coloured blue. Like Rome, Cambridge is built on seven hills, although anyone who knows it well will be hard pressed to name them all, or indeed to find them.
Cambridge is a city of values—of people who think beyond the immediate. It is a liberal city, with residents who understand the value of civil liberties and human rights. Cambridge is an environmental city, keen to live sustainably and without polluting the planet. It is also an international city, with residents who appreciate diversity and welcome those from other countries, and have a deep interest in foreign affairs and what their country is doing in their name. Cambridge cares about fairness and social justice.
For it is not a uniformly wealthy city. Some areas are wealthy, especially around the picturesque historic centre where tourists gather, but many, including the division that I had the honour to represent for eight years on Cambridgeshire county council and the ward where I now live, are less well-off. We must ensure that inequality is reduced, both in Cambridge and across the country.
Cambridge is best known as a university town, and it has three of them. There is the eponymous university—801 years old, although one should never inquire too carefully about such ages—and Anglia Ruskin university is an excellent university in its own right. It is financed by a certain Lord Ashcroft, and that is a very good use of his money. We also have a branch of the Open university as well.
There is more to Cambridge as an education city than just these universities. We are proud to have two marvellous sixth-form colleges, and excellent further education at Cambridge regional college—I hope that the Secretary of State for Health, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice) will forgive me for trespassing by a few metres across our borders. We also have countless good schools, although some need rather more investment, possibly through a pupil premium, to ensure that all children can have the fair start that they deserve.
Cambridge is a city of students, especially around the central areas. As a former student there myself, and more recently as a lecturer and a director of studies, I have seen at first hand the problems that they face as a result of ever-increasing debts. I have seen how that debt changes their social interactions—Cambridge students are more segregated than they used to be—and how it affects their career choices for the worse.
Cambridge is also a city of science. It has its historic figures such as Newton, Darwin, Watson and Crick, while its more contemporary greats are still pushing back the frontiers of knowledge at a great pace. As one of the few scientists in this House, I hope to bring my expertise to bear on many of the issues facing us.
I suspect that my own research field will not come up too often. I work—or, rather, I worked—on four-stranded DNA structures called G-quadruplexes. I studied how these structures form within cells, how they control which genes are turned on and off, and how they can be targets for new anti-cancer drugs. I do not think that will come up, but it is an understanding of how science works that I bring to this House.
I can speak on wider issues of science policy, such as the funding process for both applied and blue-skies research, and on the operation of the DNA database. I can also speak on how science should affect the broader reaches of policy: for instance, I can speak about making decisions on low-carbon energy sources, following the ideas of my scientific colleague Professor David MacKay, who is now chief scientific adviser at the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
However, I also believe that science, and more specifically the scientific method, has much to contribute to more diverse fields such as home affairs and justice. For instance, the Cambridge criminologist Professor Larry Sherman has performed elegant trials studying how to deploy police most efficiently to minimise criminal activity. He has shown that alternatives to short-term jail, such as restorative justice, are more effective at reducing future crime, cost less, and are preferred by victims. Scientists are obviously not unique in being able to apply such approaches, but we do come with a commitment to making evidence-based policy decisions.
Cambridge is also a city of technology and innovation. It is an economic powerhouse for the region, with many high-tech companies forming an ever growing cluster. Companies such as ARM, Solexa and Cambridge Display Technology are changing our lives, and driving the economy. There is much still to learn about how to stimulate and nurture such clusters and such companies, and I hope that we can develop a set of policies that facilitate such growth.
But economic growth is not all that we should care about. We know that economic growth can lead to environmental damage, but the issue is broader than just that trade-off. We are too fixated on gross domestic product, and make too much of whether it has gone up or down by 0.2%. It does not measure the things we ought to care about— education, health, or well-being. If there is an oil spill off the coast that we then clear up, more or less well, GDP has increased, but I am not sure that any of us would be delighted with that outcome.
We need to focus more broadly on personal issues such as well-being and happiness. We need to develop rigorous metrics to measure this well-being throughout society, and then ensure that we bear them in mind when developing policy. We already know a lot about well-being. It does not change much with income, above a figure of around £7,000 a year. It changes with the quality of our environment, with the number of friends and the other social bonds that we have, with the activities that we get involved in, with family, and with community.
I shall end by summing up my aims for Cambridge and for the country. I want to make Cambridge a city where people want and can afford to live and work. I want it to be a city at ease with its environment, a tolerant, open and more equal city. And I want to expand those same aims across the country.
It has been said before that decisions are made by those who show up. It is a great honour that the people of Cambridge have asked me to show up here on their behalf, and I will try to represent them to the best of my ability.
We have heard some wonderful maiden speeches today. My new colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), made a warm, passionate speech about her constituency. The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) spoke of his inexperience, but he is now out of the starting gate, having made his maiden speech, and I doubt that his lack of experience will last long. It was good to see the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) in the flesh; the last time we engaged in a dialogue I was in Plymouth and he was somewhere in London.
The hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) was generous in giving due recognition to his predecessor. My hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) made a perceptive speech that showed a real understanding of the challenges that he faces as an MP. The new hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) gave a description of his constituency that was clearly designed to encourage new visitors to the area. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), with whom I shall need to make common cause on the need to secure both our dockyards, also made an interesting speech. My hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who is still in his place, was witty and eloquent. I also welcome the scientific background of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert). We have lost a number of good colleagues on both sides of the House with that kind of experience, and I am sure that his expertise will be valued here.
We have been debating foreign and defence policy today, but because of my constituency’s deep reliance on defence industries, I will focus on questions specific to those concerns and on the wider implications of statements made in the Gracious Speech and in advance of the Budget outside this Chamber, which will have an impact on the constituents of Plymouth, Moor View.
The proposed armed forces Bill will seek to make military police investigations more independent. That will be welcomed, following serious criticism by High Court judges of the way in which inquiries have been carried out. The Bill will also build on the progress made under the previous Government to recognise the selfless performance of duty that we receive from our serving armed forces, and the pressure that that places on them and their families.
