House of Commons
Wednesday 26 May 2010
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Government Spending Cuts
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will set out the measures that will be implemented across government to deliver the more than £6 billion of in-year spending cuts announced earlier this week?
Mr Speaker, I am extremely grateful, both to you and to the shadow Chancellor, for this early opportunity to set out to this House the action that this Government are taking to deal with the urgent economic situation and, frankly, the economic mess that we have inherited from our predecessors. I refer to the House to the written ministerial statement that I laid in the House this morning, which sets out the details of this early action.
The previous Government were borrowing at the rate of an additional £3 billion per week—that is an unsustainable rate. Those huge public debts threaten financial stability and, if left unchecked, would derail the economic recovery. We need not look far across our own continent to see that action to tackle our budget deficit is both urgent and necessary, and this is only the first step in a long road to restoring good management of our public finances.
I set out in a written ministerial statement this morning the details of the spending cuts that we will make for Departments in 2010-11. We have found cuts totalling £6.243 billion—that is £243 million more than originally targeted. However, the budgets for health, for international development and for defence will not be reduced. In addition, because we have been effective in finding savings, we have been able to take the important decision to protect the budgets for schools, Sure Start and 16 to 19-year-olds in 2010-11, which I am sure Labour Members will welcome.
The devolved Administrations will have the option of making their savings this year or deferring their share of the savings until the next financial year, and they will also receive their share of the additional spending that has been agreed as part of this statement. We will help local government to deliver its savings by removing the ring fences around more than £1.7 billion of grants to local authorities in 2010-11. That is consistent with our belief in giving more freedoms to local government.
Our first priority has to be to cut waste; we cannot expect difficult decisions to be taken on spending until we have eliminated the waste. We expect Departments to make savings, which will include £1.15 billion in cutting discretionary areas, such as consultancy, travel and advertising costs. In addition, £1.7 billion will come from delaying and stopping contracts and projects. That will include immediate negotiations to achieve cost reductions from the 70 major suppliers to government. Some £600 million is being cut from the cost of quangos and at least £120 million will be saved through freezing civil service recruitment. We will drive those and other savings through a new efficiency and reform group, which will work with the Cabinet Office and draw on expertise within government. The shadow Chancellor will be pleased to learn that this will be funded from within existing budgets. This action is designed to send a shockwave through Departments to focus Ministers and civil servants on whether spending in these areas is really a priority in the difficult times that we are now facing.
As well as reducing waste and the costs of government, we have started to scale back lower priority spending. We have taken the tough decision to pass legislation to end child trust fund payments—that will save £320 million in 2010-11, with the figure rising to £520 million in 2011-12. The House will be pleased to learn that, as part of the net savings, we will be reinvesting money to provide respite breaks for disabled children.
Quangos across government will have to make major savings in their budgets, and regional development agencies will have to cut back on the spending that has the lowest economic impact. Finally, we have decided to allocate, out of these savings, £500 million this year to measures to invest in improving the country’s growth potential and building a fairer society: £150 million will be used to help to deliver up to 50,000 adult apprenticeship starts; following the complete shambles of the colleges capital programme under the previous Government, an additional £50 million will be allocated to help to fund capital investment in the further education colleges in greatest need; and we are allocating an additional £170 million to fund investment in social rented housing in 2010-11 to help to deliver 4,000 social housing starts—Members on both sides should welcome that. We will also freeze the backdated business rates payments under the eight-year schedule of payments, including in respect of businesses in ports, until April 2011, and we will consider any further action in this area and bring forward any plans before the freeze ends.
These are only the first steps that will be needed to put our public finances back in shape, but I believe that the public and most Members of this House will welcome the fact that we finally have a Government with the guts and determination to take these difficult decisions.
First, I am grateful to the Chief Secretary—I am just sorry that the Chancellor of the Exchequer could not make it. It is important, especially as the Government have difficult decisions and announcements to make over the next few months, that the Chancellor should be ready to come to this House to justify what he is doing. Will the Chief Secretary accept that there is no good reason why the announcement made at a press conference on Monday could not have been made in a statement to the House, where it could have been scrutinised by Members of the House? Will he undertake that, in future, announcements of this magnitude will be made in this House and not through a press briefing?