The covenant agreed under the Labour Government represented a significant step forward, and set out the nation’s commitment to the armed forces personnel, to their families and to veterans. It included more than 40 commitments aimed at improving support, and although many of them are in place, I would like a commitment that that support will continue alongside any proposed enhancements offered to front-line service personnel, rather than those developments replacing what happened earlier. How the Foreign Secretary’s statement today relates to the various pledges made in recent weeks is unclear, as is how the savings that the Secretary of State for Defence—whom I welcome to his new role—will be asked to make will impact on the UK defence industries, and specifically on naval bases.
When I was elected in 2005, there was a concern that we could lose 1,500 jobs from the dockyard, making it unviable in terms of skill retention. We then faced the spectre of our naval base being closed when the previous review took place. None of those things happened, because, as a city, we lobbied very hard. At this point I would like to pay tribute to my former colleague Linda Gilroy, who, throughout her parliamentary career representing Plymouth, Sutton, fought to protect Plymouth from cuts to the defence budget. She brought great expertise to her work on the Defence Committee, which was recognised on both sides of the House, and Ministers were only too aware that if noises were made about changes to Plymouth’s defence industry, they would face a formidable opponent.
We as a city will continue to press our case. We have Babcock Marine—now much enhanced by the addition to the company of VT—as well as many other defence-related firms such as Atlantic Inertial Systems and Barden Corporation UK Ltd. Those companies have found the recession tough at times, but they, like other companies across the south-west, had begun to see progress as the economy began to grow under the previous Government. Plymouth’s economy depends on the continued resilience of those companies, and the terms of business agreement signed by Babcock and the Government before the election should ensure that work continues in Plymouth. However, I would like a guarantee from the Minister that that contract is not one of those whose flexibilities will be revisited with a view to making changes. Will he confirm that the terms of business agreement cannot be unpicked? Babcock’s highly skilled and committed work force will need that reassurance, as will the company itself.
All the city’s MPs also battled to ensure that Plymouth was retained under the last naval base review, and that we would continue to have a long-term role. The review settled on the need for three naval bases, and Plymouth was to be enhanced by the addition of the Royal Marines, who are currently based in Poole, moving to the Weston Mill part of the largest naval base in western Europe. We are due to become a centre for amphibiosity and to make the obvious links between HMS Ocean, Bulwark and Albion—the light fleet carriers and the landing craft, which are already part of Plymouth’s landscape. Will the Minister confirm that that move will still take place—or will it form part of the strategic defence review? Plans were well in hand, and the Royal Marines themselves were keen for the move to happen so that they could plan ahead, which is especially important for the families who might have to make decisions about schools and property moves. Any uncertainty would, I have no doubt, cause problems for the service.
As a result of the maritime change programme, Plymouth also has virtually all the deep-water maintenance on the submarines and ships. Will the Minister confirm that that position will not be changed, as some 40% of the work force based in the dockyard are my constituents, who do not want any insecurity?
The most inimical part of the coalition’s defence policy is the attitude to our nuclear deterrent. Perhaps the Minister will set the record straight on Trident. Was his hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who contributed in such an entertaining way on this issue, right when he said that the proposal for an alternative system was nonsense? The Liberal Democrats argued strongly in favour of that proposal prior to the election. As is clear from what the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) said, there are still concerns and splits between the two partners. What is the status of the review of Trident, and how will it fit into the SDR?
The new Foreign Secretary stated last year during the debate on the Queen’s Speech that he believed that replacing Trident with an alternative deterrent would present a serious problem with regard to our legal obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Perhaps that could be cleared up during the winding-up speeches, or is this just another disagreement between senior Ministers on policy? Will Ministers confirm today that the Government will take no steps to embark on any programme or policy that could breach this treaty at any time? If they will confirm that, will they accept that their commission to investigate Trident is a sham and a waste of public money that would be better spent maintaining vital public services—or are the Government looking at the defence review as a means of extending the life of the existing submarine platforms? Clarification is needed, as extension would be beneficial to Devonport.
I am concerned, however, to know how the Government intend to fund such an extension and how coherent their policy is. The coalition agreement sets out that the Ministry of Defence will suffer a 25% cut in its running costs. I hope that Ministers from both Government parties do not assume that a cut of this magnitude will have no impact on the front line or will not overburden staff working in other areas and dealing with issues of national security. There is no doubt—the Gray review confirmed it—that significant savings can be made and that procurement processes have to be further improved, but that must not be done with haste, because there is a real risk that rushed changes will bring about unforeseen outcomes.
I hope that the estimates of cost were not worked out in the same way as the Gershon estimates for IT savings, which Conservative Members trumpeted as an example of Government waste. They claimed they could save £2 billion, but on Monday this week it was admitted that the figure was less than £100 million. Will the Minister assure us that before the axe is wielded on the Ministry of Defence, the Government will first check that they have their figures somewhere in the right ball park?
In concluding, I must point out that the previous Government confirmed time and again that they were committed to maintaining the naval base and dockyard at Plymouth. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that the MOD should continue to maintain the skills base. It would also be wrong for all the frigates to be moved away from Plymouth. The likely shape of the future Navy was raised by the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), the former Chair of the Select Committee, and change was mooted prior to the announcement of the last defence review. The implication was that we needed a serious rethink of the design of the future surface combatant, and that we needed more of a workhorse model than the all-singing, all-dancing top-of-the-range model that the Navy might have wished for. If that is the case, Plymouth is clearly best placed to base-port it.
I hope that Ministers will maintain the commitment of their Labour predecessors to the Plymouth naval base and dockyard, and will realise that the overcapacity problems faced at Portsmouth mean that Plymouth will have an ongoing role. I ask clearly whether the Plymouth dockyard and the HM naval base, which are vital for the city’s future, will be secured in the same way to which the previous Government were committed, or whether it will be placed up for grabs in the defence review, risking a wholesale shift to Portsmouth or other bases? Are the Government willing to consider closing bases in connection with the review, or are they willing to offer, here and now, the security and peace of mind that my constituents want—with a naval presence in Plymouth and the jobs that go with it safe from this Government’s cuts agenda?