Secondly, everyone knows that it is necessary for countries across the world—ours included—to reduce the amount of borrowing but to do it in a way that does not damage growth and that does not damage the economic fabric of this country. That is why I believe that to halve our deficit over a four-year-period was the right thing to do, because it would have enabled us to secure the recovery, which is still fragile. Does the Chief Secretary understand that although during the general election campaign the Conservatives said that they would not cut beyond eliminating what they called waste and inefficiency, they have gone far beyond that today? Does he not accept, too, that he campaigned explicitly on a platform of not reducing expenditure this year? Will he tell the House how cutting 10,000 university places can possibly amount to the elimination of waste and inefficiency? That is not being wasteful or inefficient; that is cutting the investment that we will need to ensure that we have the skills in the future.
Will the Chief Secretary also tell us where the Government said that they would cut the job prospects for young people in particular? The future jobs fund meant that young people coming out of university had the prospect of getting work. Instead, tens of thousands of young people will not have work and their first experience in working life will be of being on benefits, not of going into work. How on earth can that be described as cutting waste or inefficiency? Equally, how on earth can the child trust fund be described as wasteful or inefficient, especially when we are talking about low-income families and about getting those children the best possible start in life?
Does the Chief Secretary accept that the House and the country are entitled to know exactly what these reductions, allocated to each Department, amount to in terms of changes to services or provision? What he has done today is to come out and reread the press statement that he delivered on Monday, but he must know when each Department signed up to specific numbers what that would mean. For example, in education, will he confirm whether funding for personalised teaching, including one-to-one tuition, is being protected? In transport, is it right that more than £100 million could be taken from London’s transport or that maintenance on the motorway network will be curtailed? Will he tell us how many jobs will go in the course of this year as a result of the freeze in jobs that was announced and where those jobs will fall?
The Chief Secretary must accept that although it is necessary to ensure that we live within our means, as I have always said, and although it is necessary for us to reduce our borrowing, it would be unforgivable if action were taken by this Government that damaged growth and investment in the future so that instead of getting a long-lasting recovery we found that we risked that recovery at a time when it is fragile. I hope that in future the Chancellor or the Chief Secretary will come to the House to explain what they have done. There will be an awful lot of explaining to be done over the months to come.
I am grateful to the shadow Chancellor for the points that he has raised and I shall seek to address as many as I possibly can. Before I engage in those arguments with him, this is the first opportunity that I have had to address him in his new role as shadow Chancellor and I want to say to him that many people on both sides of the House respect him and respect the work that he sought to do as Chancellor. We appreciate that he took over the economic position and the Treasury at a difficult time and also had to deal with the difficult circumstances of having a Prime Minister of the type that the last Prime Minister was. I pay tribute to the work that he did.
I was very interested in the points that the shadow Chancellor made in response to my statement, but the only thing missing from all the questions that he asked was any acknowledgment of what his colleague, the former Chief Secretary, was able to acknowledge to me in the letter that he left on my desk—the former Government left a situation in which there was no money left. I say to the shadow Chancellor gently that the only thing missing from his statement was a single serious proposal about how to deal with the huge financial deficit, with £156 billion-worth of borrowing and £3 billion-worth of borrowing each week. He is an intelligent enough man to know that there are only three ways of tackling the structural deficit—we can cut spending, cut welfare payments or raise taxes. There was not a single clue in the statement that we just heard from him about how he would address those challenges.
May I also respond to the shadow Chancellor’s point about making statements in the House? Of course, Mr Speaker, we want, wherever possible, to make these statements first and to be held to account for them, but if he is so passionate about this, can he explain why it was the case—[Interruption.]
Order. [Interruption.] Let the Chief Secretary resume his seat. These discussions are already becoming far too inflamed. I am trying to help the House by enabling these matters to be the subject of scrutiny. Members do not help me or the House or themselves if they shout from a sedentary position. If they think they are going to do that and still get called to ask a question, they have another think coming.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker. I gently point out to the shadow Chancellor that in 1997, the Labour party announced its policy of Bank of England independence not to this place but outside it. That was not even a policy that the Labour party had stood on in its manifesto, so there is a very considerable difference with the proposals that we brought.
Let me also say to the shadow Chancellor that it should be clear, in relation to his questions on schools, that we have protected the schools budget. I would have thought that he would welcome that. The definition that we have used on the schools budget is exactly consistent with the definition that was used by the last Government.
In relation to the changes that there have been over the past couple of months, I also point out gently to the shadow Chancellor that anyone, including someone with his expertise and experience, would know just how much the international situation has worsened in the past couple of months and just how much the sovereign debt risk means that countries that are seen not to be taking action on their public finances are at risk of having an adverse reaction in the international markets. Had we had that, the consequence, inevitably, of that loss of confidence would have been difficulty in auctioning the gilts that we have to sell to fund this deficit, higher costs of auctioning those gilts and therefore higher costs in the public finances. Money that could have been spent on schools, the national health service and defence would have had to go on debt interest rather than on investment in front-line public services.
Finally, may I say that I am very disappointed that the shadow Chancellor has failed to acknowledge the additional package of measures that we announced, which will nurture recovery? Measures such as the 50,000 additional starts for apprenticeships and our dealing with the problems of the colleges capital programme that was left to us by the previous Government will help with investment in skills and will help to ensure that we can bring down the deficit and protect economic recovery at the same time.
Order. Understandably, there is intense interest in this subject, with a very large number of Members wishing to contribute. If I am to have any chance of accommodating even a significant proportion of those who are standing, I require from each Back-Bench Member a single, short, supplementary question. I know that there will be an appropriately economical reply from the Chief Secretary.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that although there were, obviously, extenuating circumstances on Monday, it is always best if these announcements can be made to Parliament first? Will he also confirm that the economic recovery is unlikely to be jeopardised by cuts to the cost and bureaucracy of quangos? It is far more likely to be put in danger by a Government who would simply sit on their hands for the next 12 months.
I agree with both my hon. Friend’s points. First, he is right that we will seek, wherever we can, Mr Speaker, to make sure that these statements are made in the House, and we welcome the scrutiny from Members on both sides.
Secondly, I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of cutting quangos. No serious economist believes that the actions we have taken this week will jeopardise the recovery. If the shadow Chancellor were being straightforward with us, he would acknowledge that the previous Government were already taking action to seek to deal with the deficit by tightening policy—for example by putting the rate of value added tax back up to 17.5%.
By definition, ring-fenced and specific funding to local government, whether from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education or others, is directed specifically at the most disadvantaged and deprived. Will the Chief Secretary tell us precisely what he believes he is doing in cutting more than £1 billion of that specific funding and by unring-fencing the rest, allowing those specific priorities to be eroded?
The right hon. Gentleman is simply wrong if he thinks local government is incapable of making efficiency savings. All the people I know in local government believe that significant efficiency savings can be made. He does not allow for the significant change that the Government have announced, which will mean that by ending ring-fencing, there is more freedom for local government to decide where those cuts fall, and to make sure that they fall in the areas that are not priorities. I should have thought that as a former Education Secretary, he could have brought himself to congratulate the Government on the way that they have managed to ring-fence the schools budget and the Sure Start budget.
I welcome the return to the Treasury of stern, unbending Gladstonian Liberalism. Will the Chief Secretary confirm that if we are to restore the nation’s finances, all Departments, including Health, Education, International Development and Defence, must play their part? For instance, such has been the catastrophic decline in productivity in health over the past 10 years that we can make significant efficiency savings without endangering front-line services.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments about Gladstonian Liberalism. I hope that this is not only Gladstonian Liberalism, but liberalism tinged with the social liberalism about which my party is so passionate.
In the savings that we make, we are seeking to ensure that we cut with care. We have demonstrated this week that we can find efficiency savings and also put money into the areas that many of us in the House are passionate about—protecting education and putting more money than the previous Government did into social housing. We have shown that we can deliver both of those, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we must make sure that even those areas where the overall budgets are protected are driving out efficiency savings. There are considerable efficiency savings that can be made in the Ministry of Defence, in health and in education, and we must make sure that even as we protect the totality of those budgets, we shift money to the front-line services that matter most.
No. That is complete nonsense. What we are doing is protecting the schools budget. Unlike the previous Government, who thought it made sense to dictate to every school and head teacher how to use its budget, we will give freedom to schools so that they can spend the money in the best way. We on these Benches believe—I am sorry that the hon. Lady does not seem to—that people on the front line know better than Government Ministers how to spend public money.
Most people realise that to tackle the deficit, cuts will be inevitable, but it is important that they do not fall hardest on the most vulnerable in society. Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether he has already rejected any cuts on the basis of the impact on the most vulnerable, and whether he will ensure that the principle of fairness is uppermost in his mind as he faces the difficult task of finding future cuts to tackle the deficit?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and I have rejected proposals that have come forward from officials and others to make cuts when we believe that those would endanger either the key front-line services that all of us want to protect, or people on low incomes. All of us know that the decisions that we take to get on top of the public sector deficit that we have been left will be increasingly difficult, but in the spending review, in the Budget and in the next spending review our minds will always be the need to protect not only those front-line services, but those people in our society who would otherwise be most vulnerable to the action that we must take to deal with the public sector deficit that we have inherited.