It is a tremendous honour to speak in a debate that has featured so many genuinely outstanding maiden speeches. They have caused me to recall my own puny affair with a growing sense of inferiority as the afternoon has proceeded. [Interruption.] I am too modest, it is true.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State for Defence to his new job, if for no other reason than that it resumes East Kilbride’s grip on the Ministry of Defence, which was established by Adam Ingram’s record tenure. Now that the Secretary of State has control, I wish him the very best for his endeavours in the difficult task that lies ahead. I also wish every success to the Front Bench teams holding the foreign, defence and international development briefs.
In the time available, I shall not repeat much of what has already been said about Afghanistan and other issues. Instead, I shall address an issue that has not been raised in the debate and that receives too little mention in the counsels of this Chamber. I am determined to put that right over the coming years.
If I may borrow a phrase from Harold Macmillan and amend it, the wind of oppression is blowing through the African continent today, an oppression aimed largely at young gay men and women. It has become a much more pressing issue; and although it is not confined to Africa, it is in Africa that that dehumanising and brutal oppression is occurring on this very day.
We are aware of the notorious private Member’s Bill tabled in Uganda by David Bahati that proposes the death penalty for people who are HIV-positive and engaged in homosexual activity, life in prison for everyone else who engages in homosexual activity, and seven years in prison for people who counsel those who engage in homosexual activity. It is, as I said, a private Member’s Bill, and the Ugandan Government have distanced themselves from it. None the less, even without the Bill, it will be illegal to be gay in Uganda, and punishable by 14 years in prison. The President of Uganda has said that homosexuality is “alien”. In the last year for which figures are available, the United Kingdom Government gave £71 million in aid to Uganda.
In Malawi, in the past few days, two young men, Tiwonge Chimbalanga and Steven Monjeza, have been sentenced to 14 years in prison for declaring publicly their love for one another. Passing sentence, the judge said that he would give them
“a scaring sentence, so that the public be protected from people like you; so that we are not tempted to emulate this horrendous example.”
Action against gays in Malawi is on the increase, and the President of Malawi has done nothing but stoke such prejudice.
There is another, less well-known case in Malawi, the so-called poster boy case. Peter Sawali has been sentenced to community service for the crime of pasting up a poster saying “gay rights are human rights”. In the last year for which figures are available, the United Kingdom Government donated £77 million of aid to Malawi.
In Kenya, things are little better. Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by up to 14 years in jail. In February this year, five people were arrested for planning a gay wedding north of Mombasa, and another man was handed over to the police by members of the public on suspicion of being gay. In the last year for which figures are available, the United Kingdom Government gave £103 million of aid to Kenya.
In Zimbabwe, almost nothing unites President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai except their competition to see who can demonise gay people the most. Just a few days ago, two members of the organisation Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe were arrested. Their crime was to publish a letter written by Willie Brown, the former mayor of San Francisco, which was critical of Robert Mugabe. Today, those two people are in prison. In the last year for which figures are available, the UK Government gave £56 million in aid to Zimbabwe. Even in South Africa, the only country on the continent where gays have any legal rights at all, there has been an increase in so-called conversion rapes against young lesbian women in the townships. In the last year for which figures are available, the UK Government gave £40 million in aid to South Africa.
I know that the question of our attitude towards what may be regarded as social and sexual mores in other countries, and especially developing countries, is a complex one, and that it can often tie us in moral knots. We may personally deplore what is going on, but we may also be anxious to avoid the sort of moral neo-colonialism that seeks to impose our western liberal sexual values on other countries; after all, these countries suffered enough from our forebears, who told them in the Victorian age what sexual mores they should and should not follow.
To answer that complex question, we must go back to first principles. Why do we have an international aid policy in the first place? Why do we give money to such countries? We do not do so because one day we hope they will trade with us, which is our rationale for giving money to European countries. We may do so because it helps bolster our image on the international stage—a fact recognised by the new Prime Minister on entering office—but that is not the main reason. Rather, we have an international aid policy in the first place because it is an outward expression of our common humanity. It is an expression of the fact that those of us who have plenty are morally compelled and obliged to help those of our fellow men and women around the globe who do not; and it is in that expression of an indivisible common humanity that we can properly locate our abhorrence of the oppression and dehumanisation of gay men and lesbians in Zimbabwe today.
I do not want to use our aid budget as a football. I know this money is not going to the state; I know it is going on projects to combat deprivation, ill health and disease, and I do not want to diminish it in the least, but what do we do when our denunciations are ignored? What do we do when our entreaties are brushed aside, and when President Mugabe, whose country receives tens of millions of pounds in aid, can say that gays are worse than pigs and dogs? What do we do when this Parliament has within its grasp the ability to say to some of these countries, “We want to help and support you—it is a recognition of our common humanity that we do so—but we cannot go on signing cheques to countries that are brutally and viciously oppressing and suppressing the rights of others.”?
It is not only on the ground of sexuality that countries oppress rights. As we heard from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson), some countries oppress people on the ground of religion, which may be rooted in differences of creed or race. If our international aid budget is rooted in our humanity, it does not come value-free, and it does not come free from a sense that the humanity of everyone must be respected.
I have not even mentioned the utterly disastrous effect these policies in Africa are having on the rise in HIV and AIDS. If someone who thinks they might have HIV is told that to be homosexual is to be worse than a pig or a dog and is punishable by 14 years in prison, why would they come forward? What possible reason would they have to seek medical help and the method to prevent the spread of HIV? We are funding anti-HIV and AIDS programmes in countries with policies that do nothing to stop HIV and AIDS, and instead contribute to their spread.
This is a big job for the Government. I do not pretend it is the most important thing on the plate of incoming Ministers, but it is important to millions across Africa whose fundamental human right to be gay or lesbian is being brutally oppressed by regimes. I look to the Government to give a lead by setting out what positive action we can take when our denunciations are brushed aside and doing something about this appalling miscarriage of human rights.