I welcome the Chief Secretary’s commitment to making statements first to the House so that Members can find out here, rather than reading them in the press or hearing them on television. I welcome also his statement that the devolved Administrations will be able to defer cuts until next year if they so wish. In Northern Ireland we are already making 3% year-on-year efficiencies and budgets have been set. May I make a plea to him to ensure that in future Treasury Ministers treat Ministers in devolved Administrations with respect? As a former Finance Minister in Northern Ireland, I know that under the previous Government there was not genuine dialogue but diktat from the Treasury, to the cost of the devolved Administration. Will the Chief Secretary ensure that there will be such a dialogue in future?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. We are giving that flexibility to the devolved Administrations, although I say to them that it is important that they start to make the savings as soon as possible; if they simply wait until next year, they will find it more difficult to make the adjustment. I make an undertaking to the hon. Gentleman that the Treasury will remain open to discussions with all the devolved Administrations, to make sure that their concerns are properly taken into account.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement on the future of our colleges, which were so cruelly deceived by the previous Government. It will give great optimism to Bournemouth and Poole college, which was encouraged by the Labour Government to move out of its buildings and seek new funding for new buildings. The announcement will give great optimism and prove that, even in these difficult times, the Government are committed to giving our young people the best start in life.
I agree very much with my hon. Friend. The management of the colleges capital programme was, as independent commentators as well as party politicians have said, an absolute and utter shambles. It was perhaps the best example of the incompetent financial management of the previous Government and it wrecked the plans of many colleges across the country, including colleges that had incurred considerable expenditure in preparing their bids. I am very pleased that the Chancellor agreed to put the £50 million aside to help colleges with their capital programmes. The aspiration is that that will leverage in additional private investment to a fund of £150 million in total, which we hope will be able to help up to 50 colleges in a very real way, even in these tough times.
Is the Minister aware that not a single member of the Cabinet has turned up to back him in this statement here today? They are all part of this rag-tag and bobtail army—not one of them is here. Can there be a more pathetic sight than this Liberal Democrat, who campaigned against cuts in 2010, now hammering the young and the old and putting people on the dole as a member of this rag-tag and bobtail Government? Get out!
The Cabinet have given support where it matters most—in delivering the savings. Those savings were delivered in a matter of days, which the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues were never able to do.
The hon. Gentleman talked about the decisions that we have made. Perhaps he could acknowledge two things. First, we have protected the NHS and we have protected schools. We have put money into social housing, which he might have aspired to do if he had had influence on the previous Government. We have also done something that the last Labour Government failed to do—announced the restoration of the earnings link on the state pension, from April 2011. He should acknowledge that.
May I congratulate my right hon. ally on having been made Chief Secretary? Does he think that we are living in Alice in Wonderland when the shadow Chancellor complains about making announcements to the press first? He knows a lot about that.
Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the coalition Government’s commitment is to increasing spending on the NHS in real terms each and every year, while improving efficiency, so that front-line services improve?
I agree with my hon. Friend on both those points, including his first comments about the shadow Chancellor. Yes, we are going to commit to increasing the real budget of the NHS each year, even in these tough economic times when we will have to deal with the consequences of the deficit that the previous Government racked up. We will also ensure that, even with that protection in its budget, the NHS delivers the savings that make sure that we can protect the front-line services that people want to be protected.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his appointment and his performance here today. Will he explain to the House some of the benefits that will accrue, particularly with regard to the amount of money being put into social housing? Will he also say whether he was as impressed as I was by the transition of the former Chancellor from Chancellor of the Exchequer to stand-up comedian in a very short space of time?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am pleased to have support from another Gladstonian Liberal on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I am grateful to him for drawing attention to the additional investment that we are making in social housing. That is a real priority for many Members across the House, including those in the Liberal Democrat party and the Conservative party, and, I suspect, for a lot of Members on the Labour Benches, who have been sad that the previous Government were unable to invest more in social housing. Among the many black holes that we are discovering in the public finances left to us by that Government, we have already found a very big black hole in the funding of the social housing programme. We are determined to do everything we can to ensure that the vulnerable people who depend on social housing—those who are on the waiting lists that built up under the previous Government—will have some hope under this Administration.
We have experience of removing ring-fencing in Scotland, because the Scottish National party Government have done that for local government. May I advise the Chief Secretary to take a look at the Lib Dem council in Aberdeen to see the effects of the removal of that ring-fencing? Its priorities are to close schools and day centres for disabled people; instead, it is spending money on grandiose building schemes.
I have already made it clear that our priority is to protect schools, which is precisely what we have done in the spending statement. I am afraid that there is a basic ideological differences between those on the Labour Benches and those on the Government Benches—we believe in devolving power and giving freedom to people. We do not believe that Government know best, and the previous Administration proved that very effectively.
Given that the Chief Secretary is taking more than £1 billion away from local authorities in this financial year, can he give a categorical guarantee that no local authorities will have to issue emergency changes to council tax bills in this financial year? Many people are worried about that.
I am sure that the Chief Secretary knew about Labour’s mismanagement before coming to office, as did many others, which is why Labour Members now sit on the Opposition Benches. However, did he know about the scorched-earth policy that we have heard so much about in the past few weeks and leading up to the general election? What will his Department do to ensure that that abuse will never happen again?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree that there seems to have been a scorched-earth strategy as regards not only the state of the public finances but the way in which the Government were spending money at the end of their term. We are looking very closely at all the decisions that have been made, and we will be making further announcements shortly about the action that we will have to take.
I am firm believer that we should provide real opportunities and have employers at the heart of devising these schemes. What on earth is to be gained by taking away resources from the future jobs fund, which I understand means that there will be 80,000 fewer job opportunities working with employers around the country?
We are maintaining the young person’s guarantee. I have to tell the right hon. Lady that the clear advice that we have had is that that particular part of the young person’s guarantee was simply not effective and was wasteful—that the proportion of expenditure that was being saved as a consequence of it was minor and the administration costs were huge. I would instead point out to her the real action that we are taking to help young people in these tough times, with an additional 50,000 apprenticeship starts. That will make a real difference and will be far more effective than the scheme that we are amending in order to save money, which frankly was simply not working.
Perhaps the Chief Secretary would like to take this opportunity to correct a fundamental flaw in the thinking of the Opposition in believing that spending cuts necessarily take money out of the economy, whereas in reality every pound that is spent and borrowed by Government ultimately comes from the private sector, and we need a strong private sector-led recovery to help us to reduce the deficit.
Could the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what is fair about cutting the future jobs fund, which was aimed at helping 8,000 young unemployed people in Yorkshire and Humberside? Would he personally be happy to see youth unemployment rise to the levels that we saw in the recession of the early 1990s?
Of course we would not, but I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the policy that we set has to be informed by the facts, and the facts and advice that we had from the Department for Work and Pensions about the future jobs fund suggested that it was simply not effective and that the money was wasted. We have a £156 billion deficit to deal with, and if we did not tackle the wasteful expenditure we would have to make cuts in the areas that matter. I repeat the point that I made to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) a moment ago: we are reinvesting money in apprenticeships, which will make a real difference to many of the young people about whom the right hon. Gentleman cares.
The whole House will have heard the concerns expressed in all parts of the House about the need to make statements here first, and I am sure that the Chief Secretary will take that on board when formulating policy for the Budget and for the vital spending review that will come in the autumn. Will he do a little more to remind the House why such an emergency set of policies was necessary—in particular the Greek-style deficit and debt level that he has inherited?
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right, and in the news even this morning and over the past few days we have seen the real risk that the lack of financial confidence could spread across the European Union and engulf even some nations that have not been affected to date. As a consequence, all countries are having to take very hard decisions. Because of the mess in the public finances created by the last Government, the amount of debt interest that we have to pay out is growing and beginning to exceed some core Government budgets. Had we not acted to maintain the credibility of our fiscal policy, there was a real risk that we could have seen a big rise in interest rates that would have gobbled up additional expenditure and helped to wreck the recovery that is now taking place.
The Chief Secretary will know, as we all do, that these cuts are the easiest ones—they are the first tranche—yet they are still very hurtful in constituencies such as mine. Addressing the structural nature of the deficit will be even harder. He is a member of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on early intervention, so will he seek to address some of the problems of the structural deficit by ensuring that we invest in babies, children and young people, so that they do not later require billions of pounds of remedial treatment for drug addiction, teenage pregnancy and a lack of aspiration in education and work, and so that we can build the type of society that most of us in the Chamber want to see?