A special intense silence falls on this place when the names of the fallen are read out. We experienced it yesterday when the names of those who have died since we last met were read out by both Front-Bench spokespeople. It is right that we read those names out, that we record our gratitude for the heroism of those who have fallen and that we remind ourselves that we in this place were responsible for the decision to send them to war. Every one of those names belongs to a person whose life has ended and we remind ourselves that they all had loved ones who suffered a wound that will never heal.
It might surprise hon. Members to learn that I have before me the names of all those who have fallen, but I do not intend to read them out, first, because to do so would take longer than the 10 minutes available to me and, secondly, because I am forbidden to do so. I have not mentioned in the House before that after I last read out a list of the 250 names of the fallen the extraordinary decision was taken that this is not to be allowed on any future occasion. I am not sure why, because it is right that there should be an occasion, at least once a year—the list should perhaps not be read by a Back Bencher, but by the Leader of the House—on which we should recall not just the names of the individuals who have died in the previous week or so, but the names of all those who have died. That would leave us with a profound impression of the result of our decisions.
The attitude in this House towards Afghanistan is one of mutually assured delusion, and we heard a bit of that today. We know that only the future is certain and the past is always changing; every politician is trying to rewrite and reshape the past. It does not often seem that we have to reshape the past of last week, but we received optimistic and positive reports of last week’s visit by the three Ministers to Afghanistan. It seems strange that omitted from the reports was the major event of that trip, which was their inability to visit their main destination because of Taliban activity.
I have also raised with the Foreign Secretary the comments by the Defence Secretary, who was reported in The Times as having said that the troops were not there
“for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country.”
The Defence Secretary has rapidly suffered the fate of all Ministers, including Defence Ministers, who are caught in possession of an intelligent idea. Denials were issued, including by the Foreign Secretary, who I am delighted to see in his place, saying that either that it was not said or that it was not meant. However, this was an entirely rational approach of Government, because we cannot sacrifice the lives of our troops in a war designed to reshape the education policy of a country that is in a state of civilisation that is centuries behind us all.
The policy supported from all sides is based on a series of delusions. The other thing that we primarily lie about is Karzai. If we had not gone into Afghanistan in 2001, we would see Karzai as a rogue leader and take resolutions about removing him, because he has fixed his own election and is publicly corrupt. A member of the World Bank who wrote a book about it afterwards said to him, “I have absolute proof of how $1 million has been stolen from the funds devoted from abroad.” He replied, “You westerners don’t understand Afghanistan. This is the Afghan way of doing things. You pay us the money and we steal it.” This has been the lubricant of Afghan politics and Afghan business for hundreds of years. Corruption is endemic, but we still play this foolish game of believing that we can get rid of corruption and that if we pass a few resolutions here, corruption will go. That will not happen. It has been asked many times, if Karzai is serious about ending corruption, why does he not arrest his brother? It comes very close to his line.
The other delusion that is constantly repeated is that we are there to ensure that there is not terrorism on our streets. It certainly did not work in New York, where there was an act of terrorism despite America’s action in Afghanistan. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made a telling point, although he came to the wrong conclusion, when he said that al-Qaeda was no longer operating in Afghanistan. If we look at the facts, we will see that none of the terrorist threats or actions has come from Afghanistan. They have come from Pakistan and from this country. If we wanted to ensure that terrorist acts were not planned, we would have to invade Pakistan, Somaliland and Yemen. This is a myth. We have not, as few of our Front Benchers have met Taliban leaders, but if we said to a Taliban leader, “What is your aim? Why are you killing our soldiers?”, would they say, “Oh, when we’ve killed your soldiers, we’re coming over to London and Newport to blow up your streets.”? Or would they say, “We are killing your soldiers because they are farangi. They are in our country and it is our sacred religious duty to kill them, to drive them out of our country in the same way as our fathers did with the Russians, as our grandfathers did with other farangi and as our great-great-grandfathers did, and in the same way as we hope that our children will die in expelling farangi from our country”? Our presence there is the reason why the killing continues.
Let us consider the two levels of war that we have had from when we went to Afghanistan, when it was not controversial, up to 2006 when there was no decision in this House, but there was a debate. The Government at the time said that they were going into Helmand province in the hope that not a shot would be fired and that they would be out in three years. That was accepted in the debate by all parties. In that debate, I suggested that that action would be as futile and dangerous as the charge of the Light Brigade. I seriously underestimated the carnage that resulted. We have now lost twice as many people in Helmand as died in the charge of the Light Brigade, in a mission that has been equally futile.
We base our hope on a number of pillars. One is the Afghan army and the other the Afghan police. The Afghan army was involved in a mission six months ago in which 300 of its members were guarding a convoy that was attacked by seven members of the Taliban. The Afghan army fled—they were outnumbered and left the Taliban to capture the convoy. It was rightly asked at the time why on earth mercenary soldiers—which is what they are, and they might well desert or be in the Taliban in a week’s time, as there are mass desertions—should kill brother Afghans and give up their lives in the service of a corrupt President who is not of their tribe and in the service of foreign countries.
The other group is the police. The only time at which a police force that is free of corruption has been set up anywhere in recent times was in Georgia, where they sacked the entire police force and started again. We are not doing that. We are building on a collapsing, rotten foundation of a police force that is based on corruption. That is the way in which it is run. The chiefs of the police buy their jobs and the reason that they pay huge amounts of money to become important leaders of the police is that they get their money by taking a cut of the money taken from the Afghan people by oppressing and stealing from them.
Even worse, when we so-called liberated one area in Penkala, the chiefs and elders came forward and said, “Whatever you do, don’t send in the Afghan police, because the last time they were here, they practised bacha bazi.” Those who are familiar with that will know that it is the ritual imprisonment and rape of prepubescent boys. The person whom they appealed to said, “You had the Taliban here before. Were they not wicked people?” They said, “Yes, they are wicked and cruel, but they are men of principle.”