As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a serious and important point, and he is absolutely right that as we take tough decisions and come towards the spending review at the end of the year, we will have to try to maintain the services that we particularly value and that protect individuals in society who are on very low incomes. We need to protect investments that have the potential to pay off in the future, and I promise him that I will examine carefully the matters that he mentions. If he wants to meet to discuss them at some stage, I would welcome the opportunity.
Given the unambiguous admission of my right hon. Friend’s predecessor that the Labour party left the public finances without any money, will he place in the Library as soon as is convenient a straightforward statement that we can share with our constituents setting out clearly and unambiguously the exact nature and extent of the public finances that this Government have inherited? In that way, as we progress through this Parliament there can be no attempt by those on the Opposition Benches to rewrite history.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point, and there are two answers to his question. The first is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a Budget statement in this place on 22 June, when he will set out precisely the state of the public finances, and the second is that crucially, through the Office for Budget Responsibility, he will make assumptions about the public finances and growth that are objectively and independently informed. He will not do what previous Governments have been able to do, which is fiddle the growth figures for their own purposes.
I welcome the Chief Secretary’s commitment to the defence budget. Will he share with us the benefits to the north-west, such as the jobs that are important to us? Will he confirm that tranche 3 of Eurofighter, the Typhoon aircraft, will now go ahead?
Will the Chief Secretary agree that no Labour Government have left office with unemployment lower than when they came in? Does he agree that this lot, the last Government, were absolutely no different, and that it is a bare-faced cheek for them to come and ask questions of such a nature on this occasion?
My hon. Friend is right that the Labour party’s record on unemployment is very far from the original boasts that were made. That is why, even while we are taking tough action to bring down the deficit, we are ensuring that we invest in apprenticeships. We are also—this is the most important thing of all for employers—creating a stable economic environment, keeping interest rates low and ensuring that the recovery will be sustained.
Can the Chief Secretary to the Treasury guarantee that his transport cuts will not affect rail electrification or the Northern Way, which are both essential for economic regeneration and jobs?
Both those issues are for the Secretary of State for Transport rather than for me. I suggest that if the hon. Lady is concerned about them, she should arrange to meet one of the Ministers in the Department for Transport, who, I am sure, will be delighted to receive her representations.
On 26 November 2009, the then Secretary of State for Wales made a commitment, which was supported by the current Secretary of State for Wales, that the Government will take action if Wales is adversely affected by the outdated Barnett formula. Will the Chief Secretary and the Government make a similar commitment, particularly as regards Barnett consequentials resulting from Government spending reductions?
I am afraid that I do not buy what the Chief Secretary has said about the future jobs fund. The fact is that the Liberal Democrats and the party of his new-found allies agreed and made a commitment on the future jobs fund to protect existing commitments, and they are abrogating that commitment. He says that his apprenticeship plans are an alternative, but what mechanism will ensure that the 10,000 jobs allocated under the future jobs fund in my region are somehow transferred to those apprenticeship schemes?
We are obviously going to allocate the apprenticeships out, but is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that if we are advised by the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions that a part of that particular guarantee is not working, we should go on spending wastefully, in the current environment? I can tell him that we will have to take very difficult decisions, and that we must start by taking decisions when there are clear recommendations. We have had such recommendations on that.
May I thank my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary for his swift action on the freeze on backdated port taxes, which is in stark contrast to the months of inaction under the previous Government, which led to the collapse of Scotline and the loss of local jobs in Goole? May we have an assurance that the new system will be worked out swiftly, and that that will involve full and proper consultation with the port operators and businesses, which would be in stark contrast to the previous system?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We quite understand the distress and concern that has been caused in the ports and elsewhere by that situation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer announced earlier this week that we would freeze the existing obligations for the rest of the financial year, and we are currently looking very carefully indeed at what action we can take to resolve the matter which, as my hon. Friend will be aware, affects not only the ports, but many other businesses across the country. That is why we are determined to move swiftly, but also to take time to get things right, and to consult in a proper way.
Will the Chief Secretary give a very straightforward answer to this question? What estimate did his officials give him of the number of people who would lose their jobs either directly or indirectly because of the cuts, and of what that will cost?
It is impossible to pick a figure out of the air, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman—he will be delighted to hear this—that Treasury officials and the Governor of the Bank of England pointed out the beneficial effects of this package in keeping interest rates down and stopping the tax on jobs that would otherwise eliminate them. It is therefore likely that over time the net effect of taking such action will be to support employment and the economy rather than to eliminate jobs.