I am most grateful to follow the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). He and I have clashed on these subjects many times in the past, and I think we will continue so to do. It is extremely telling that he continued to mention Afghanistan without linking it intimately to Pakistan. I shall expand on that later.
I congratulate all those who made their maiden speeches today, in particular my old friend, the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). It is many years since the House has contained a full colonel who carries a Distinguished Service Order. I know that we will be extremely grateful to have not only him but all his newly arrived colleagues with us to add their wisdom to the proceedings of the House. Let me also welcome to their new posts the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth)—it gives me particular pleasure to see him in that position.
I want to concentrate briefly on the subjects of defence and foreign affairs, as the two interplay and interlock with each other. I hope and trust that, with the new coalition Government in front of us, we will base our defence policy and military expeditions on the principles of sound, thought-through foreign policy. I hope that we will stop committing our young men and women—our marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen—to expeditions that are based upon dubious intelligence, or perhaps even lies, upon aspirations that have not been thought through and upon aims that are completely devoid of a study of history. It is fascinating to note, for instance, that on 21 July last year, on the Helmand river, the same regiment was in action against the same tribesmen, against a very similar political background—fighting Talibs, for which read Taliban, and Ghazis, for which read al-Qaeda. That is exactly the same position as when almost 1,000 Britons lost their lives on 21 July 1880 in the battle of Maiwand. That is no coincidence. What is deplorable is that a Government could commit us to that sort of action without making a careful study of British history in that area, and, of course Soviet history in that same area.
Therefore, I have no doubt that the new Government will look carefully at the way we approach our defence policy and in particular that we cease to regard what is going on in Afghanistan-Pakistan as an operation. It is not an operation: it is a war. If we are to win this war—I use the words “war” and “win” not in terms of victory medals and parades, of peace treaties and conventional warfare, but in a wholly different and thoughtful way to mean that although the war will never be won, the situation may be contained—we need to understand that, to be successful, our armed forces must be placed on a war footing. Above and beyond everything else, we must have a policy of withdrawing our fighting men and women from harm’s way as soon as they possibly, justifiably and honourably can be withdrawn.
The big questions that await the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary are about having an understanding of where conventional operations and counter-insurgency operations start and stop. One of the great crimes of the last Government was to try to pretend that conventional operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan would make sure that there were no terrorist operations on the streets of this country. But I say to the House that the last successful terrorist operation in this country, in July 2005, was not carried out by Afghans, but by Yorkshiremen. It was carried out by Englishmen trained a little in Pakistan, not Afghanistan, but trained also in the Lake district. How on earth are armoured cars and tanks and bombs—to quote the song—going to stop that sort of operation continuing? It does not make sense.
The reason that our men and women are committed to Afghanistan and Pakistan is to contain that situation, and to make sure that the people of this country understand that this is a regional conflict which stretches from the borders of Iran right the way up to the borders of Russia, and which concerns the use of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of unprincipled enemies who will be only too happy to use them in this country.
The big decisions for the new Government lie in deciding whether we will try and conduct such operations and how we spend our slender resources—broadly speaking and in very crude terms, whether we buy manpower and expertise or whether we continue to invest in high-tech equipment which is less than suitable for this sort of warfare. We must look over the horizon and decide where the next threat is coming from. Will we face a series of minor conflicts verging on insurgencies, or must we be ready for the big questions, the big wars and deterrence, of which we have an understanding and of which history may be able to show us easier lessons?
I do not know the answer to those questions, but I do know that the most important element in helping the Government and the best thing that we can do in the Chamber is to form a vibrant, thoughtful and knowledgeable Defence Committee that is properly led and directed and which can ask the difficult questions of our Front-Bench team and of the Opposition, and ask the Ministry of Defence to make sure that its resources are no longer squandered.
For instance, in these times of extreme financial difficulty, why do we have five headquarters? Why do we have a Ministry of Defence, Permanent Joint Headquarters, Strike Command, Land Command and Fleet Command stuffed with senior officers, senior civil servants, batmen, drivers and computer operators? Why do we have more civil servants than we have members of the Army? Why do we have at any one time only 9,000 men and women who are capable of driving a tank or thrusting with a bayonet? Why do we need five massive, expensive headquarters to deal with that? These are the sort of questions that a well-balanced Defence Committee should ask. Such questions will define our defence policy over the next couple of decades.
But we must not allow ourselves to be narrow-minded. We must not allow ourselves to prepare for the last war, or to go through the sort of thing that I had to go through when I was a serving officer. After my 25 years’ experience, mainly operational, my last job in the Army was in charge of part of the Army Training and Recruiting Agency. When I asked why there were no war plans to increase the number of men and women that we would need to fight the next war, I received a clear statement not from the major-general commanding, but from an individual who described himself as the chief executive. He wore the uniform of a major-general, but he described himself in that civilian role. He said, “Young man”—I was flattered—“there is never going to be another war like that again.” How wrong he was, and how wrong were so many of the speeches, including the excellent speech that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Newport West.
How many of the speeches misunderstand the nature of the wars that we will have to face, and the nature of the pool of manpower from which we can draw to fight those wars. These are the difficult questions and the reason the Defence Committee must make itself available as a loyal but critical servant of the Government, is to make sure that we do not continue the sort of mistakes that we have seen over the past 13 years.
Lastly, we must all salute those young men and young women, many of whom were on the list which, I agree, should have been read out by the last speaker, who allow us to debate in freedom while they risk their lives.
First, I pay tribute to our armed forces, particularly those stationed in many parts of the world as they protect our country and our national interests. They are magnificent people, and it was my great honour to serve them as Secretary of State for Defence and, before that, as Minister for the Armed Forces. I want especially to pay tribute to those in Afghanistan, most particularly those who have made the ultimate sacrifice since the House last met. We must never forget them.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) on his appointment; he now has the privilege but also the duty to do all he can for the defence of our country and the well-being of our armed forces. I hope that he will be able to face the significant challenges of the period ahead. In my view, he faces three overriding tasks. To the extent that he carries those out honourably and in the national interest, he will receive our backing and support.
First, the right hon. Gentleman needs to conduct a strategic defence review, as announced in the Gracious Speech. Secondly, he must take forward and consolidate the progress achieved so far in Afghanistan. Thirdly, he must ensure that he looks after the welfare of our armed forces community. To use the shorthand that has now gone into common usage, he needs to honour the military covenant.
Is the strategic defence review under way, as we have read in the press? The Government are falling into bad habits so soon. Is there going to be an open debate on the issues during the process? Will the Government set up real mechanisms to ensure that those beyond the Government will be able to contribute? The right hon. Gentleman was complimentary about the manner in which I conducted the Green Paper process, and I hope that he will be as inclusive on the strategic defence review itself.
Despite claiming that the SDR will be security-led, the right hon. Gentleman will not be able to exclude the Treasury, as the right hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot), who chaired the Defence Committee, said. I suggest to the Secretary of State for Defence that it is in his interests and those of the nation to include others. After all, he has repeatedly told the British people that the British Government are fighting a war on a peacetime budget. He must expect to be judged on the outcome that he achieves. Having said that the Army is too small, that the number of Navy ships has been reduced to the point of putting the nation in danger, and having criticised the cutbacks at RAF Cottesmore and the gapping of the Nimrod capability, he has set himself quite a task.
There is not only the Green Paper exercise, in which the former Secretary of State was kind enough to invite me to participate, but the example of Labour’s defence review following the 1997 election, led by George—now Lord—Robertson, and in which the public were invited to participate effectively.
I am inviting my successor to be as open and inclusive as possible and to try to capture a broad spectrum of opinion in the country as he does his business on the strategic defence review.
What on earth went on last week on the issue of Afghanistan? The Defence Secretary was briefing the press that
“We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country.”
That has been mentioned by many this afternoon. At the same time, the Secretary of State for International Development was making it clear that development, including education, was absolutely crucial. If the Secretaries of State travel on the same plane, they must be able to speak to one another. It is not as though either was a Liberal Democrat—where was the barrier to a conversation? Did the Foreign Secretary have to knock the Secretaries of States’ heads together?
Can the Defence Secretary confirm that, despite what he was trying to spin out in the newspapers, he has no new strategy in Afghanistan and that he is following the coalition strategy, as we were? If not, he should spell out his new strategy to the House so that he can be questioned on it. He should also let ISAF’s commander, General McChrystal, know that he has a new plan and share it with him.
Will the Secretary of State tell us—if not now, perhaps he could write—what equipment he is going to provide for our troops over and above what had already been ordered by the Labour Government? He will want to do this, having been so vociferous in telling the nation how we were betraying the troops in Afghanistan, so I invite him to do so. How many additional helicopters and protected vehicles does he plan to buy? How will he square that with his silly attempts to say that we were signing irresponsible contracts in the last months of the Government? I leave it to him to square that argument. However, if he is going to make that allegation, I invite him to say specifically which contracts we should not have signed and which contracts should not go ahead.
On the talked-about move to Kandahar, let me tell the right hon. Gentleman that I was an extreme sceptic. We have learned many things in Helmand, and surely now is the time to consolidate and to finish the job. I hope that unless there are overwhelming, genuine military reasons to do otherwise, he will resist the calls to pull up stumps and move elsewhere.
I turn to the issue of forces welfare. I hope that the Secretary of State can accept that great strides were made in the past few years. I know that he felt the need, as did many of his colleagues, to claim that we had broken the military covenant. He knows, however, that I made great efforts through the service personnel Command Paper, and that the Labour Government improved the lot of our servicemen and women through the introduction of improvements to the compensation scheme and the investment that we made in service accommodation. Can he assure us that there will be no rowing back from the improvements that we introduced, and detail the improvements that he plans to make himself? I congratulate him on increasing the operational allowance, but having said all that he has, he will need to do more than that.
May I ask the right hon. Gentleman—genuinely, because I personally think it was the right thing to do—to think about legislating for a service charter, as we planned to do, in order to enshrine the rights of service personnel in law? When I talk to service people—I am thinking most particularly of those who have been injured in the service of our country—they are not necessarily worried about the treatment that they are getting now but about what will happen to them in 10 years’ time, when the caravan has moved on, they are getting older, and they are still living with their injuries. They want to know that the commitment that we have made in the past couple of years will endure and see them through for the rest of their lives.
I cannot cover all the many fine speeches that have been made—maiden speeches and contributions by existing Members—but I will try to mention one or two in the time available to me. I commiserate with the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who described himself as collateral damage. He demolished very well his new-found friends’ deterrent policy. Let me combine that with the comments that were made by the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), who told the House that many people were deceived by the Liberal Democrats’ policy, and ask him to reflect on whether the policy really was ridiculous or whether it was deceptive.
I wish to mention, as so many others have, the speech of the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), and I ask him to continue to do what he did so well and not to lose that edge over time. He can come into the House and talk to us and the nation, and get us to feel what it is like to serve, suffer and conquer fear as only someone who has had service can. He can bring something to the House in doing that, and I hope that he never loses the ability to do so.
I can see that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is going to be a real champion of the dockyard and our defence industrial base. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) continues to be a rock and make the same speeches as he has for a generation and more. Governments come and Governments go, but the hon. Gentleman is still here, still making the same speech and still hoping that people are listening to him.
I was able to visit the constituency of my new hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) during the election campaign and see what I would describe as the amazing cathedral of engineering skill that we have at Barrow. He is concerned that if we ever lose that skill, it will be extremely difficult to replace and our ability to produce nuclear submarines will be lost, potentially for ever. I hope that we can hang on to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck) expressed her concern that the consolidation of amphibious capability, which I believe is very sensible, should go ahead.
The hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) was uncharacteristically partisan in some of his comments. He cannot blame the Government for operations that his own party supported just as much. If his speech was a bid for a particular job, he himself needs to invest in stealth capability.