The new shadow Chancellor shows some nerve coming here complaining about efficiency savings, given that he was responsible for so much waste. An example of that waste is the so-called national Potato Council, which costs the taxpayer £50 million a year. How much money was wasted there? I am glad to see it go, and I am glad to see other cuts being made as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is staggering that we have been able to find so much waste in Government expenditure, in spite of the state of the public finances and public borrowing. We would have expected the previous Government to have taken action to eliminate some of the waste. We are determined that the exercise that we have embarked on will be not only an efficiency drive, but one that delivers real cost savings in a way that some of the exercises under the last Labour Government simply did not do.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is the convention that the letter left for him by his predecessor should be kept confidential between them? Will he say whether any of the officials in his Department have expressed disappointment that he has broken that tradition, and is it not true that he just bought himself a cheap soundbite to cover the fact that on 6 May he did not support £6 billion in cuts, but on 7 May he did?
I congratulate the Chief Secretary on his announcement of 50,000 additional apprenticeships. Will he confirm that this will help, first, constituencies such as mine, where we face, like the rest of the country, record youth unemployment and, secondly, productivity and improvements in our manufacturing sectors, which suffered record drops under the previous Government, and the recovery of which is so important to our business-led economic recovery?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, first about the importance of supporting manufacturing, which has had a particularly tough time during the recession, and, secondly, about supporting young people, because we must be conscious that young people so far have borne the brunt of the recession in terms of unemployment. We are all aware of the consequences if young people stay out of work for a long time and of the scarring effect that it can have on their opportunities. That is why we were so determined to introduce these additional 50,000 apprenticeships, which will make a real difference.
In my constituency, 300 young people are currently benefiting from the future jobs fund. They do not think it is a waste of time, and I have heard nothing but positive feedback from the DWP locally. Will the Chief Secretary provide the evidence that he is receiving from the DWP, which is contrary to what we have been told, and what would he suggest I tell my constituents, still suffering from the ravages of the last Tory Government, about the future jobs fund?
I suggest that the hon. Lady tells her constituents the truth about the catastrophic amount of debt left by the last Government, their total irresponsibility and the risk that would have been posed to the country’s economy and their prospects if we had a Government sitting around doing nothing as her Government did for the past two years.
I want to make a very short statement. In accordance with Standing Order No. 2A, I will now announce the arrangements for the ballot for the election of Deputy Speakers. The ballot will be held in the Division Lobbies from 11 am to 12 noon on Tuesday 8 June. Nominations may be submitted in the Lower Table Office from 10 am to 5 pm on the day before the ballot—Monday 7 June. A briefing note with more details about the election will be made available to Members and published on the intranet.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I ask your advice, drawing on “Erskine May”? The Chief Secretary has repeatedly said that he has been advised by the DWP that the future jobs fund is not working. He said that it is not working; he did not say that it was more expensive than other cheaper programmes. Given that that is very different from the advice given to previous Ministers, and from the views of Jobcentre Plus, those on the future jobs funds and doing those jobs, and those running those programmes across the country—and also different from the view of the Prime Minister who described one of the future jobs fund programmes that he visited during the election as a good scheme—will the Chief Secretary now publish the advice that says it is not working, according to “Erskine May”, which states that
“it has been accepted that a document that has been cited by a Minister ought to be laid upon the Table of the House”?
The right hon. Lady has again demonstrated her parliamentary ingenuity, but I fear that she knows very well that what she has just raised is not a point of order, but a point of debate, and she has put her views—and probably the views of her colleagues—fairly and squarely on the record.
Did Mr Straw wish to raise a point of order?
We are grateful to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for his sedentary commentary.
Identity Documents Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Theresa May, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Hague, Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Damian Green, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the repeal of the Identity Cards Act 2006.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 1) with explanatory notes (Bill 1-EN).
Business without Debate
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 25),
That this House, at its rising on Thursday 27 May 2010, do adjourn till Wednesday 2 June 2010.—(Sir George Young.)
Question agreed to.
Select Committees: Allocation of Chairs
I beg to move,
That, pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 122B (Election of Committee Chairs), the chairs of those select committees subject to the Standing Order be allocated as indicated in the following Table:
Select committees appointed under SO No. 152:
Business, Innovation and Skills
Children, Schools and Families
Communities and Local Government
Culture, Media and Sport
Energy and Climate Change
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Science and Technology
Work and Pensions
Other specified select committees:
On a more consensual note, I am pleased to move the motion on the Order Paper standing in the names of the leaders of the three main parties. This motion paves the way for the first election of Select Committee Chairs by secret ballot of the whole House, by allocating each Chair to a specific party in accordance with the proportions that you have notified to the party leaders, Mr Speaker, in accordance with Standing Order No. 122B.