The new Government will find that as an Opposition, we are sincere in our support for our armed forces and what they are doing on our behalf. I will throw the new Secretary of State’s past words back at him in future, as I have today, and we will hold this Tory-led Government to account. However, I give him and the House my assurance and that of my hon. Friends that we will not play politics with the dedicated work of the men and women of our armed forces. They deserve, and they will receive, the support of Members on the Labour side of the House.
It is with sadness that I must begin by announcing the death of a soldier from 4th Regiment Royal Artillery, serving as part of Combined Force Nahr-e Saraj (South), who was killed in Helmand today. The soldier died from a gunshot wound sustained during a small arms fire engagement with insurgent forces. His family have been informed, and I hope that the House will understand that they should be given time to come to terms with their loss before further details are released. My personal condolences, and I am sure those of the whole House, are with them at this very difficult time.
The House had a rare treat today in the number and quality of maiden speeches that we heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who has been mentioned a few times already, was a model of courtesy, modesty and charm whose style will go down very well in the House. If that was his performance when he was nervous, as he said, he will be a force to be reckoned with when he is in full flow. He brought an authenticity that was deeply moving when he spoke about his experience with military casualties. He will be a magnificent champion for our armed forces, and his presence in the House will be hugely valued.
My hon. Friend the Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) gave a confident performance with a lot of nice personal touches, which again will be immensely appreciated in the House. It was a performance that offered very much promise and more than just a little competition for those in the new intake. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), in a very fine maiden speech, showed that Stafford now has a fine champion. He talked about the importance of India and the Commonwealth, not least in trade and wider regional co-operation—themes that will be welcomed on the Government Front Bench. His further input would be very welcome.
The hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) was another to give a confident performance. He made a wonderful point about the true nature of heroism. If I may say so, that is the essence of what the armed forces are about. That message is extremely welcome, and I will ensure that his words are widely read by the armed forces, representing as they do the finest of cross-party co-operation.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), whom I am delighted to see in the House of Commons, gave a confident and eloquent speech that showed an excellent grasp of a wide range of subjects. He offered me a number of pieces of advice. I hope he will forgive me if I take a little time to ponder them rather than rush to judgment, but they seem on the surface like excellent advice.
The hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock) gave a fine and fitting tribute to his predecessor, John Hutton. Like his predecessor, he showed a sure grasp of the case for Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Let me say that there is no lack of clarity in the Government’s policy: we believe in a continuous, at-sea, minimum, credible, nuclear deterrent, based on the Trident missile system. I hope that that is explicit enough for him. I look forward to recruiting him to sell the cause in his constituency and beyond.
The hon. Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle) made a passionate case on behalf of his constituency and it is clear that his constituents have a strong advocate. Having taken the first step into parliamentary water, we look forward to his subsequent contributions on behalf of the coalition Government.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Alison Seabeck), in what was, if I may say, an incredibly informed maiden speech, albeit a highly political one—
I apologise to the hon. Lady. In any case, she made an incredibly informed speech that I thoroughly enjoyed. She made a very important point on how individual Members can make more of a contribution to the strategic defence review. If she will forgive me, I will come to the details of my reply on that later.
The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), who is no longer in the Chamber, gave a charmingly self-effacing speech, in a lovely tone, and was especially nice in paying tribute to her predecessor. Should she ever leave politics, there is certainly a job waiting for her at the Bolton tourist board. I almost got my office to book tickets immediately. We look forward to her breaking her silence on many future occasions.
Finally, the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), with a sparky, witty performance that was laced with historical gems, painted a very appealing picture of the city of Cambridge, yet made clear his grasp of the complexities of the social issues that exist there. It is very clear that he is going to be a very strong performer in the Commons, and I wish him well in what already—on day one—looks like a promising parliamentary career.
The first duty of Government is to protect our way of life and provide security for our citizens. The Ministry of Defence is at the centre of that effort, and I am proud and honoured to be asked to serve as Defence Secretary. I am especially proud to work with the exceptional, brave and professional members of our armed forces and the civilians who support them.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth). Although we had disagreements on policy and politics, I never doubted—not for one moment—that he always had the best interests of the armed forces at heart. I know that he will agree that when it comes to national security, we are safer at home and stronger abroad when we demonstrate our common purpose in the House. However, I place it on record that, particularly in the run-up to the general election, when politics can be at its most tribal, he went out of his way to ensure that information was available to the Opposition so that should there be a change of Government, the transition would be as smooth as possible. There is no greater tribute to any politician in the House than to say that they always put the national interest before any party interest. He certainly did so, and deserves a great credit for that.
The only thing that was missing from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech—it was also missing from the shadow Foreign Secretary’s speech earlier—was any sign whatever that they understand the financial mess that they have left behind, including in the armed forces and the MOD.
The new Government are throwing their full weight behind the campaign in Afghanistan, our armed forces and the wider supporting mission. That includes ensuring that our troops have what they need to succeed, and that we look after service personnel on operations and support their families at home. As the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Mr Donaldson)—who is no longer in his place—correctly said, the men and women of our armed forces are our greatest resource. Today, I had to write my first letter of condolence to the family of someone who had died in Afghanistan. As the former Defence Secretary will know, it is a sobering moment, and it brings home in a completely unexpected and very personal way the sacrifices that are made.
The very first question that I and my colleagues asked, when we took over the reins of Government, was whether we had to be in Afghanistan, when we see the sacrifices being made in life and limb, and the cost to the country in terms of finance. The answer was a resounding yes. We are in Afghanistan out of necessity, not choice, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said. It was in Afghanistan that the attacks of 9/11 were planned. We must not allow Afghanistan to be used again as a safe haven for terrorists or a launch pad for attacks on the UK, our interests or our allies.