This is something of a landmark moment for Parliament. It is a clear break from the past. Gone are the days when the Government had the upper hand in appointing who scrutinised the Government. Now we are passing that power to the House. This is what was overwhelmingly endorsed in the previous Parliament, in accordance with the recommendations of the Wright report. We supported that from the Opposition Benches, and I am pleased to bring it before the House now from the Government Benches.
Although all hon. Members will be entitled to vote in the ballot for each Chair, only members of the party specified in the motion will be eligible to stand as candidates for that post. If the motion is agreed to, arrangements for a ballot will be made under your supervision, Mr Speaker, in accordance with the remaining provisions of the Standing Order. Nominations will close at 5 pm on Tuesday 8 June. The ballot will take place the following day, Wednesday 9 June, between 10 am and 5 pm.
The Wright Committee recommended that Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries should voluntarily abstain from voting in the ballot for the Chair of the Select Committee that shadows their Department. The Government accept that recommendation, and I urge ministerial colleagues to abide by it.
The House may have spotted that the motion refers to the Children, Schools and Families Committee. It is the Government’s intention to change the name of that Committee to the Education Committee, reflecting the new name of the Department. However, our priority today is to press ahead without further delay, so we will seek the House’s approval for the change of name at a later date, along with any further changes that may be proposed to the Select Committee structure.
Hon. Members have sought clarification on the scrutiny that the House will undertake of the Deputy Prime Minister and his role. As well as answering questions as part of the questions rota, it is our intention to bring forward proposals for the establishment of another Select Committee to complement the scrutiny that will take place every five weeks at oral questions. This will happen in due course. I commend the motion to the House.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his appointment as Leader of the House. I know that he spent some years shadowing in opposition. I am also grateful to him for advance sight of his statement.
The work of Select Committees is an extremely important part of the work of this House. I know from my time as a Minister how rigorous Select Committee Chairs and members are in holding Ministers and their Departments to account. It is therefore important that we get on with the business of electing Chairs, which is a departure for the House in how we establish Select Committees, and part of the Wright Committee proposals, which we welcomed.
Because this is such a new approach, I want to say gently that it is unfortunate that hon. Members have not had more notice of this motion, as that may have enabled more of them to contribute to the debate. If we had had the statement at the end of business today, or tomorrow, it would not have eaten into the time available for debating the Queen’s Speech.
In addition, the Leader of the House made no mention of the future of regional Select Committees. That is unfortunate, given the huge impact that £6 billion of cuts will have on our regional economies and what the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has said about the popularity contests that he intends to run to decide the future of regional development agencies and the support that they give to businesses.
The motion makes no mention of the Back-Bench business committee, which this House unanimously agreed should be created within one week of a general election. I appreciate that there are some practical difficulties, but more than 60 Members of this House from all parties have requested that the committee be brought forward. In the light of that, will my right hon. Friend press the Leader of the House to let us know when Back Benchers will be able to decide their own business, as opposed to having people on the Front Benches decide it for them?
I have no doubt that the Leader of the House will have heard my hon. Friend’s comments and that he will respond to them.
I hope that the Leader of the House will give us more information about the Government’s intentions for the important work carried out by the regional Select Committees, and that he will come back to us as quickly as possible with further details of the Select Committee that he stated would scrutinise the work of the Deputy Prime Minister. Obviously, the Leader of the House may not be in a position to answer all the questions today, but I hope that he will be able to clarify the Government’s intentions on the points raised soon.
With the leave of the House, it may not come as a surprise to the right hon. Member for Doncaster Central (Ms Winterton) if I say that we do not propose to establish regional Select Committees.
On the issue of timing, it is important that Select Committees are established quickly in order to hold the Government to account. That is why we put this motion on the Order Paper at the first possible opportunity, in order that due progress might be made.
If the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Mr Allen) comes to business questions tomorrow, he may find a hint of an answer to the question that he posed.
We will, of course, keep the House fully informed about the future of the Select Committee to monitor the activities of the Deputy Prime Minister.
Question put and agreed to.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 25 May).
Question again proposed,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Foreign Affairs and Defence
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.