Our mission in Afghanistan is vital for our national security, vital for the security of the region as a whole and therefore vital for global stability. That is why the international coalition has a mandate from the United Nations and has the active support of more than 60 countries with 46 providing military forces. Were the international coalition to walk away now it would hand al-Qaeda a strategic victory—a point made clearly by the hon. Member for Inverclyde (David Cairns). We would face renewed risks of instability spreading across this volatile region and the increased possibility of terrorist attacks here. Failure would also damage the credibility of NATO, which has been the cornerstone of Britain’s defence for at least half a century. It would also threaten the stability of Pakistan, the consequences of which are too terrible to contemplate.
As the Foreign Secretary set out, our national objective in Afghanistan is to help the Afghans reach the point where they can look after their own security without presenting a danger to the rest of the world. The renewed vigour with which the Afghan national security forces are being trained, as we saw at first hand at the weekend, will over time enable the transition of lead security responsibility from ISAF to the Government of Afghanistan. We hope to see this start in some parts of the country at the end of 2010 or in early 2011.
I remain committed to bringing our troops home as quickly as possible—as the former Defence Secretary was and as my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) urged—but we must do so when the time is right and not to some arbitrary deadline. As my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, we will not turn Afghanistan into a self-sustaining country if we advertise an early departure. May I add that I am extremely sorry that the country is, for the moment, being denied the services of my hon. Friend on the Front Bench? He was a stalwart of the shadow defence team, in which he was a strategic and tactical voice, and he is sorely missed. I hope that we will be able to use his talents constructively and in some way for the benefit of the Government and of the country.
The counter-insurgency strategy developed by General McChrystal last year is rightly focused on the Afghan people. That includes building the capabilities and the confidence of the Afghan Government at national and local level to bring leadership and to provide for their people. Our approach brings together the three pillars of defence, diplomacy and development. The MOD is working closely with colleagues in the FCO and DFID, in co-ordination with our international partners, to help the Afghan people to find a lasting solution to their problems.
In theatre, our armed forces work hand in glove with their civilian colleagues in the provincial reconstruction team. As several hon. Members noted, the UK-led PRT is widely viewed internationally as a model to be followed. The impressive staff there, whether military or civilian, coalition or Afghan, have a common understanding of the agenda—security, training and reconstruction—to support the overarching political strategy.
In Nad Ali this weekend, six months since I last visited, I saw for myself the progress that has been made. Security was provided by Afghan and UK forces working closely together. It was partnering in action. Our forces have paid a high price in Afghanistan, but through their courage and bravery we have dealt a severe blow to the Taliban-led insurgents and the terrorist networks supporting them. Over the past two years, the authority of the Afghan Government has been extended from six to 11 of the 13 districts in Helmand. There are no easy answers in Afghanistan, and there will be difficult days ahead and further casualties can be expected. However, the strategy and resources required to deliver success are increasingly being better aligned. I want to be able to keep the British people better informed and to show both sides of the ledger, explaining the challenges and difficulties but also setting out successes and progress. As the Foreign Secretary said, we will keep the House regularly updated.
Not for the first time, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Arbuthnot) made the key point: our troops want not the sympathy, but the support, of the British public. They want the public to understand the sacrifices that they are making in Afghanistan and why they are making them for what they believe to be a good cause—the safety of their own people. I urge Members on both sides of the House to take every opportunity to support not just our forces, but the mission that they are undertaking.
I shall briefly set out the Government’s priorities in defence policy. The Foreign Secretary opened the debate with an explanation of the underpinnings of the new active, hard-headed and practical foreign and security policy that the new Government will implement. This will be a distinctive British foreign policy: active and activist in Europe, building engagement overseas, standing up for human rights and political freedom, upholding free trade and reducing poverty. This is about acting in Britain’s national interest to shape the world, not just being shaped by it.
The international outlook that we face is sobering, the environment challenging and the threats growing, and our defence policy must reflect that. There are continuing threats from al-Qaeda, from inside Pakistan and Yemen, from Iran and from inside the Caucasus, and we need to ensure that the UK’s armed forces and other defence capabilities are configured to meet that range of threats. That is why it is a priority that we carry out a strategic defence and security review. Defence cannot be immune from the economic realities that we, as a country, face, and all defence programmes will need to demonstrate their value for money. However, let me be clear: the SDSR cannot, and will not, be a simple exercise in slash and burn. We will use this as an opportunity for long-overdue radical thinking and reform.
The SDSR must, and will, be a strategic, cross-Government and comprehensive exercise, led by the requirements of a distinctive British foreign policy and overseen by the newly formed National Security Council. Again, that should bring comfort to my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Hampshire. It will provide a coherent approach to security and ensure that we have the right balance of resources to meet our commitments. In short, we will ensure that the brave men and women of our armed forces and other security services have what they need to do what we ask of them.
The House has been asking today how we can begin that process. We will begin not with a statement in the House, but with a full day’s debate, so that Members on both sides of the House can have enough time to talk about their concerns and the particular constituency interests that they might have as we enter the SDSR. Mechanisms will be made available so that individual Members can make representations directly in the process itself. We intend it to be as open and widely consulting as possible, and I think that the correct way to start that is with a debate with enough time to air the issues, not simply with a statement, following which there are always far too many questions for the time Ministers have to answer them properly.
It is essential that we maintain a highly dedicated and professional body of servicemen and women. As a nation, we have a responsibility to give them all our support in return for the selfless service and sacrifice that they make in our name. That is why we intend to double the operational allowance for those serving in Afghanistan, and ensure that rest and recuperation leave can be maximised. We will also ensure that personnel are treated in dedicated military wards, provide extra support to those who need it and put mental health at the top of the agenda.
This will be a challenging year for defence. We must see through our operational commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere and make tough decisions on the SDSR, but we do that against the backdrop of the financial legacy inherited by this Government. No one can pretend that it will be smooth sailing. No one should pretend that we can avoid tough decisions. No one should pretend that the House will always agree, but we need to demonstrate political resilience across all Benches in this House to see through the mission in Afghanistan and set our armed forces on a stable and coherent course for the future. That is what is required to protect national security, promote our national interest and honour the commitment shown by the men and women of our armed forces, who sacrifice so much to keep us safe.